Norton pushes Indian school construction reform
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TUESDAY, JULY 17, 2001

Secretary of Interior Gale Norton made her first visit to an Indian school on Monday, promoting the Bush administration's efforts to repair crumbling tribal schools and reform the nation's educational system.

The trip to the Tiospa Zina Tribal School on the Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation in South Dakota, gave Norton a first-hand look at one of the 185 schools she oversees as head of the Department of Interior. Located in 23 states, Bureau of Indian Affairs schools serve 50,000 students to whom Norton now has a responsibility for their quality of education.

It's a heavy task for anyone. But Norton says she's got a key partner in fulfilling the nation's duties to Indian children: Neal McCaleb.

"Neal McCaleb, our new Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, has a great background in highway construction management," she said in an interview yesterday. "We believe that he'll be helpful in school construction as well. I know he's very focused on trying to ensure that process is handled well."

Much like other Indian facilities throughout the nation, construction at the Tiospa Zina school, which serves about 500 students in grades K-12, is an ongoing project. In fiscal year 2001, which ends September 30, the school has received $6.7 million.

So far, the money has been used to construct a gymnasium, a kitchen and dining hall, and classrooms for school's younger students. Although no money has been budgeted for the school in fiscal year 2002, Norton's visit was part of assessing the needs for fiscal year 2003.

"It was a great opportunity to see the difference between the old and new and think about what impact that would have on the students," she said. "I'm very pleased to see the efforts that are being made."

The blending of the old and the new was evident in more than just the buildings, added Norton. She said she was particularly impressed with the school's curriculum, which blends traditional Dakota culture with conventional learning.

"They've worked with tribal elders and community leaders on some guiding principles for their students," she noted. "It seems like they've done a good job of thinking through how they should integrate cultural learning along with good education practices."

Their model, said Norton, plays well into the ongoing effort to reform public schools. The Senate and the House have each passed their own education spending bills which tie federal funding to student performance.

The jury is still out on how the proposals will affect Indian Country. Indian educators have adopted their own goals for tribal schools, such as 70 percent proficiency in reading and math and 90 percent or higher student attendance rates.

According to the BIA's latest report card, the Tiospa Zina school is not yet meeting these standards. Just 56 percent of students were labeled proficient in math, for instance, with none being advanced. The average daily attendance rate is 83 percent, a rate considered low even for Indian schools.

But the goals, said Norton, show that educators are taking positive steps to implement changes. "We want to study how the President's education reform policy can work in the tribal schools. My initial impression is that the reform proposals are being widely accepted, including by Indian educators," she said.

Congress still has to sort out the differences in the education bills approved in the past two months. The Senate is asking for $31.3 billion while the House wants $23 billion.

The Department of Interior's spending bills passed by Congress include about $292 million for education construction. Of this amount, about $122 million will go to six priority schools.

Norton and McCaleb will be attending an Indian school leadership meeting in Portland, Oregon, next week.

Get Education Bills:
S.1 | H.R.1

Relevant Links:
Tiospa Zina Tribal School -
Indian School Report Cards, BIA -
Legislative Updates, National Indian Education Association -

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