Private Schooling on the Reservation

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Last Year, the Southern Ute Indian Reservation opened the first and only tribally run school in the United States. After decades of mediocre education and cultural dilution in the Colorado public school system, the tribe decided to fund its own private school that would teach the language and the customs of the Southern Utes to Indians on the reservation and in surrounding areas. The school was created in response to a demand that the cultural and educational needs of local Indians be better met. There are no teachers unions. There are no bureaucratic regulations about what should be taught and when. . The school is run by Indians for Indians with no cost to the taxpayers of the state of Colorado. The school was opened after much debate among tribal members who finally appropriated two million dollars for the school’s operation. Parents and elders of the tribe, some of whom have no teaching license, staff it. The classes meet in an old refurbished boarding school where students are taught using the teaching system pioneered by Maria Montessori.

The most notable part of the education that goes on at the Southern Ute Indian Academy is how much attention is given to individually structured education. In a place like Southwestern Colorado, such individual attention is of paramount importance. Some students speak Spanish better than English, while other speak English very well. Some students are mostly Ute while others have very little Ute heritage. All of the students are given the materials necessary to learn in light of their individual background. On the wall, a sign reads, “Give thanks to the Creator or to God”. None of this would be surprising or unusual to anyone familiar with Montessori’s education system. The goal of Montessori education is to provide students with skills that accentuate their individuality while making them active members of whatever community they happen to come from. The Montessori system is not alone in giving attention to the individual student. There are a variety of educational philosophies that put much effort into developing the individual. The public schools use none of these.

Private schooling has unexpectedly invigorated the local community. Although there were reservations about the lack of licensed teachers at first, the fact that students are learning to read in a matter of weeks instead of months or even years has inspired the locals with confidence. The teachers are not unionized. They do not speak of what the teachers unions call “parental interference”. Parental involvement is encouraged. The teachers are members of a local school responsive to the local community.

The Southern Ute reservation is still the only reservation that operates its own school. It is remarkable that the Southern Utes would be the only tribe to make a tribally run school a priority. Indian children generally do poorly in public schools, and in spite of all the lip service to multiculturalism, Indian culture is generally neglected. Several decades ago, Indian culture was actively opposed in the public schools, but in recent years, the cultural destruction that Indian youths have been experiencing has been due to ignorance of Indian culture on the part of the educators and adherence to school policies of multiculturalism which are really a scheme of anti-culturalism which seeks to destroy all distinctions among students.

Many Southern Utes recognized this and opened the Academy. But Indians are not the only ones who are subjected to Cultural destruction in the public schools. Every Christian student who must endure constant criticism of his religion in the name of multiculturalism is a victim. Every black and Puerto Rican child who can’t read because he’s too busy learning about how to save the whales is a victim. As white males are belittled and black students are left illiterate, the taxpayers are asked to shell out more money.

In the end, the public schools leave the parent helpless while demanding more money, and forcing the student to conform to a culture that he or she may not be a part of. The case of the Southern Utes is just one vivid illustration of how the public schools are failing our children both educationally and culturally. While the students at the Ute Academy pursue different interests, are multilingual, and can all read, the students in the nearby public school are all subjected to the same command and control style of teaching and are lucky to ever read at anything above a third grade level. To the parents of many Ute students, as well as others elsewhere who have suffered similar fates, the future looks grim.

The public school claim to “multiculturalism” is nothing more than an attempt to cover up the incompetence and lack of individuality that is allowed in public education. If any real diversity is ever to be achieved in public schooling, the school systems must be responsive to local concerns and with respect to local customs and culture. Contrary to what the modern “experts” say, the purpose of public schooling is not to hammer the students into homogeneous “world citizens” who are ashamed of their own parents and their own heritage. As Montessori education and other community based systems would demand, good education should allow students to become constructive members of their own community and to be self-supporting individuals. Of course, the public schools do none of the above, and for this, they should be held accountable.

February 24, 2001

Ryan McMaken lives in Denver, Colorado. He edits the Western Mercury.

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