Samantha Johnson is the only one of a group of eight or nine friends she grew up with who graduated from high school.
“Some of them got pregnant or quit just because they didn’t think getting a diploma was important,” Johnson said. “Nobody in their family ever finished school, so why should they?”
Johnson, who just finished her senior year at Cesar Chavez High School north of the Gila River Indian Community, has faced many of the obstacles that contribute to low graduation rates among American Indian students. But she also has had the support of her family and specially trained advisers at her high school.
“My mother and grandmother were always in my ear about going to college,” Johnson said. “When I was little, I didn’t think I would want to go, but my family instilled in me how important it was to be educated if I wanted to work for the administration some day.”
Johnson wants to study psychology at the University of Arizona and go to law school after getting her bachelor’s degree. One day she wants to return to the reservation to run for tribal office.
Her story is unusual. Only 34 percent of the Gila River community’s children graduated from high school and only 17 percent went on to college, according to the 2000 census.
But Johnson is an example of how the rising fortunes of the tribe are beginning to change the educational landscape for its young people.
Tribal officials say the high school graduation rate is inching up to nearly half of the
students on the reservation, and more students are making their way to college, encouraged by tribal investments in schools and scholarships.
American Indian enrollment at ASU has jumped 43 percent since 2001, according to university statistics. The university now enrolls more than 1,200 American Indian students.
Paying for college
For decades, education simply wasn’t a priority for the Gila River Indian Community.
Most students rarely looked at anything beyond a high school education and for some, even getting that far was too lofty a goal.
“So many of my friends just wanted to graduate junior high or get a GED and enter the work force,” said Kimi Serna, another community member who graduated from ASU in May. “They just saw themselves as getting a minimal education with no will or interest in going any further.”
Besides, there are always jobs at a casino or one of the reservation’s other large operations to fall back on.
“It’s easy to get a job at the casino with a high school diploma,” said Associate Judge Anthony Hill, who grew up on the Gila River reservation. “You can make a very comfortable living doing that. If you have an easy job waiting for you, why would you want to go on in education?”
Hill, who for the past four years has served as chairman for Gila River’s District 6 executive committee, said the tribe has begun to combat that mentality by providing direct funding to students who want to go to college. He knows because he was one of them.
The tribe paid for him to go to school as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona and then to law school at ASU.
The Gila River Tribal Education Department has set aside $7 million for college for its members -- a dramatic increase from the $400,000 of tribal money available in 1997.
Students who graduate from high school and gain acceptance to a college can get tuition, books and living expenses covered by the tribes.
But even with such a generous program, most of the tribes’ youth don’t go to college. Many of them are not even aware that Gila River offers a scholarship program.
“We know that we have to do a better job getting the word out,” said Gila River Tribal Education Department Coordinator Vanessa Girard. “We have to start making students aware, even at the primary grade levels, that if they want to go to college and get accepted to a university that there are several options available to help pay for it.”
Closing the communication gap is in the early stages, but it’s already yielding results, she said. The number of inquiries regarding scholarships, grants and financial aid at Gila River schools has doubled in the last two years.
The tribe’s investment in education goes well beyond funding college scholarships. It has turned into a mission for some in the community.
“This administration has made education its priority,” Girard said. “They know that educating our youth is one of the most important things we can do for the future of our community.”
It is also closely tied to the tribes’ economic development.
Money raised from the casinos and other tribal enterprises makes it possible to provide scholarships and improve education, said Myrtle Charles, an administrator for the Gila River Tribal Education Department.
An educated workforce is needed to make those enterprises viable.
“I think tribal government members realize that education must be an integral part of our economic development,” Charles said.
The education department has seven divisions, each with a focus on a different age group or grade level, beginning with early child care and continuing through high school and higher education.
One of the department’s goals is to make certain that every school on the reservation has the same focus.
“What we’re doing is unifying the schools,” Girard said. “We’re taking the 11 schools on the reservation and trying to put them on the same page.”
Over the past two years, the tribe has held several programs to get kids interested in higher education -- with surprising results.
Last September, the education department sponsored a wide-ranging educational conference at Sacaton Middle School for students and their families. More than 400 parents and their children turned out -- nearly double the number expected.
“We were thinking going into it that if we got 200 or maybe a little more to attend, that it would be a success,” Girard said. “I think it’s just a sign of how the attitudes about the importance of education are changing.”
Administrators from the 11 Gila River schools answered questions about their programs and the way they work together. But the biggest draws were the 30 career sessions and higher education workshops.
