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Central Kitsap schools promoting pride, striking down prejudice

Paige Richards, 17, said she felt teachers turned their back on her in elementary school and she was made fun of because of her heritage as a Native American. - Christopher Carter/staff photo
Paige Richards, 17, said she felt teachers turned their back on her in elementary school and she was made fun of because of her heritage as a Native American.
— image credit: Christopher Carter/staff photo

In fifth grade, Paige Richards was known as “the indian girl.”

She knew she was part Native American, but wished she wasn’t.

Then, maybe the students would stop calling her names.

“I was kind of taking it out on my heritage,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.”

Richards is an enrolled member of the Upper Chehalis tribe and will be a junior this year at Central Kitsap High School.

Native American students, like Richards, are few among a majority but carry with them stereotypes and statistics they — and the Central Kitsap School District — are working to erase.

Native American students make up little more than 1 percent of the total student population in the Central Kitsap School District. More than 90 different tribes are represented, according to a list provided by the district.

While they have the fewest numbers, statewide Native American students have the highest dropout rate of any ethnic group, 10.1 percent, during the 2008-2009 school year, according to a report from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Native American seniors had the highest dropout rate of any ethnic group during that year — nearly 18 percent.

The district has taken action with help from community groups in an attempt to reverse the trend.

In the last four years, the district has put coordinators at each of the three high schools and three junior high schools to act as a go-between for students, teachers and the district. The district also doubled the amount of grant money it receives and developed a system to assist current and transitioning Native American students.

A May 28 story in the Central Kitsap Reporter included incorrect information about services offered to Native American students.

The added emphasis is still gaining steam, but district officials, students and parents are already noticing a difference.

“We’ve come a long way and we’re proud of where we are and where we’re going,” said the district’s Indian Education liason, Kathy Payne.

The district applies every year for Title VII grant money and has doubled its award from about $20,000 to $46,000.

The Central Kitsap Indian Parent Advisory Committee, a group of parents and community members, ultimately decides where that money is spent, Payne said.

She said the money can only be used to fund programs and events for Native American students and most of the money is used to pay for tutoring services.

While Payne said schools are working on making sure the word gets out about the offerings, some students are already seeing returns on the district’s tutoring investment.

Richards said she grew up with a learning disability in reading and math. Throughout junior high and high school she struggled and never passed the state’s standardized tests. This year however, Richards exceeded the standard for reading and writing, a feat she credits solely to the one-on-one tutoring.

“I was shocked,” she said. “I didn’t think I would ever pass that.”

Some groups have formed to help bring students together who can share common bonds, ones they may have ignored for years.

Payne, who is herself part Native American, an enrolled member of the Lummi Nation in the Bellingham area, said she experienced negative experiences in her childhood she hopes won’t to passed on to younger generations.

“We’re pushing the students to be proud of what we are,” she said

Some of the money from the grant is used as a stipend for a staff member hired during the current school year. They are charged with identifying incoming Native American students and inviting them and their families to welcoming events.

Some of the remaining money is spent on field trips and an annual summer day camp specifically for Native American students in the district’s elementary schools.

Held for a week each summer, students participate in Native American-themed arts and crafts, take field trips to the Suquamish reservation and attend events promoting scholarships.

Some schools also have groups or clubs that meet outside of school hours.

At Central Kitsap High School, history teacher J.D. Sweet leads such a group — Tribe of Many Feathers.

He said the group has been successful but it came to fruition through his own desire to create a place for students to feel safe and respected.

“If we would have waited for the school to recognize, it would have never happened,” he said.

Richards attends meetings of the Tribe of Many Feathers and said if it wasn’t for groups like the one Sweet put together, students like herself wouldn’t know where to go for help.

“I thought, ‘Wow, for once I feel like I belong somewhere. No one will pick on me or judge me. I can be myself,’” she said of the first time she attended a Tribe of Many Feathers meeting.

She added that without a place to go, the students will remain statistics.

“Without her (Payne) and people like J.D., the Native American system in the CK district isn’t going anywhere.”

While students are seeing more support at school, there is still more to be done, parents say.

“What we would hope the district would do is realize there is cultural competency issus that they should be addressing,” said Leah Henry-Tanner, a parent.

She has seen two of her sons graduate from high school in the district and still has three working their way through. Henry-Tanner and her children are Nez Perce and Henry-Tanner grew up on a reservation in Idaho.

She said as a parent, she has heard concerns that accounts of Native American history told to students in local schools don’t match up to the stories passed down through Native American families.

“A lot of kids grow up hearing their own stories and then they get to school. It’s not necessarily the same story you hear,” she said.

Henry-Tanner is involved in the advisory committee.

Another parent and member of the committee, David Natseway, has three children working their way through the school district, the oldest is a senior at Central Kitsap High School. He said the dropout rate concerns him as a parent but students are beginning to catch up.

“With the tutoring and the students being a little more involved in that, it helps them stay on track,” he said.

Natseway, a member of the advisory council, said the groups are helping students but said he feels Native American students are sometimes not adequately recognized within the schools.

“I walk around and I see all the dispay boards for all these different organizations that are within the school,” he said. “I don’t see anything about the Tribe of Many Feathers club. I look through the annual at the end of the year and don’t see any recognition with that.”

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