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State Effort Looks to Boost Indian Grad Rates

Courtesy of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs

Colorado’s Commission of Indian Affairs is launching a new campaign today that aims to curb high drop-out rates among the state’s Native American students.  State officials know they face a challenge, as according to the most recent state figures, half of all native students in Colorado won’t finish high school.

Nevertheless, the campaign hopes to build on some earlier Indian education successes in Colorado, such as a law that requires that Native American history be taught in public schools.

"In the past, education for Indians meant a loss, rather than a gain," said Carol Harvey, executive secretary for the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. 

Harvey knows the obstacles facing native students first hand.  She says many kids come from homes where parents themselves dropped out of school.  An enrolled Navajo tribal member, Harvey's  own mother stopped attending school after third grade.  But she pushed her daughter and Harvey ended up getting advanced degrees, including a doctorate from the University of Denver. 

It's this kind of story she hopes more native students will hear while encouraging them to stay in school and celebrate their heritage.

"The message we’re trying to give is that education, tradition, history, culture, are not mutually exclusive," Harvey said from her office at the state capitol. "You can keep your history, you can keep your culture, you can keep your tradition alive at the same time you’re receiving an education." 

But it’s not just about motivating students to achieve and succeed, Harvey says. The campaign includes a push to better prepare all Colorado students for 2014, when state standardized testing will include quizzes on Native American history and civics.  There is also a proposal to allow the Ute language to be taught as an indigenous language for credit – as Denver Public Schools and schools in Cortez already offer credit for Navajo and Lakota.  The commission is currently evaluating whether the Colorado Department of Education can achieve this by administrative rulemaking, or whether a bill needs to be introduced in the 2012 Legislature. 

Lt Governor Joe Garcia will formally announce the new campaign at a public event that includes the opening of two art exhibits in the state capitol, Tuesday afternoon at three in the Lieutenant Governor's office. 

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.