Lab system wins round Navajo

13th December 1996 at 00:00
UNITED STATES. Tim Cornwell reports on a bid to overcome native American suspicion of schooling. Fifty miles from the Grand Canyon, in a high desert landscape where dinosaur tracks are set in stone and which NASA recently used to test its Mars rover vehicle, Tuba City is a crossroads of white and Indian culture.

One evening here last week, James Peshlakai, a teacher of Navajo culture and language at the Greyhills Academy, led a workshop on the shoe game, an ancient Navajo guessing game played with songs and ceremony. Down the main street at the Tuba City McDonald's, staff were busy hawking black and white spotted boxes and caps for the restaurant chain's massive promotional tie-in with Disney's new version of 101 Dalmatians.

The Greyhills Academy High School boasts of being a laboratory school for Northern Arizona University, serving as a training ground for student teachers and promising a testing ground for research and innovation, although it is 70 miles from the main NAU campus at Flagstaff.

It has 477 pupils, aged 14 to 18, all of them native American and half of them boarders, often from remote villages in a reservation the size of New England, covering covers parts of three states. At the school, which has well-equipped computer labs, children who may live in homes without running water or electricity have an Internet address.

This year, Greyhills will have six student teachers from Northern Arizona University. One faculty member lives on campus full-time, using it as a base to teach night classes in special education to trainee teachers at other schools in the area. It also draws students from other US universities looking for a very different experience. The UK Labour party is looking at the laboratory schools system as part of its teacher training reform proposals.

"It's a different world here," said Joseph Overburger, a student teacher from the University of Pennsylvania. "It's definitely not mainstream America. To be effective you need to stop and take two steps back and take stock."

Overburger, an earth sciences teacher, recently invited students to explain the solar system in their own terms. They told the Indian creation myth - as the elders were meticulously placing lights in the sky, stars made of rocks and gems, a crazy coyote grabbed their buckskin bag and scattered its contents across the heavens.

Another student teacher led a government class by inviting students to construct their own tribe.

The Indian experience of American education has not been a happy one. The Greyhills drop-out rate runs at about 20 per cent in each of the four years. Of the typical class of 125 children, about 85 make it through four years of school. In a good year, 20 might go on to universities or community colleges.

Wendell McConnaha, principal of Greyhills, runs incentive programmes for good behaviour and attendance. The incentives include cash prizes, McDonald's vouchers and inscribed jackets. Carol Rau, the school librarian, recently tried a reading programme that offered small rewards, $2 or $3 for each book read. She is applying for a grant to increase that sum to $20 or $30 a book.

There is one pressing reason to encourage more Navajo to go on to college: a debilitating shortage of trained native American teachers. "Anglo" teachers on the reservation tend to burn out in a couple of years, it is said, victims of culture shock in a small and remote towns where only tribe members can own property. Until two years ago Dr McConnaha was director of the high school at the University of Chicago's laboratory school. This is where the lab school movement was effectively founded, and it remains one of the best-known in the country. Dr McConnaha is something of an apostle of the movement. He has helped found schools at universities in India and Nigeria, and savours the possibility of starting one in the UK.

Research suggests western education formats do not produce results at reservation schools, he said. At Greyhills, "if we can come up with something that works with Navajo, it can with modifications work for Lakota or Sioux or Cherokee."

The lab school approach in the US is typically to try anything that works, or might work, and pace education to the individual student. As a charter school, Greyhills is not directed by school district or even state guidelines. It has been a lab school for eight years, and has opted for a heavy dose of home-grown culture.

Two years of Navajo language and culture are now required for graduation. There are 12 students to each teacher and classes range from horsemanship to jewellery making. Students work on a radio station that produces a programme of Indian music, Windsongs, for the American public radio network, and in well-equipped computer centres. Dr McConnaha's staff now boasts four PhDs and a resident native American poet, and next year the school is to host a conference of Indian writers. Staff are working on creating a textbook series that deals with native literature.

Greyhills accepts that relatively few students will get to college and has joined 13 other schools in a consortium which has won a $2.1 million grant to set up a new "school-to-work" programme. Students run a 36-room hotel as part of the school, which also teaches cosmetology, welding, and landscape architecture.

Larry Kee Yazzie is a product of the painful Navajo school experience. From the age of eight, he was sent off the reservation to live with a Mormon family in Utah for the nine months of the school year. The programme, which involved scores of Indian children, combined the Mormons' missionary zeal with the secular dream of assimilation, raising Indian children as good capitalist citizens, away from the negative influences of the tribe.

The system left Mr Yazzie with a degree in law from Salt Lake City's Brigham Young University, which he now practises back on the reservation in Tuba City, having rejected Mormonism in favour of the Navajo religion. The Navajo, he said, are still recovering from the idea that schools were the "white man's way". At one time the reservation's government agents threatened parents with jail if their children did not enrol. The schools of the time had military regimes, where pupils wore uniforms and had their hair cut short.

Mr Yazzie is now a parent at Greyhills, and paid testament to its flexibility. "They can be more creative here," he said. "They are able to learn from our perspective, explore who our role models and our heroes are."

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