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Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2008 | Less than a mile from a glittering Harrah’s casino, impressive against the stone-stippled mountains, Teleeya Standing Water corrals children into a tiny gray trailer labeled “Rincon Indian Education Center.”

She is only 21, but she remembers the past ruefully. As a child, she came to this same program, held in an even smaller trailer. Back then, she says, elders taught her the Luiseno tongue, and weekly field trips ferried them to college campuses, far from the reservations fringing San Diego.

Today, the center’s budget has thinned, down to less than $170,000 last year. Years earlier, its budget volleyed between $200,000 and $450,000. Field trips have dwindled. Intertribal sports are out. Now, Standing Water pinches pennies, serves hot dogs as snacks, and teaches the culture classes herself.

“We’ve done the best we can with the little funds we have,” Standing Water said. After the casinos arrived, “I’ve seen quite a bit of change. The reservation has been cleaned up. But the education hasn’t.”

Paradoxes like this abound in the American Indian communities that fringe San Diego County. As tribal casinos multiply, educational problems persist, even in the shadow of the lucrative hotels. Gaming money has created new schisms between tribes and even within them, dividing the haves and have-nots.

Among the haves, casino money funds new scholarships and programs, but dissuades some newly wealthy students from school. Among the have-nots, poverty remains. Across income lines, many have inherited a deep distrust of schools, passed down from grandparents forced to cut their hair, live far from home in boarding schools, and never speak their native tongue.

Meanwhile, funding cuts threaten the federal programs that support American Indian students with a blend of tutoring and cultural teaching — programs that have seen scattered success, most notably in San Diego Unified, where urban American Indians struggle to find a sense of identity far from their tribes.

“People think, ‘Why do they need help?’” said Connie Grey Bull, job developer for the Indian Human Resource Center in San Diego. “But some of us aren’t from gaming tribes. We don’t have those resources.”

A Unique Federal Fund, Threatened By Cuts

While a small fraction of American Indian children go to federal schools formed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, most attend ordinary public schools. Under federal law, schools can apply for special funds earmarked to meet American Indian students’ unique academic and cultural needs, under a program first formed in 1972. Each California school that asks for Indian Education funds can receive nearly $200 per American Indian student.

Though other federal programs are targeted at specific youth — English learners or migrants, for example — the Indian Education program is the only federal education fund aimed at an ethnic group, said Justin Cunningham, small school district services coordinator for the San Diego County Office of Education.

A scattering of other grants provide additional support to American Indian students in the county, such as the federal Johnson O’Malley funds and grants from California state. Funding cuts have trimmed Indian educational programs each year, said Vickie Gambala, who oversees Indian Education programs in San Diego Unified schools. Gambala wonders aloud if the program will exist in 20 years, if the cuts don’t stop.

San Diego Unified received $81,394 from the Indian Education fund and $4,537 from Johnson O’Malley last year, used to support a tiny after-school program for American Indian students that pairs tutoring with cultural lessons in crafts and Native languages. The program celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. For urban American Indians such as Grey Bull, it instills a sense of identity, far from the reservations. As a child, she batted back guesses from other kids, trying to decode her facial features. To explain her ethnicity, she used the simplest phrase, one she hated: “Pilgrims and Indians.”

“I felt lost,” she said. “I didn’t know who I was, until I came to the Indian Education class.”

Now a mother, she sees her 7-year-old son struggling against the same pressures, isolated in his elementary school. Though San Diego was once a hub for American Indian migration, thanks to federal relocation programs of the 1960s, their numbers aren’t large. Less than 1 percent of San Diegans identify themselves as American Indian, descended from a panoply of different tribes.

“So many families moved here from the poorest reservations. They have nobody here,” Gambala said. “You have to survive on your own.”

Casino Money Has Mixed Impact on Education

As casinos crop up east of San Diego, money is flowing into some rural reservations. Nationwide, gaming tribes have seen greater improvement in college and high school graduation rates than non-gaming tribes, according to a 2000 Harvard University study. More scholarships are available to American Indian students, proffered by the casinos. But the gaming cash hasn’t reached all San Diego County tribes, nor has it benefited all members of each tribe, local educators say.

“The assumption that everybody’s getting wealthy off the casinos isn’t true,” said Danny Hernandez, a teacher at Oak Glen High School in the Valley Center-Pauma Unified School District who tutors American Indian students at the Rincon center. Due to budget cuts, he is now the only Valley Center-Pauma tutor on the reservations. Once, there were nine, he said.

