May 8, 2005
Two-story stucco houses, green parks and shopping centers surround Desert Vista High School in Ahwatukee Foothills.
But the children of Lone Butte live outside that world.
Tumbleweeds line the narrow road in the Gila River Indian Community that leads to their neighborhood: 20 aging houses five miles south of the campus surrounded by open desert as far as the eye can see.
Bedsheets cover the windows, and laundry dangles from clotheslines in the sparse back yards. Dogs roam the neighborhood and gather around the children as they meet after school each day to talk, ride bikes and play ball.
Until last month, few people paid attention to the neighborhood.
But then the families of Lone Butte came forward — with prompting from a Desert Vista security officer — and complained to tribal leaders and the Tempe Union High School District governing board about bullying, mistreatment and despair at Desert Vista.
"Even when you do say something to a teacher, they don’t really listen," said Desert Vista dropout Julian Hart, 17.
The allegations caught the Desert Vista community off guard, and teachers seemed baffled last week during an emergency meeting of the school’s site base council.
"We’re available to help all the time, and we don’t want to turn anyone away," said Desert Vista math teacher Larry Strom.
The conflicting perceptions that rocked Desert Vista do not surprise Arizona State University anthropologist Teresa McCarty. She said schools that serve American Indian students across the nation struggle with sharp cultural divides that only increase with reservation students.
"These kinds of things are all too common," she said. "It happens very easily when two cultural systems come in contact in a formal setting."
One result of the cultural divide is a high dropout rate among American Indian students statewide.
Indians also lag behind all other racial and ethnic groups on Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards, a highstakes test that becomes a graduation requirement in 2006. More than 85 percent of Indians in the class of 2006 failed AIMS on both attempts in 2004 and will find out in June how they did on their third try this spring.
"That’s an indication of a system failure," McCarty said. "It should be a wake-up call for our schools when we’re flushing 85 percent of the kids out of the system."
In the Gila River community, 100 percent of students in the class of 2006 failed AIMS on both attempts at Ira Hayes Memorial charter high school in Bapchule. And at Salt River High School east of Scottsdale in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, only one student in the class of 2006 passed the math portion of AIMS last year.
Fred Erickson, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said this achievement gap will not close until schools first close the communication gap with Indian families.
He said reservation students are often indirect in the way they make requests, while teachers are direct and used to giving orders. The result, he said, is frequent miscommunication.
"People aren’t consciously aware of this on either side, so it’s invisible," Erickson said. "Teachers aren’t aware they have this interactional bad breath."
The "bad breath" might explain why Lone Butte students say they are frequent victims of bullying at Desert Vista, but administrators point to school records that show no formal complaints.
Erickson said educators used to dealing with middleclass white families have to understand that Indian students often shy away from institutional channels of communication.
University of Arizona anthropologist Susan Philips said reservation students also hesitate to insert themselves into fast-moving conversations and are comfortable with long pauses between speakers. She said they encounter a much different style of communication at school and can easily get cut out of classroom discussions if teachers aren’t observant.
"The idea of one person dominating the talk is not an attractive thing to them," Philips said.
Other barriers exist for reservation students beyond race and ethnicity.
Temple University sociologist Annette Lareau, who will speak June 10 at an ASU conference, said extensive observations she made in 2003 in diverse neighborhoods showed that class status has more to do with the achievement gap at American schools than anything else.
The biggest educational challenge for reservation students, her research suggests, might be poverty and the scarcity of college degrees and white-collar jobs among reservation parents.
Lareau said children from middle-class and affluent homes such as those in Ahwatukee Foothills — regardless of their race and ethnicity — tend to have parents who manage the school experience for their children in ways that working-class and poor parents could never match.
Lareau said these hovering "helicopter parents" request the best teachers for their children, know how to bypass waiting lists at popular schools and get their children into gifted programs and honors classes even when the children don’t qualify.
These parents also keep their children busy with a wide range of structured activities such as organized sports, Scouts and private music lessons.
"Middle-class parents see children as a project," Lareau said. "They develop them. They give to their children a sense of entitlement."
She said working-class and poor parents, meanwhile, tend to turn their children over to the experts for education and believe schools have the responsibility to fix things that go wrong.
Regardless of the cause of frustration among the Lone Butte students — and whether the mistreatment is real or perceived — the Desert Vista site base council said Tuesday it will move forward with an action plan to help every child succeed.
For starters, the council of teachers, administrators, students and parents agreed to explore the creation of a tollfree telephone number on campus so Lone Butte families in the Tucson area code can avoid long-distance calls to Desert Vista.
The council also said it would bend rules that require at least 10 students in any club, so the small group of Lone Butte students can finally have its own Native American club.
The Tempe Union district also is exploring expanded bus routes to Lone Butte so the children can stay after school for sports without being stranded.
To help implement these measures, Desert Vista has turned to Gila River’s K-12 Education Division coordinator Vanessa Girard.
But the partnership will spread Girard thin.
She has responsibility for about 5,000 tribal students at 500 schools across the nation. She has never visited Lone Butte, and the families there say they don’t trust her. They also expressed anger that Girard did not notify them of the site base council meeting on Tuesday and spoke on their behalf without consulting them first.
"She’s just picking up a paycheck," said Rechenda Mendez, a Desert Vista freshman from Lone Butte.
Girard said her office just opened in September and asked for patience.
"Change takes time, and all of this is going to take time," she said. "But I am looking out for these kids."
Other East Valley high schools with larger Indian populations have more established tribal partnerships.
At Fountain Hills High School, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation pays the salaries of two full-time "support teachers" who track the progress of reservation students daily. A $180,000 grant from the Fort McDowell tribes also enables Fountain Hills High to operate an alternative school on campus for students who function better in a smaller environment.
Fountain Hills Unified School District Superintendent Marian Hermie said the efforts have paid off, and last semester no Indian seniors at Fountain Hills High failed a single class.
"We’ve taken painstaking measures not to have an usand-them mentality in our district," she said.
The Mesa Unified School District also works closely with the Fort McDowell and Salt River communities.
Westwood High School’s Native American Club demonstrated traditional dances last month at an annual pow wow, and the school has a Navajo guidance counselor and a fulltime Salt River liaison who knows the names and backgrounds of every reservation student.
"It’s really been good for the community to feel part of the school environment," said Theresa Price, a Navajo-Hopi who came to the Mesa district 20 years ago as a fifth-grade teacher at Jordan Elementary School. Price now oversees American Indian education for the entire district.
"We are seeing that achievement gap closing," she said.
Temple University sociologist Annette Lareau has observed the following differences between socioeconomic groups in the United States regardless of race and ethnicity:
Parent actively fosters and measures child's skills. Parent orchestrates multiple and diverse leisure activities for child. Child negotiates with parents and other adults. Whining is frequent. Parent intervenes on behalf of child; parent teaches child to take on this role. Child develops sense of entitlement and individuality.
Parent allows child to develop at natural pace.
Child "hangs out," particularly with kin.
Child takes orders from parents and other adults. Whining is rare.
Parent depends on institutions and trusts the decisions of authority figures.
Child develops sense of powerlessness and constraint. NOTE: Categories defined as parents’ education level and type of work, not on household income.
SOURCE: "Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life," TRIBUNE University of California Press