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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Indian School Tries To Close Gap Academy Strives To Mix Heritage With Education

When Ch’n’na Allen teaches American Indian students the art of storytelling, he apologizes.

He’s sorry, he tells the teenagers, that they didn’t learn these skills earlier in life. He wishes someone had been there to pass them along.

“I’m sorry for the way things turned out, that we have that gap in our Indian culture.”

But, he adds, they must still learn to tell their own stories. “If you don’t have that role model, that elder to teach you, then you get off your rear end and teach yourself.”

Allen is trying to span the culture gap through his teaching at the Medicine Wheel Academy, Spokane School District 81’s new magnet school for Indian students. It’s a gap he believes is growing, especially among urban children who live worlds away from reservations and extended family.

Allen is also tackling an academic chasm. The school opened last fall in response to statistics showing Native American students drop out of school three times more often than other Spokane kids. They’re disciplined more often and miss far more school.

But what if those kids attend a school run by other Native Americans? An academy where they study their heritage along with conventional lessons, where they’re taught to take pride in their culture? Would that keep them in school?

The answer isn’t clear yet. So far, half the academy’s original students have quit school or gone on to other programs.

“This is Year One,” says Larry Parsons, the district administrator overseeing the $192,000 program. “We really don’t know if it’s going to be successful. We have to wait and see.”

School board members will decide this spring whether to continue the program.

Since September, Allen and a handful of other educators have been trying to transform the west wing of the Bancroft Center in north Spokane into a school where Indian students thrive. It’s a place where urban meets tradition, where elders teach drumming to kids raised on rap.

Teens pair Jimi Hendrix T-shirts with arrowhead necklaces, and startled visitors mistake sweetgrass smoldering in shells for marijuana.

Newcomers realize right away this isn’t your average school. Bells don’t ring. Teens don’t clog halls between classes like rush-hour traffic. There are no textbooks on the round tables used as desks.

The 23 students in grades seven through 12 begin their days in talking circles, where they cluster in resin chairs and discuss everything from school dances to domestic violence.

They return to the circle after lunch, when the school’s half-time counselor, Mike Folsom, passes a multicolored “talking stick” to students wishing to speak.

The kids have plenty to talk about. Most of them have soap-opera backgrounds that may include drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, foster homes and frequent moves, educators say.

One girl hadn’t stepped foot in a school for three years. Many - if they make it to graduation - will be the first in their family to earn a high school diploma.

During a recent art class, several students casually compare stories as they smear paint on canvas.

“I got hit with a branch, a pot, a frying pan,” says a boy, talking about his mom’s sudden bursts of anger. “I got hit with a shoe, a spatula, a wooden spoon, a cutting board. Any kitchen utensil, man, I’ve been hit with it. She threw a jar at me once, and I dodged it.”

Classes themselves are anything but routine.

Teacher Mike Page’s sessions combine history, geography and current events. In the same hour, students discuss Spokane’s hepatitis outbreak, President Clinton’s alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky and Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of their homeland.

In Allen’s sessions on teamwork, kids team up to putt golf balls into paper lunch sacks.

And when teaching storytelling (others might call it speech), Allen calls for volunteers to practice public speaking. A minute ticks by.

“Why don’t you just call on someone?” suggests a boy.

Allen hurries to the blackboard, delighted someone asked. “LEARNING IS A CHOICE,” he writes, and sits down.

The students ponder that for a moment. Then, one by one, they walk to the front of the classroom.

The core academic subjects are covered at Medicine Wheel Academy and students need the same amount of credits to graduate. But a lesson seldom goes by without a dose of culture, too.

When 13-year-old Ladibug Gonzales takes her turn at storytelling, Allen suggests she talk about tradition.

“Since I’m Native American, tradition plays a big role in the way I grew up,” she begins. “We were taught to respect our elders. My friends make fun of me because I make time to spend with my grandmother.”

Teachers say Gonzales is the exception. Some students had never even attended a powwow. For many, their closest brush with their past was a summer Indian youth program.

“We’re losing our old people,” says Richard Roundstone, who teaches art classes with his long braids wrapped in red ribbon. “They’re taking with them a lot of our history, stories.”

Roundstone routinely infuses culture into art. He begins sessions by mixing dried sweetgrass, cedar and sage in a seashell.

He borrows a cigarette lighter from a student, then burns the herbs like incense, a practice called smudging. He pulls from a Bugles snack box a fan made with winter hawk tail feathers to circulate the smoke.

