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Closing the gap: Heritage helping raise Native American students' self-esteem

In a windbreaker and skinny jeans, Annie Fregoso was just another Springville High School student absentmindedly twirling the wires of her iPod headphones around her finger as she waited recently for reading time to start at Nebo's Native American tutor lab.

Even though she's one of only 265 Native American students in the district, Fregoso, a 15-year-old Cheyenne River Sioux who plans to attend college when she graduates, doesn't feel her heritage sets her apart from — or behind — her classmates. "I'm just like everyone else," she said. But knowing and accepting her heritage may be, educators say, the key to Fregoso's success.

Since Nebo School District started offering language and culture classes after school two days a week, the graduation rate for Native American students has jumped from just 37 percent in 1998 to 88 percent in 2008. San Juan School District, which is nearly 50 percent Navajo, saw similar results after starting its daily language program.

"The academic gap between Navajo students and Caucasian students is closing up," said Clayton Long, bilingual education director for San Juan School District. "In language arts especially, the rate of improvement is impressive."

According to district records, Native American students' math and reading standardized test scores have increased from an average of 20 percent to 80 percent over the past 10 years.

Long attributes the rise in test scores to a rise in students' self-esteem.

"When we support the kids with language, culture and history, it provides a way for them to feel they are accepted in the school," he said. "They begin to feel honored knowing who they are and start to take pride in their work."

San Juan District requires every school to provide at least 30 minutes of Navajo language instruction daily. Studying their native language in a school setting, Long said, helps students develop study skills that transfer directly to English classes.

In Nebo District, in addition to helping students sort out the differences among the 32 different vowels used in the Navajo language, teachers try to instill a love for Native American culture.

"If you don't know where you came from, it's hard to figure out where you are going," said Eileen Quintana, program manager for Nebo's Title VII Indian Education Program.

By showing her students how to weave yarn into elaborate geometric designs, Quintana strengthens their math and memory skills. She instructs them in traditional dance to help them build confidence. She coordinates service projects to help them get to know the elders who still reside on their reservations. "We have a very, very strong philosophy of teaching in the Navajo culture," Quintana said. "When you strengthen the spirit of a child, teach them who they are, where they come from and the direction their people are going, they have the power to do whatever they want."

Quintana's philosophy certainly worked for Fregoso, the Nebo School District's official Native American Powwow Princess. She's at home with both her Caucasian friends at Springville High School and her Native American friends at the Title VII tutor lab. School is easy, she said, and she's on track to snag a scholarship for college.

"I know," she said, "who I am."