With the high school dropout rate for Native Americans among the highest in the country, reservation and public school officials are searching for new ways to keep teens in school. This article is a part of a continuing Education World series, Lessons from Our Nation's Schools. Included: Programs designed to reduce the high school dropout rate among Native Americans.
For many administrators of Native American grammar schools, the biggest challenge is preparing students to leave them. Native Americans long have had one of the highest high school dropout rates of any ethnic group in the nation. Reducing that figure is a priority for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Office of Indian Education Programs and individual BIA schools such as those in Maine: Beatrice Rafferty School, on the Passamaquoddy reservation in Perry, and Indian Island School, on the Penobscot reservation. Although those schools serve students only through grade eight, dropout prevention has become part of their mission.
"My biggest problem is getting them from eighth grade into a [secondary] school," said Linda McLeod, the Indian Island principal.
DROPOUT RATE REMAINS A PUZZLEThe challenge of curbing the Native American dropout rate is nationwide, although progress has been made. According to figures from the BIA Office of Indian Education Programs, the national dropout rate for Native American youngsters decreased from 17 percent in 1992-1993 to 10 percent in 1999-2000. Those figures, though, include only students who attend BIA secondary schools, not public schools, according to Gaye Liea King, special assistant to the director of the Office of Indian Education Programs.
BIA PUSHES FOR CHANGEAll BIA schools receive money for dropout prevention programs, according to Lana Shaughnessy, a spokeswoman for the BIA education department. "One of the goals of this office is a 90 percent daily attendance rate or better," Shaughnessy told Education World. The BIA also conducted a survey of middle school students in 1997 to determine which at-risk behaviors among students could contribute to them dropping out of school. Results of a second survey, done this year, still were being compiled.
The 1997 study, which surveyed 6,990 sixth- through eighth-graders out of a total BIA middle school population of 8,932, showed that by age 11, 36 percent of students had smoked a cigarette, 26 percent had their first alcoholic drink, 18 percent had smoked marijuana, and 5 percent had had sexual intercourse.
National studies also have cited the clash of Native American and Anglo cultures as a factor affecting native students' adjustment to public high schools. Some students from Beatrice Rafferty School told Education World that students at public schools made fun of them when they demonstrated native dances at the public school.
In addition, reservation schools often are small, and native students can feel intimidated when they move on to large public high schools. Native youngsters also learn better through a hands-on approach to learning rather than by direct instruction, according to some research.