Prizes for attendance included all sorts of school supplies: backpacks, binders, pen and pencil sets and atlases, but it was the digital camera, the six graphing calculators and six laptops that everyone was gunning for.
“We knew that the high-tech stuff is what everyone wanted,” Girard said.
“Anything we could provide to help motivate people to attend was well worth it.”
Earlier last year, the education department brought in the Daimler-Chrysler Corp. for a workshop aimed at getting students interested in engineering. Workers showed students how cars are designed, built and assembled and even allowed students to do a little assembling of their own.
“Kids were able to come up and put together engines themselves,” Girard said.
“They got to learn about engineering and the types of cool jobs that an engineering background can get you.”
Encouragement for students is coming from more than the tribal government.
For example, Cesar Chavez High School, where most Gila River students attend high school, has had a team of advisers in place specifically for Native American students ever since it opened in 1999.
“The district recognized years ago that the wishes and concerns of Native American students were not being properly addressed,” said Corrina Pino, who grew up on the Gila River reservation and who now heads the Native American advising program at Cesar Chavez.
Advisers provide individual counseling for the 150 Gila River students as well as other Native American students who attend the school. They understand the culture and the problems the students face, Pino said.
For example, many of the students simply don’t believe they can afford college. They don’t know what aid is available or how to navigate complex federal loan or college aid applications processes.
Serna saw the problems first hand.
“So many of the teachers and administrators at our schools weren’t tribal, so they just weren’t aware of how little reservation students knew about getting into and paying for even a junior college, much less a big university like ASU,” she said.
“Either that or they just didn’t care.
“They couldn’t relate to our particular needs and didn’t realize that most students needed to be taken from square one and guided through the entire process.”
Johnson said that if it weren’t for the Native American Counseling Center at Cesar Chavez, she probably wouldn’t be considering college at all.
“When I got to high school, I didn’t know how to even start the process of preparing for college,” she said. “The center helped me so much in taking me through everything step by step.”
Pino said that Samantha is an example of someone “who despite how bright she is, probably wouldn’t have gone to college 10 years ago. The financial and instructional resources just wouldn’t have been in place for her yet.”
Sometimes, the problems Native students face are even more fundamental – like getting to school at all.
With only one high school on the reservation, more than 80 percent of high school students go to schools off the reservation, and getting there can be a formidable task.
The Gila River Indian Community covers almost 600 square miles and two counties, and most of the homes are deeply embedded in the interior of the reservation. Many students live 10 miles or more away from the nearest bus stop.
“Common conveniences that most people take for granted, like being able to take a bus or get a ride to school, just weren’t an option for a lot of us,” Serna said. “A lot of kids I knew lived deep in the woods and had no idea where to go or how far they had to go to even catch a bus.”
The difficulties lead to attendance problems for some students. Just this past school year alone, the number of Gila River students enrolled at Cesar Chavez dropped from 205 to 150 due to attendance and discipline problems, school officials said.
Joshua Gomez managed to avoid being among that number, but just barely. His spotty attendance record and other problems meant he had to repeat his senior year if he wanted to graduate. (Has he graduated yet? Need to update his situation).
This past year seemed to be a turning point for Gomez. He joined the Phoenix Union High School District’s Hoop of Learning program, designed to encourage Native American students to attend Maricopa County Community College. Students are offered help paying for tuition, books and school supplies.
He hopes to attend South Mountain Community College to study culinary arts. He’s thinking about trying out for the college football and basketball teams.
Gomez has always loved spots, but his grade-point average was never high enough to allow him to play in high school.
“I actually did OK when I was actually at school,” Gomez said. “I just couldn’t make it or didn’t want to make it.”
His mother’s drinking problems meant he frequently was left in charge of a young cousin, he said.
“I couldn’t leave my cousin home alone and a lot of the time, there was nobody else to watch him,” Gomez said. “There were other days when I could’ve gone to school and I didn’t see the point because I missed so much time already.
“I wasn’t really motivated to finish.”
Pino first met Josh early in his sophomore year; she immediately recognized him as a challenge.
“I knew that it would take a lot to get him on track,” Pino said. “I think he thought it was too late to aspire for anything beyond high school.”
Pino started by convincing Gomez to come to school and bring his grades up enough to qualify for the Hoop of Learning program.
“Josh is a prime example of how it’s never too late to get your education,” Pino said. “I keep telling these kids that they are the future of our nation and that a generation of Gila River members with an education will be the best thing that ever happened to our development.”
For Gomez, at least, it made a difference. “Without Ms. Pino always telling me not to quit and not to give up, I probably would’ve by now,” he said.