By Tyler Leeds

The Bulletin

A new study revealed for the first time how poorly tribal-enrolled students in Oregon perform in school compared with the state average and with American Indian students who are not tribal members.

In addition to poor performance on state tests, the study indicates that these students exhibit higher levels of chronic absenteeism and are overwhelmingly more likely to attend one of the state’s lowest-performing schools. The study was conducted by ECONorthwest and funded by a $71,000 grant from the Spirit Mountain Community Fund, the philanthropic organization of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. The study included students in the Burns Paiute, Cow Creek, Grand Ronde, Klamath, Siletz, Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes.

“Oregon is in the process of major education reform, and so it was time to take a real look at the state’s most vulnerable kids,” said Kathleen George, director of the Spirit Mountain Community Fund. “We now have a much better picture of a group in pretty desperate trouble. It’s very disheartening. But this group has largely been failed by our education system.”

One-third of tribal students were chronically absent, missing 10 percent or more school days. At the high school level, the rate of chronically absent students was even higher, reaching 43 percent. One-third of tribal students are also enrolled in schools ranked in the bottom 15 percent on state tests. In 2011, only 55 percent of tribal students graduated on time with a traditional diploma, while the state on-time graduation rate was 68 percent. Underlying all the data is the challenge of poverty — 75 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch.

“If the state’s 40-40-20 goal calls for everyone to graduate from high school, these kids are going to have to be helped,” said John Tapogna, president of ECONorthwest. “The system will not work if tribal student performance continues on this path, so this data will help us ask the right questions. How do we get the system to work for these students? How do we attract and engage this population, which is such a critical group for the state’s reforms?”

For the first time, the report offered a glimpse at how tribal students in Oregon perform compared with the relatively larger population of students identified by the state as “American Indian/Alaskan Native.” In Oregon Department of Education studies, there is no additional identification for tribal students beyond “American Indian/Alaskan Native,” though the study found 8 percent of tribal students are not even identified as such for an unknown reason.

Overall, tribal-enrolled students performed worse and had lower graduation rates than the general “American Indian/Alaska Native” population, according to the study.

“Because of how the state has been commingling data, it hasn’t been possible to track how tribal members are doing,” George said. “The practice has really masked how badly tribal students are faring. It’s important because these are really two different groups of kids in terms of where they live and how they self-identify. Having them separate will allow the state to better serve both groups.”

While the findings were overwhelming negative, Tapogna did point out one bright spot — in 2010 tribal students who graduated were more likely than the average Oregon graduate to enroll in postsecondary education, though the rate fell the following year to below the state average.

“Those that do make it across the stage are enrolling at a relatively high rate, which is promising for the future,” Tapogna said. “I would imagine tribal scholarships and outreach are playing a role, and I think looking at what is being done right in this area is a place to start for building future success.”

Glenna DeSouza, the planning principal for the currently under-construction K-8 Warm Springs school, said the study confirmed what she has observed among Warm Springs students.

“One of the concerns the data highlights is attendance, and I’ve been working to understand the reasons behind that here,” DeSouza said. “One plan we’re looking at is to bring the culture of the tribe back into the school. This is a new school being built on the reservation, and it will be a real community school that celebrates the culture around it.”

George speculated that a negative school environment facilitated the high absenteeism rates.

“Kids, like all people, spend time where they think they can be successful and valued,” she said. “Since these kids are so much more likely to go to failing schools, I think that is a major element of the attendance issue. Under these circumstances, how can they imagine school to be a place that will grant them a good future?”

George in part blamed the situation on what she saw as a prioritizing of troubled schools in urban areas over rural schools attended by tribal students.

“The government and large nonprofits focus their resources on our most populated areas, which has a logic to it, but we need to remember this practice excludes our rural, tribal students,” George said. “There isn’t a community of nonprofits to support the rural schools like there is in Portland. We need to be mindful of what the consequences will be of continuing to direct most of our resources to the most populous areas.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160,