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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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School tailored for O'odham tribe enjoys success
by Arizona Daily Star

TUCSON - In one Tohono O'odham story, there was a boy whose mother loved to play toka, an Indian game akin to field hockey. The boy followed his mother to faraway matches, only to be ignored.

Forgotten and lonely, the boy wandered into the desert, crying, and turned into a saguaro that grew strong and stately.

That story is why the saguaro is symbolic of the Ha:san Preparatory & Leadership School, a charter school with about 150 students - 99 percent of them American Indian and most of them members of the Tohono O'odham Nation.

About 13 percent of American Indians have bachelor's degrees, less than half the national average. Indian students also have lower retention rates after one year of college than any other ethnic group.

Younger students also fare poorly - for example, 82 percent of Arizona's white fifth-graders passed their reading exams last year, compared with 47 percent of Indian fifth-graders.

Although academic results so far have been mixed, educators at Ha:san say their innovative approach shows great promise. Foreign-language requirements are met with two years of Tohono O'odham language training, though Spanish is offered as well.

The students learn traditional native art and tribal songs and grow traditional crops, such as squash and beans.

The students still learn American history - it's a standard required by the state - but teachers understand there's going to be some resistance to hearing about what happened on the colonial frontier. In learning the material, students are asked to consider history from the native perspective, since those voices aren't always heard in textbooks.

Half of the teachers are American Indian, and all spend one hour of professional development a week integrating language and culture.

Frances Ortiz, 19, decided to go to the school two years ago to be surrounded by other Indian students.

"I thought it was important so that I could learn more about my culture," she said.

Other schools she attended might have had social clubs for Indian students but lacked the academic focus. She struggles with the language, she said, but thinks it's important to learn because she worries that it will disappear.

The school is not on the reservation, in part because when it was founded 11 years ago, there was concern among tribal members that it would take the best and brightest students and harm the existing school district.

Over time, the relationship with the tribe has grown and the location, near the University of Arizona, helps serve as a bridge between the more insular world of the reservation and the larger community, said the school's grant writer, Lynne Colombe, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe of South Dakota.

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