The teenagers know his story by now: The smoke protects them from harmful outside influences, clears their minds and helps them learn.

“A lot of healing goes on here,” Roundstone says. “We do have an identity crisis going on. I’m trying to give them something to identify with.”

When a new student draws a teepee, he takes her pencil and explains why the flaps should hang lower. He launches into a mini-lesson on the mechanics of teepee raising.

“The teepee, she can only picture it,” he says later, smiling. “Now maybe she’ll start participating in erecting one, knowing how to put it together.”

Another art student, 16-year-old Tara Dowd, reads about her Eskimo heritage from a book called “Inuit Women Artists.”

Tara transferred from North Central High School, where kids called her “raw fish eater” and - despite good grades - she felt like an outsider.

When Medicine Wheel Academy accepted her application, she never looked back. “It was like a dream come true,” Tara says. “This is a family here. We know everybody’s story. We carry them when they need to be carried.”

Another student, 15-year-old Danny Garland, remembers teachers at former schools showing old Westerns starring good-guy cowboys and badguy Indians.

Maybe the teachers didn’t know he’s part Native American, Danny says, because his skin is so pale.

But here, kids know. “It opens me up,” he says. “It’s a part of my life that’s been missing.”

Apparently not all kids who enrolled shared that enthusiasm. The school has a steady flow of applicants. But 13 of the original 25 students have left.

Educators say four of the teenagers quit school altogether, four left to work on general equivalency diplomas, two went on to adult education programs, two returned to reservation schools, and one went to the Mead School District.

That’s a higher turnover rate than educators expected, even for an alternative school.

Parsons says he believes the turnover will level out.

“We’re asking a lot of kids who’ve had really bad experiences for 10 or 11 years in school, to be able to come and all of a sudden decide it’s wonderful,” he said.

Andy Lawson, principal at the 30-year-old American Indian Heritage School in Seattle, says Spokane’s turnover rate doesn’t surprise him.

“We have at least a 50 percent turnover every year. It’s not uncommon at all,” Lawson says.

“They’ll stay on the reservation for awhile, then move to the city, always looking for a better opportunity. Family difficulties cause students to be moved from family to family. That’s not unusual at all.”

Alisha Hillborn’s parents pulled her from the academy in January after she began arriving home late. Because Alisha, 13, lives outside District 81, she rode a city bus instead of a school bus to her Mead neighborhood. But sometimes, she hung out downtown with friends instead.

“It made me nervous,” says her mom, Sherri Hillborn, who lives in Mead. “I just wanted her closer to home where I could keep an eye on her.”

Alisha, who now attends a regular junior high, says she misses her Medicine Wheel teachers. “They loved you. Now at my new school, I don’t feel that anymore.”

Despite the high turnover, Medicine Wheel organizers feel like they’re making progress, but they say it’s too soon to tell how many dropouts the academy might prevent.

Page wants to continue accepting kids from both middle and high school. Allen, who will go on indefinite leave this month because of severe arthritis, thinks the academy should concentrate on middle school before including older kids.

“My best feedback is from the youngest level,” Allen says.

The school board will make the final decision this spring. But Parsons says he suspects the program will continue and grow.

Freshman Bevann Lane sees the school as an ongoing project, with rough spots that students and teachers will learn to smooth out. Kind of like the teepee she helped erect during a field trip to Cannon Park.

Until recently, connections with her heritage were sketchy in an abuse-filled childhood. When she first came to Medicine Wheel, she’d gravitate to the counselor’s office, where she cried and cried.

But Bevann says she’ll never forget that autumn day, when students laid long poles on the ground and together raised them toward the sky. The warmth, the bond she felt with her classmates, her ancestors.

“When you learn to raise a teepee, it connects you with everything,” says Bevann. “Teepees were our homes. That’s where babies were born, where new life was brought.

“A teepee is like building your life, putting it together piece by piece.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SCHOOL TIES The Medicine Wheel Academy, Spokane School District 81’s new magnet school for Indian students, opened last fall in response to statistics showing Native American students drop out of school three times more often than other Spokane kids.

This sidebar appeared with the story: SCHOOL TIES The Medicine Wheel Academy, Spokane School District 81’s new magnet school for Indian students, opened last fall in response to statistics showing Native American students drop out of school three times more often than other Spokane kids.

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