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Native American Education: Can Utah Close the Gap?

A Utah lawmaker is working on a plan to address one of the largest education achievement gaps in the state. Native Americans here perform worse than any other racial or ethnic group.

In Southeastern Utah, The San Juan School district sits on the edge of Indian country. Here, Navajo kids make up a significant portion of the student population.  

At Whitehorse High School, students are finishing up a project for their Navajo government class. Some students who are finished are playing games or strumming an acoustic guitar.

Eighteen-year-old Davik Mitchell says he worries his native peers just aren’t interested in learning.

“They're just like ‘f’ school, ‘f’ this. I just want to go out and work and get a job. Mr. Manycattle, he tries. A lot of teachers try,” Mitchell says. “But a lot of kids are pretty much dead weight. They’re being dragged along.”

Mitchell says he’s familiar with the stories of his grandparents who lived on government assistance, while trying to raise 12 children.

“They didn’t want me to live that kind of life,” Mitchell says. “So every now and then they’ll tell me about it and it just sounds so terrible. My dad he went to college, but he said it was hard living off just $60 a month and he told me he couldn’t do it so he had to come home and work and try to support my mom.”

A lot of problems here are associated with how remote the area is. Daily commutes can be long, and students often have to take care of younger siblings while parents travel to work.

The rural conditions also make it difficult to find qualified teachers says San Juan School District Superintendent Doug Wright.

“Many people are willing to come, willing to live in the student-type housing for a while,” Wright says. “They just graduated from college. They’re willing to keep up in that lifestyle, so to speak. But as they start to have kids of their own and want to not have to drive 90 or 100 miles to the Wal-Mart, then they figure out it’s probably better to move on somewhere else.”

Wright says recruiting Native teachers from within the reservation is crucial. But Native students here and throughout the state just aren’t getting the education they need to become certified teachers.

That’s why Republican State Representative Jack Draxler formed the American Indian-Alaskan Native Education commission during the 2015 legislative session. He’s giving the group until December to come up with a statewide plan to address the problem.

“We know there are cultural issues,” Draxler says. “We know there are poverty issues. We know that there are some ingrained possible stereotypes in the system regarding Indian students. So we’re going to tackle those.”

The issue is close to Draxler’s heart. He used to teach high school in Wyoming on the Wind River reservation.

 “I told my colleagues when I was proposing this bill that if this had been the case with our children or grandchildren, we would have risen up in arms a long time ago,” 

“I told my colleagues when I was proposing this bill that if this had been the case with our children or grandchildren, we would have risen up in arms a long time ago."

The latest test results show Native American student’s scores in Language Arts, math and science are about 30 percent lower than the scores of white students. Graduation rates are equally dismal.  And it’s not just a Utah problem. While graduation rates nationwide have reached an all-time high, Native students lag significantly.

Earlier this month the commission began drafting a proposal for lawmakers to consider during the next legislative session. One idea is to incorporate Native American history and culture in every Utah classroom. Montana actually requires this. Montana State School Superintendent Denise Juneau says when everyone has an understanding of the history and culture, it makes for much better relationships.

“And of course for Indian students, Indian Education for All when they see themselves present in hallways, in books in the curriculum and what’s being taught in their school, they feel much more connected to that education system as well.”

Under Juneau’s leadership, the state is also addressing the problems that exist on the reservations.

“It’s deep, it’s generational, it’s isolated and it’s concentrated and wherever you have those four components of poverty anywhere in this country, you’re going to have schools that struggle with academic achievement,” Juneau says.

This is where Montana is putting federal dollars to work. With the help of Title 1 funding, the state is providing mental health and social services to students who need the support.

“I’m in those communities a lot,” Juneau says. “It takes a lot of attention. It takes money and it takes sort of a full-court press.” 

Back in San Juan County, Davik Mitchell graduated from Whitehorse High School in June. He was offered several scholarships to attend Utah State University in Blanding, but decided instead to enlist in the Army Reserve.  

“I would want to come back but I don’t know if there would be anything to come back to,” Mitchell says. “There would be no way to support myself here.”

This year, Mitchell will join hundreds, if not thousands of Native American high school graduates across Utah, who are struggling with the same problem. 

Whittney Evans grew up southern Ohio and has worked in public radio since 2005. She has a communications degree from Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, where she learned the ropes of reporting, producing and hosting. Whittney moved to Utah in 2009 where she became a reporter, producer and morning host at KCPW. Her reporting ranges from the hyper-local issues affecting Salt Lake City residents, to state-wide issues of national interest. Outside of work, she enjoys playing the guitar and getting to know the breathtaking landscape of the Mountain West.
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