BENA, MINN. – Across the country, tribal schools are crumbling.
One of every three of these schools, which the federal government is supposed to maintain, is falling apart from age, or because of the $1 billion maintenance budget backlog at the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education.
On Tuesday, the U.S. secretary of the interior came to Minnesota for a tour of a converted garage that has served as the high school for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe for almost four decades.
“Indian education is in trouble in a lot of ways,” said Secretary Sally Jewell, whose department oversees the Indian education bureau. “Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school is not serving its students’ needs in a lot of ways. It is very clear in touring the facility that it is one that needs to be replaced.”
The school roof leaks. The ceilings are full of mold and the walls are full of rodents and bats.
In winter, the building is so poorly insulated that ice must be chipped away from doors before students can enter. In high winds, the structure — a metal-clad pole barn — is so flimsy that students are sent outside into the storm for safety.
English teacher Bonnie Rock takes her creative writing students for long walks in the spring and fall, both for inspiration and to escape the cramped, noisy classroom where voices reverberate off the tin walls, and where she once found a nest of squirrels in her desk.
Rock, who has taught at the school for 20 years, says she stays for the kids, not the classroom ambience.
“I love the kids,” she said. “I do this to let them know that they can do it. If I can do it, they can do it.”
Replacing the school would cost an estimated $25 million — almost half the bureau’s $55 million budget. But Jewell, who has been approached by Minnesota’s House and Senate delegations with pleas for help, said she would work to find funding, both from Congress and other agencies, to address the dilapidated school.
“It’s beyond fixing and it was not designed for the purpose it’s being used for,” Jewell said after threading between trash cans that catch rainwater in the school’s halls and windowless classrooms. She spotted an out-of-date periodic table in a science lab, which lacked the proper ventilation and plumbing for students to perform experiments.
The Bureau of Indian Education operates 183 schools on 64 reservations in 23 states, including Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig and three other Minnesota schools. Sixty-three of those schools are rated in poor condition, including the Bena school.
Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig got its start in 1975, when 75 Indian students walked out of Cass Lake Junior-Senior High School en masse to protest what they saw as discrimination and cultural insensitivity. The tribe converted a bus garage into a schoolhouse, named after an Ojibwe leader whose name translates to “Hole in the Day,” and developed a curriculum that honored and preserved the band’s culture and language.
That was almost 40 years ago.
“Generations of students have attended school in this makeshift building,” Superintendent Crystal Redgrave testified before Congress in April. It was the third year in a row the tribe had come to the House Appropriations Committee to appeal for funds to build a new high school.
Students, Redgrave testified, are embarrassed by the decaying facility with its “sagging roofs, uneven floors, exposed wiring, poor lighting, sewer problems,” cramped classrooms and other deficiencies. There are no safe rooms where students can shelter in the event of a school shooting. Redgrave said local emergency officials have dubbed the school “Killer Hall.”
“The physical facilities that students are educated in also gives them a signal as to how much we care about them or don’t care about them,” said Jewell, who is also visiting tribal schools in Maine and Montana on this trip. “I don’t think the signal that’s sent in the high school here is the kind of signal we want to send to the children in this area.”
Parents have begun pulling their children out of the school, despite its curriculum designed around the Ojibwe culture and language, and placing them in public schools that don’t have dents in the roof from last winter’s ice dams.
A 2011 federal report concluded that it would cost $1.3 billion to overhaul the 63 Bureau of Indian Education schools that are in poor condition. In Minnesota — where the BIE is responsible for four schools serving the Leech Lake, Fond du Lac, Red Earth and Mille Lacs bands — the report estimated it would take $21.3 million to get all the schools in acceptable condition.
Studies have shown a link between poor student performance and inadequate school facilities. Dropout rates are higher, test scores are lower and it’s harder to recruit and retain quality teachers.
A 2013 study by the Government Accountability Office found that students at BIE schools scored 22 points lower in reading and 14 points lower in math than Indian students enrolled in public schools.
“We have been very frustrated with the state of Indian education,” Jewell said. “It’s not necessarily that we are not spending enough per student [but] they aren’t performing as well as students across the country, and that’s not something that’s OK with us. … We’re building a strong case for reform.”
Any possible reform of tribal education, she said, could build off the idea that “tribes know best.” The Leech Lake school, for example, has launched an Ojibwe immersion program for children in grades one through six and class lessons that incorporate traditional tribal activities and skills.
“We can learn from those reservations where Indian education is going really, really well and say, what are those bright spots? And how can we learn from that and bring that to schools like this one?” Jewell said.
Senior Terrance Lee Warner and junior Vanessa Roy put up with the school doors that jam in the cold, the winter rodent infestations and the sewage backups that sometimes foul the air.
They stay, they say, because this is also a school where the teachers care and where classes include lessons on spearing fish, tanning hides and tapping maple syrup.
“It’s a terrible building,” Warner said. “But it’s a great community.”