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July 1, 2008
Vol. 50
No. 7

Forever Transforming Indian Education

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      In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, author Sherman Alexie (of Spokane/Coeur d'Alene heritage) draws upon his own experiences to tell the story of a Spokane Indian, Junior, who leaves his reservation to attend a predominantly white high school, many miles and worlds away. Junior's bold determination to obtain a better education was triggered by his parents' answer to this question: "Who has the most hope?" Their reply: "White people."
      If she has anything to do about it, Linda Campbell (of St. Regis Mohawk heritage) will ensure that young Native people, like Junior, find more opportunities for educational advancement—as well as hope for their futures—in their own communities.
      Campbell is the executive director of the Center for Native Education at Antioch University in Seattle. A professor, former secondary teacher, and the co-author of the ASCD book Multiple Intelligences and Student Achievement: Success Stories from Six Schools (1999), Campbell had worked in Indian education for 20 years when she was approached by the Gates Foundation with the idea of launching an early college initiative for Native American students. She met with tribal leaders and tribal education directors to brainstorm about what such a program would look like and, in 2002, launched the Center and the early college initiative.
      Through early colleges, students can earn up to two years of college credit—free of charge—while completing their high school diplomas, Campbell explains. The early college curriculum features a blending of high school and college courses, which is then integrated with local Indian culture. "The tribes determine the content of cultural information and will often co-teach it with college faculty and teachers," says Campbell. A college-level art course, for example, could allow students to study Native American approaches in the use of color and imagery. A literature course could feature Indian writers; government studies could be taught through the lens of Native American history. Not surprisingly, Campbell observes, "When culture is integrated into the courses, the content becomes more relevant, engaging, and motivating, and our students have shown that they can academically excel when they are motivated."
      Campbell, herself a first-generation college graduate, understands the barriers to access Native students must overcome, one of which is a distrust of the White education system. "For so long, Native people have had a problematic relationship with education," says Campbell. "There is a challenge in creating a vision, a belief, that college can be accessed and they can be successful," she concedes. Still, the early college program gives Native people "the opportunity to design, implement and control education. This is an important new model that will help more young people see that education can be a positive thing."
      Engendering such a shift in thinking is absolutely critical, Campbell states, because the future of most Indian communities is dependent upon the youth. "In Indian country, right now, many of the tribes have increased their own requirements for tribal jobs. Early colleges are a great way for students to get the skills they need to be qualified for tribal enterprises." And young people, Campbell observes, are starting to believe in their ability to strengthen Indian nations. Native youth are seeing "more educated people working at home in occupations such as nursing, construction, and management," she states. These role models can only spell success "for the economic development of tribes."
      That result is personally rewarding for Campbell, who says she has been a "good Auntie," ensuring that her nieces and nephews had opportunities to pursue higher education. Through early colleges, and the Center's other initiatives, she and her staff are "taking giant steps forward." and the work, says Campbell, "is capable of transforming Indian education forever."

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