ALLISON AUBREY, HOST:
Arne Duncan, the former secretary of education, once described the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education as, quote, "the epitome of broken." The federal school system has been around in some form for more than 150 years, and it's had problems since the start. Today the system serves 50,000 Native American kids and is infamous for crumbling infrastructure. But the bureau says a drastic change is underway. Carrie Jung from the member station KJZZ in Arizona has the story.
CARRIE JUNG, BYLINE: Every year, Delphine Gatewood dreads the winter in this mountaintop area of the Navajo Nation. She teaches special education at the Crystal Boarding School, where temperatures can dip into the negative digits. And the school building doesn't have a functioning heater.
DELPHINE GATEWOOD: You have a boiler system that regulates heat at one certain temperature, and you can't turn it down. And it gets so hot in the classroom that you have to open up windows, even in the dead of winter.
JUNG: Gatewood's three grandchildren are in kindergarten, first and fifth grades here. She says it's hard for them - and all of the children - to learn in conditions like this.
GATEWOOD: I mean, that's not good.
JUNG: The BIE estimates roughly a third of their school buildings are in poor condition. That's why it's pouring more money than ever into replacing some of its oldest schools. To fix all of them, officials believe it would take more than $1.3 billion. It's all part of something called the Blueprint for Reform, big changes the bureau says it's making at every level in the system.
For now, Gatewood says she can look beyond the quality of the building here because Crystal Boarding School offers something that state-run public schools on the reservation don't, immersive Navajo cultural education. Some days, traditional songs like this fill the hallways.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in a Navajo).
GATEWOOD: They like singing. I think that they also like dancing. They like to try to pronounce the words. And when they go home, they're asking - what does it mean?
JUNG: But it wasn't always this way. BIE schools like Crystal were once a place where Native American children were sent to learn the ways of mainstream culture - to assimilate.
DONALD FIXICO: To kill the Indian but save the man within each child.
JUNG: Donald Fixico is a historian with Arizona State University.
FIXICO: And it was really to kind of save the Indian child but to forgo all tribal culture and old ways, and especially the languages spoken by the kids.
JUNG: That was the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today BIE is a very different place.
FIXICO: Now native people are in control of the schools. They're in control of the curriculum, how it develops and what needs to be taught, supplying their own instructors - everything. It's a different ballgame altogether.
JUNG: Starting in the 1970s, tribes were allowed by law to play a larger role in setting school curriculum. But that didn't fix everything.
TONY DEARMAN: We needed to change the way that we were doing business.
JUNG: That's Tony Dearman, the new director of the BIE. That change he's talking about is the Blueprint for Reform. Consider this - right now, BIE fourth-graders are scoring about 22 points lower in reading and roughly 14 points lower in math than Native American students in public schools.
DEARMAN: You know, the system that we used to have in BIE, one-size-fits-all-the-tribal-nations - that's not realistic. That don't work.
JUNG: So the bureau says it's set out to make some major institutional changes. The goals are ambitious, including encouraging more tribes to take educational control of their schools and streamlining bureau processes. Dearman says they've got to do better because when kids go through school without learning what they need to, it limits economic opportunity throughout their lives.
ALBERTO CASTRUITA: I'm going to take you behind here to the playground, and we're going to the dorm. You see how dilapidated some of these things are?
JUNG: Back at Crystal Boarding School, the principal, Alberto Castruita, says the first major signs of the reform effort will be in the form of a new school building. That means new dorms and no more faulty boiler. And he says the reforms also mean he can spend more time focusing on student education and less time trying to fix this 85-year-old facility. But all of these changes haven't come without their share of controversy. And many are skeptical the reform efforts will make any real difference in student performance.
Again, special education teacher Delphine Gatewood.
GATEWOOD: We hear about it. You know, we hear about that transition happening. When it's going to happen, of course, you know, it's just all a waiting game, if you want to call it, now (laughter).
JUNG: She says, for the sake of her grandchildren, she is hoping for the best.
For NPR News, I'm Carrie Jung reporting from the Navajo Nation.
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