Amid those gaps, educational needs persist. The casinos themselves bear costs, slimming what profits remain, said Ross Frank, associate professor and chair of the ethnic studies department at the University of California, San Diego. Tribes now act as municipal governments to the casinos, installing basic infrastructure that other communities take for granted, Frank said. Basic community needs also compete with education for each dollar, and though some tribes have invested in school programs or cultural centers, others have opted to spend money elsewhere — on roads, for example, or on direct checks to tribe members.

“When an impoverished community gets money, they think about now,” said Dwight Lomayesva, director of the American Indian Recruitment program, which introduces students to college campuses across San Diego. “They’re starting from ground zero.”

Casinos may also have an unexpected cost in student motivation. In some tribes, teens are paid as much or more than $5,000 a month once they turn 18. School suddenly seems irrelevant. Standing Water cites one middle school student who says “almost every day” that she’ll never have to work. At All Tribes American Indian Charter School, a tiny school on the Rincon reservation, senior year ends in January so that newly-flush teens won’t take off before graduation day.

“It’s the only negative thing I really see from gaming … How do I convince a child that turns 18, and all of a sudden they’re making $120,000 a year? How do I keep that kid in school for another six months?” asked Michelle Parada, co-developer of the school.

To keep students engaged, some tribes require a high school diploma to collect gaming money. Motivating American Indian students is already tough. Elders remember the checkered past of American Indian education, which forced them into boarding schools that trampled their culture. Randy Edmonds, founder of San Diego Unified’s program, recalls being forbidden to speak his tribal language at school. Mistrust lingers today, inherited by children and grandchildren.

“Education wasn’t an emphasis in our household,” Parada said. Her grandmother ran away from her Riverside boarding school, where girls were taught housekeeping; boys, agriculture. Her father had little use for school. “But you needed a C to play sports, so I worked for at least a C, to play sports.”

Other students come from families where college is an unknown, something distant and seemingly unreachable.

“It’s hard for people in our families to help us on that path,” said Tabitha Whipple, a junior at San Diego State University. She descends from the North Fork Mono Tribe, and grew up in Sacramento.

In the Rincon classrooms, tutor Xavier Delgado struggles to keep kids engaged. Five second graders jockey for attention, doodling on the dry-erase board, shouting, clambering over the desks. Their numbers have dwindled since the fall, when 20 students came. Around the corner, another tutor says he can’t persuade eighth graders to visit him.

“They weed out. They stop coming,” Delgado said, seeming exasperated. “It kicks in really bad around 4th or 5th grade, and it gets worse. … It’s the work ethic. If there isn’t anyone around to guide them, they tend to fall through the cracks.”

In San Diego, Unexplained Success on the Exit Exam

Yet amid the challenges, American Indian students have made some startling strides. Last year in San Diego Unified, American Indian students outperformed all other ethnic groups on the high school exit exam. Statewide, the district’s American Indian students passed the exam at higher rates than all but one other district.

Gauging the numbers’ meaning is difficult. Statisticians caution that student numbers are too small to make sweeping conclusions, with only 41 American Indian students taking the test last year. And some low-performing students may never take the exit exam: According to the last available data from San Diego Unified, American Indian students are more likely to drop out than white or Asian students, but less likely to do so than Latino or African American youth.

Gambala said no new programs had been introduced, nor methods changed, to explain the record scores.

Elsewhere, standardized tests tell a different story. In Valley Center-Pauma Unified, not far from the Rincon center, wide gaps persist between American Indian students with means, and those without. Over the past four years, only 46 percent of low-income American Indian students passed the exit exam, on average. Seventy-four percent of their wealthier counterparts made the grade.

Worried by the gaps, San Diego universities are reaching out to American Indian students. Lomayesva’s program shuttles American Indian kids to San Diego State, University of San Diego, California State University – San Marcos and the University of California, San Diego, where they meet other Native students and learn about admissions requirements. Frank cites the dramatic impact of educating even a few students in numerically small American Indian communities.

“A few MAs or Ph.Ds can make a big difference,” Frank said. “But the big catch-22 for the tribes is building capacity.” Tribes are suffering a brain drain, Frank said. It’s especially dire as tribes demand more and more skilled laborers to handle the booming casinos, their needs, and the revenue they produce. “As soon as you train folks, they take jobs elsewhere,” off the reservation.

One exception is Charles Standing Water, a Rincon Center volunteer tutor who is earning his degree at Palomar Community College. As a child, he went to the Rincon program after school, mainly because there was nothing else to do. He remembers it being “a little disorganized — people would just show up and fool around.”

“But I came here and saw the needs,” he said, glancing around the teen room, its fake wood paneling emblazoned with posters of long-haired men and women, words such as “Humility” and “Diversity.” Weathered textbooks on loan from the nearby school district line the shelves.

“Teleeya [Standing Water] said it can be different,” he said. “We can help kids.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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