Western universities work to recruit more Native American teachers

Posted: Wednesday, April 02, 2003

CRESWELL, Ore. -- In the hectic hive of his fifth-grade classroom, 10-year-old Andrew Barker is hunched in front of a computer, deep in a story he's writing about an imagined journey through the depths of the Grand Canyon.

''They found a village of Indians ... and were scared,'' writes the student at Creslane Elementary School. Above him, student teacher Misty Moceikis, a 23-year-old member of the Siletz tribe, waits to see where he will take the story next.

Andrew pauses, then resumes typing: ''They asked if they could eat with them'' and the Indians offered to share their fish. ''Then they ate the food and slept, and then they were off again.''

For Moceikis, it was a reassuring sign that her presence is having a positive impact on her students.

Moceikis is part of a new University of Oregon program that recruits and trains American Indian teachers with the goal of placing them at schools with large Indian populations.

Universities across the West are starting similar programs, hoping Indian teachers can help lower the perennially high dropout rates and raise test scores at reservation-area schools.

At Montana State University, about 20 students are in training to work on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations. At Arizona State University there are 18 students, plus about 20 graduates already in schools. And the University of Utah has about 100 applicants for 12 spots in a similar program there.

''I think for a long time, education wasn't totally valued by Indians,'' Moceikis said. ''There were families who didn't come from education, so it wasn't a priority. They're getting by, so they figure, so can their kids.''

Indian teachers may be best able to counter that mind set, said Pat Rounds, coordinator of the Oregon program. It started this year with two students and is expected to expand to 20 next year, funded by a government grant of just under $1 million.

''It helps to have people who can speak the language, who are committed to the community, who know that the living is hard and are likely to stay anyway,'' said Bryan McKinley Brayboy, who coordinates an Indian teacher recruitment effort at the University of Utah.

Indian education leaders estimate that fewer than 100 of Oregon's 40,000 teachers are Indian, about one-quarter of 1 percent. Census data shows that 45,000 of Oregon's 3.5 million people, or 1.2 percent, are enrolled in a tribe.

Other teachers can help Indian students succeed, but people involved in the university training programs say outsiders don't easily connect with some aspects of Indian culture.

If a child is acting up, for example, an Indian teacher won't give him a time-out, said Suzette Brewer, who works for the Denver-based American Indian College Fund. Instead, the teacher might ask what the child's grandmother would think of his behavior -- a question with resonance in a culture where elders are honored.

An Indian teacher would know that if a boy comes to class with his long braids cut off there has been a loss in his family, said Az Carmen, coordinator of Native American recruitment at the University of Oregon.

Participants in the Oregon program take the same courses and as other graduate-level education majors, but also work with special mentors and attend monthly seminars.

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