Tulalips fight to help children succeed

TULALIP – Ginny Ramos tells her seven children that they must work 180 percent harder than other students in their schools.

That’s what it will take to make it to graduation and into a good job, she said.

Ramos and her children are Tulalip, and not much has changed for American Indians when it comes to schooling, she said.

“We’re facing the same discrimination issues my mother faced,” such as a feeling that teachers don’t expect Tulalip students to succeed, she said.

Ramos, director of operations at the Tulalip Boys &Girls Club, hopes a new tribal initiative will help Indian students overcome age-old barriers.

The tribe is creating positions for six youth advocates who will meet regularly with Tulalip students each quarter.

The advocates will be trained this summer and begin meeting with children this fall, Tulalip General Manager Shelly Lacy said.

“We just want to care for our kids,” she said.

Tulalip schoolchildren face the same hurdles as minority students anywhere in the country, Lacy said. These include poverty, being the only Indian in a classroom, and having parents who may have dropped out of school.

The new program wasn’t created in response to a fear of discrimination, but to give each child individual attention – a strategy that works for any child.

“We want to send a message that education is important,” Lacy said. “Some students just need a little bit more help.”

About half of the tribes’ 3,600 members are under the age of 18, Lacy said. High school graduation rates are soaring. More adults are returning to school through the tribes’ job training program.

Still, tribal leaders say students need one-on-one contact if they are to succeed academically.

Experts say discrimination against Indian students lingers in this country, especially in towns that border reservations.

“The expectation is that they’re not going to be successful, that they’re not going to go on to college, that they’re not going to graduate,” said John Tippeconnic, director of the American Indian Leadership Program at Pennsylvania State University.

Ramos and other members of the Tulalip Indian Parent Education Committee say Tulalip students fall through the cracks of the public education system.

“There has been historically discrimination in the form of, ‘Well, we don’t expect that these kids can do as well,’” said Gail Miller, assistant superintendent for Marysville Public Schools. “We don’t believe that now. We believe a kid at Tulalip can do as well as anybody else.”

The Marysville School District has two elementary schools and one high school on the Tulalip reservation. Third- and fourth-graders throughout the district learn local tribal history.

But Ramos and other parents are concerned that the district’s efforts haven’t been enough.

A 2005 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that Indian children struggle to climb beyond the lowest rungs of academic achievement.

They are more likely than students of any other ethnicity to drop out of high school, and the least likely to earn a college degree. Unemployment among tribal members is at 15 percent – about 10 percent higher than the national average.

Tulalip students perform better than the national average for Indian students, Miller said, but not as well as non-Indian students in the same district.

“We’re examining the reasons for that,” she said.

Among Indians, there’s a long-held suspicion that public school is a “place of becoming white,” said Jon Reyhner, a professor of multicultural education at Northern Arizona University.

“They learn about city government, county government, federal government, but not tribal government,” he said. “The curriculum is one-size-fits-all, and often the Indian students can’t see themselves in it.”

Experts believe Indian students are most successful when tribal leaders partner with local schools.

“There’s a lot of emotion, and a lot of parents feel hopeless,” Ramos said. “But I believe this is a positive start.”

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or kkapralos@heraldnet.com.

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