Empire Editorial: Time to beef up Native education

Posted: Wednesday, August 11, 2004

It's long past time for Juneau to treat its Native education dilemma as a crisis and do something revolutionary about it.

Two-thirds of the city's Native students drop out. That contributes to the Juneau School District's overall dropout rate of about one-third, which is shameful enough. But a two-thirds rate, when compared to about a quarter among white students, is disgraceful and beyond a wake-up call.

A citizens group sponsored by the Sealaska Heritage Institute, Juneau ANB Camp 2, ANS Camps 2 and 70 and the Tlingit & Haida Indians of the City & Borough of Juneau has held three forums this summer searching for solutions. On Friday participants in the latest meeting decided to press for a Native-oriented charter school, perhaps initially catering to sixth- and seventh-graders and eventually adding grades and offering early college credit.

While such a school would not exclude non-Native enrollment, realistically it could be expected to attract a predominantly Native student body and effectively segregate a portion of the district. It's not a proposition to be entered lightly, but something drastic is in order.

The district in 2000 rejected two proposed charters - including a Native-oriented school - but should take this proposal seriously. The previous rejection was based on cost, because state funding per student is lower for small charter schools. That rationale ignores the likelihood that attacking a cultural dropout problem by infusing a curriculum with Native values, learning methods and pride promises dividends larger than a per-pupil allotment.

Proponents of a charter school argue that baby steps won't cut it when the problem is so pervasive. They are right, and if the city's educators conclude that a charter school is a step too far, they should present their own plan - and a decisive one.

In arguing for a second mainstream high school, some have said a smaller school environment - even without smaller classes - would decrease the Native dropout rate. We're skeptical that smaller schools on their own would do the job. But bolstered Native-oriented programs even within existing schools would be a start.

Last year the district found that students in Tlingit-oriented classes at Harborview Elementary performed as well as other students throughout the district and better than Native students on average. About three-quarters of the students were Natives. The classes have focused on literacy - both English and Tlingit - and Native cultural activities such as potlatches, and have involved a cultural specialist and elders in addition to classroom teachers. Observers have said some students tend to participate more in the comfortable surroundings.

Instituting a much wider program that encourages participation, graduation and college attendance should be a high priority. Doing so through a charter school is a bold idea that deserves serious consideration.

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