University of Oregeon program graduates 16 Native American teachers

By Anne Williams
Eugene, Oregon (AP) August 2010

The University of Oregon College of Education graduated 16 new teachers August 14 but to their own students, they intend also to be family.

As a condition of acceptance into the UO’s Sapsik’wala Project master’s program for American Indians, the new graduates will give back to their communities by working for at least one year in schools with a majority Indian population or in teaching programs that benefit Indian people.

They’ll bring with them a depth of understanding that many white teachers lack, Tom Ball, assistant vice president of institutional equity and diversity, told a crowd of about 100 in an afternoon ceremony outside the Many Nations Longhouse.

“You’ll be that teacher that crosses that reservation line and knows those families,” said Ball, a member of the Modoc and Klamath tribes. “You’ll never be just a teacher. You’ll be an Indian teacher. An aunt. An uncle. A grandfather. A mother and father to some of those students.”

That ethos resonates with 25-year-old Jacinthia Stanley, whose dream is to open a charter school on a reservation – ideally her own Navajo reservation in Arizona, where virtually all her classmates in school were Indian but almost none of her teachers were.

“I think that plays a big role in student self-esteem,” said Stanley, who earned her undergraduate degree at Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas. “I don’t want kids out there that don’t have supportive families, like I did, to feel like they don’t have a place.”

The lack of Indian representation among teachers holds true across the United States and in Oregon, where Indians make up just 0.4 percent of the teaching force compared with 2 percent of students.

Stanley earned her UO degree in secondary social studies – a subject area she believes sorely needs more minority and women teachers. Too often, she said, the teaching of history suffers from a lack of multiple perspectives and even downright misrepresentation of the facts.

Boosting the ranks of American Indian teachers is one of the primary aims of the Sapsik’wala Project, which started in 2002 with a $1 million grant and has received at least five additional grants of similar size since.

“If you look at the dropout rates, American Indian and Alaskan Native students probably have one of the highest dropout rates,” director Alison Ball said. “The thought is if they had more Native teachers teaching in Native communities, it would offer modeling and mentoring.”

The intensive, five-term program, for students who have already earned bachelor’s degrees, offers recipients full tuition and fees, a monthly stipend and a book allowance. One of only a handful of Indian master’s programs in the nation, it grew from a partnership between the UO and a consortium of Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes, and was initially open only to students affiliated with those tribes. But last year it began admitting students from any tribe in the country and more than half of Saturday’s graduates came from other states, including Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Alaska, said Alison Ball, who is married to Tom Ball.

The Sapsik’wala (a Sahaptian word meaning “teacher”) Project has graduated 54 students in its eight years, including this year’s class, which was one of the largest. Though students take different classes depending on which endorsement area they’re focusing on, they meet formally at least weekly to share stories or concerns.

But Roshelle Nieto, a Klamath tribe member who also earned her bachelor’s degree at the UO, said the close-knit group socialized all the time.

“There’s not very many Indian students at the UO,” said Nieto, 28, who also led the university’s Native American Student Union. “We really just kind of made our own family.”

Nieto, who returned to her hometown of Klamath Falls to do her student teaching spring term at Chiloquin High School, made gifts of traditional dentillian shells for all her classmates – earrings for the women, necklaces for the men – and handed them out near the end of the three-hour ceremony and lunch.

Like many of her classmates, she said the dream of a master’s degree would have been out of reach were it not for the program’s generous scholarship.

Speakers at the ceremony, which followed the UO’s regular summer commencement, included UO President Richard Lariviere; College of Education dean Michael Bullis and professor Jerry Rosiek; and Yakama tribal member Patricia Whitefoot, president of the National Indian Education Association.

Many of the students said they want to teach in Indian communities in the long term, even though their “payback,” as Alison Ball referred to it, is only a year.

“I’d like to teach young single Navajo mothers,” said 35-year-old Eliot Bryant, who, like Stanley, went to Haskell.

Bryant, who was joined at the ceremony by nearly a dozen relatives and friends who traveled from out of state, did his student teaching stint at Prairie Mountain School, teaching seventh-grade math and science. Like other aspects of the program, he found it challenging but rewarding, and he praised the UO.

“This institution really believes in understanding different points of view from different cultures,” he said.

He might have had a different impression four years ago, when concerns about racism and discrimination in the College of Education prompted complaints and a rally. Among the most vocal were students involved in the Sapsik’wala Project, recalled Rosiek, who told the audience he happened to be on campus for his job interview the day of the protest.

Rosiek said the university listened and has since made great strides, retooling curriculum and hiring new faculty though more work needs to be done.

Frank Summers, a 2007 Sapsik’wala alumnus who teaches at Chiloquin High, his alma mater, said the program was excellent when he went through but is even better now.

“It was so amazing for me,” said Summers, 38, who was raised mostly by his sister and brother-in-law and struggled hard in school. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine attending the University of Oregon growing up.”