New Era for Reservation Education Community College in Wisconsin Leads in Providing Indians Better Classroom Opportunities

Article excerpt

HAMMERS are pounding on the other side of the wall.

Seated in his office, Jasjit S. Minhas hears the hammering as a ringing anvil rather than a banging nuisance. "We are building new classrooms, a computer center, and a multipurpose room," he says, "and this wall behind me will be taken out."

Dr. Minhas is the president of small Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College on the Lac Courte Oreilles Indian Reservation in northwest Wisconsin. He and his staff and students are an example of the remarkable growth happening on the 27 Indian colleges on reservations in the United States.

The colleges are community-based, chronically underfunded, committed to education, and revitalizing tribal heritage. They have pushed and pulled themselves to the "threshold of a new era," says Ernest Boyer in a report on their success by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The "new era" means that these tenacious little colleges are proving to be the focal point for cultural hope as well as providing alternative education aimed at tribal needs.

After losing their ancestral lands and being shunted to reservations, most Indian tribes have suffered for 100 years from inconsistent federal policies and broken treaties.

By establishing colleges on reservations and turning to themselves for the spark to light the fires of learning, and despite formidable odds, the Indian colleges are succeeding. Dr. Boyer and other experts concur that a basis for genuine self-determination is appearing.

"When I came here in l988," says Minhas, "I didn't know the college was $45,000 in the red. I had to go to the bank and borrow money to pay salaries. The collateral was a letter from the Bureau of Indian Affairs saying we would get the money."

In l988 the college was five years old and housed in a barn-like building among pine trees. Classes were held day and night. Enrollment hovered around 70 students but was declining. It was a college in name only.

Now, as the academic year begins, Minhas and his staff expect an enrollment of over 250 full-time students. By doggedly pursuing grants and funds, and with tight fiscal management and savvy leadership, the college has grown. Networking with other Indian colleges is increasing. Last year the college added a small library, needed offices, a small computer center, and a science lab.

The latest building under construction - by college vocational students - will provide room for an even larger computer center, a multipurpose student center, and more classrooms. Some classes will have the capacity to offer televised instruction from the University of Wisconsin. The MacArthur Foundation in Chicago provided a $130,000 grant for the building.

"We are giving most of our students a second chance," says Ann Marie Penzkover, the college registrar and a teacher in Native American studies. The majority of students at this and other Indian colleges are women in their early 30s with several children.

"Many students just weren't motivated when they were in high school," says Ms. Penzkover. "Our biggest challenge now is to give equal-life opportunities to people who are mostly in poverty. We've lived this way so long that its part of our strength that we are able to survive on so little and do so much. We are going to be here 10 years from now no matter what it takes."

"Unlike most colleges," says Minhas, "we work on the theory that it is our responsibility to teach the students."

When classes start and students are absent, college secretaries and officers call the students and ask why they aren't in class. …

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