The School That Loren Built ; Native American Children Lag Behind Other Minorities in Academic Achievement. One Rhode Island Woman Wants to Change That

Article excerpt

Loren Spears tries not to be angry, but some of the memories still sting. As a first-grader and the only native American in her public school class in rural Rhode Island, she yearned to blend in. Shy but dutiful, she succeeded at pleasing her teacher, who regularly sent home report cards stamped "Commendable."

It wasn't until June that the teacher mentioned Spears wasn't reading at a first-grade level. Her mother was stunned, but later in life Spears came to understand the omission only too well.

"It was the perfect story of the low expectations white teachers have for native American children," says Spears. "Obedience was the most they expected from me."

Although less often in the headlines than other minority groups, native American students consistently lag behind their white peers when it comes to academic achievement.

According to a 2000 study of high school graduation rates, 57 percent of eligible native Americans received a secondary school diploma that year - a slightly better rate than blacks (55 percent) or Hispanics (53 percent), but significantly worse than whites (76 percent) or Asians (79 percent).

When it comes to college, however, a National Collegiate Athletic Association study shows the native American graduation rate of 37 percent trails that of both blacks, at 40 percent, and Hispanics, at 46 percent.

Failure to hone the skills that make for success in mainstream American life may at least partly account for the high suicide rates among native Americans - a whopping 1.5 times the average of that of other Americans, with native men aged 15-24 most likely to take their own lives.

Fortunately in Spears's case, when she stumbled in school, she had a mother who knew exactly how to react. She quickly found a tutor who turned the situation around, and Spears eventually came to love school and sailed through college.

But her success is not the norm, Spears insists, and that's why she has a sense of urgency about opening a school for native Americans, a school she hopes "will be all about respect."

The Nuweetooun School, set to open in September in Exeter, R.I., is largely about love. No other force could have driven such a small group to undertake so large a project.

A little more than a year ago, Spears was a public elementary school teacher in Newport, R.I. She'd been there for 12 years and enjoyed working at a low-income school where she had a chance to nurture minority students - although most were not native Americans, the group closest to her heart as a Narragansett Indian.

But as her own sons (now ages 9 and 7) entered the public school system in her hometown of Exeter, her heart sank. She saw her older son's initial enthusiasm for school shrivel in the face of a culture and learning climate that kept him feeling like an outsider.

"He entered first grade positively jubilant, with a twinkle in his eyes," she says. "By the end of second grade the twinkle was gone and there was no self-esteem left, either."

Spears recognized in her son's experience some of the same hurts and baffling adjustments she and her native American friends had been subjected to during their school days.

Different style of learning

Native Americans, Spears says, tend to be quiet and reflective. In a more bustling mainstream classroom, native children often feel shy - an attitude some mistake for unfriendliness or lack of cooperation.

American schools tend to stress competition, while native American children are geared toward working as a group, and often feel intimidated by individual ambition.

And worst of all, she recalls, is the overall lack of respect. When she was young, racial slurs were still common and she will never forget how much the insults hurt.

Today, she says, native American children endure a subtler form of humiliation. Their history and customs may be touched on lightly - and often inaccurately - at Thanksgiving time, but they are generally accorded little or no real consideration. …