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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.”
Jennifer Brooks • 612-673-4008