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Seattle's Indian Education Program Misses Out On Federal Funds

Carolyn Beeler
05/20/2010

Seattle Public Schools is facing a $31 million budget gap next year. At a time when the district is making tough choices about what to cut, it lost out on a chunk of money it's been getting from the federal government for years. This winter it missed the deadline for a grant that funds about half of the district's Indian Education Program.

TRANSCRIPT

Kelly: "I can't imagine that somebody would fail at that magnitude. It is the most preventable blunder that anyone could do in managing such a program."

That's Seattle parent Sarah Kelly. The district is giving $82,000 from its own budget to help make up for the lost federal funds. But that's only about a third of what the program got from the government last year.

Eleven–year–old Tristan Valdez is snacking on chips and oranges. He's finishing his homework at an afterschool program for native kids in North Seattle. His teacher Jill Duff is helping him out.

Duff: "When faced with hmm, he ran for... when faced with..."

Valdez:"Danger?"

Duff: "Yes! That sounds good!"

There's traditional grass dance regalia hanging by the wall that Duff says will be packed up and put into storage at the end of the year. Same with the buffalo and elk skulls. The artifacts might come back out next year. But Jill Duff will definitely be gone.

Instructors like her with the Huchoosedah Indian Education Program tutor kids, serve as advocates for native students and parents, and help run cultural events around the district.

Three out of four instructors with the program were told last month that they're out of jobs next year.

The district is trying to figure out if it will be able to offer programming in North Seattle with its limited funding. But Duff is under the impression that the afterschool program will disappear when she leaves.

Beeler: "What was your reaction when you found out there wouldn't be Title 7 funding next year?"

Duff: "I was shocked, I was absolutely shocked."

It's a sunny afternoon and most of the kids have finished their homework, so Duff takes them outside to the playground.

Duff: "A lot of these guys come from very traditional classroom, so when they come to us and we get to do things in a circle or things in a park, it really helps for them to see, to make sense of what they're learning in the classroom. We can do multiplication with rocks or woodchips, and they're hands on, they can see it and feel it and understand it."

Duff also holds weekly culture lessons to teach kids things like leatherwork and beading, things they don't learn during the school day. As we walk back to the school from the playground, Tristan Valdez says that's what he would miss about the afterschool program if it's discontinued.

Valdez: "It makes me feel kinda sad because this place is really fun."

Beeler: "What does this afterschool program mean to you?"

Valdez: "It means like getting closer to my heritage because I like to make stuff that my ancestors made."

His cousin is Olivia Fox. She's 10. [She's heard rumors that the program might not be around next year.]

Olivia Fox: "It makes me feel really sad. I want it to stay but I can't change the people's mind."

Olivia's mom Tina Fox is waiting at the school to pick her up. She remembers the field trips she used to take with native kids from schools across the district when she was a student in Seattle Public Schools.

Tina Fox: "I felt so isolated in such a large urban area where all of us are spread throughout Seattle so for us to have field trips where we could get together with other kids who were like us was very important. Now knowing that that's not happening is very concerning to me."

Fox is one of the moms who formed a parent advisory committee this spring to help oversee Indian Education Program. Last week the parents met with Arlie Neskahi, the program manager who missed the grant application deadline. The tension between parents and the manager was obvious. Fox was at that meeting.

Tina Fox: "The parents are definitely trying to make sure that Arlie is being accountable and responsible for his job duties instead of passing the buck which seems to be what is going on, and it's really disappointing."

The school district says there will be increased oversight on grant compliance next year. And it says it's committed to serving all students, including native students. Which is why they kicked in extra district funds to help pay for the program next year.

But Sarah Kelly, the president of the parent committee, says trust levels between the community and the district are at an all–time low. She sees this missed deadline as just another example of the district's declining commitment to native education.

Kelly: "It's disintegrated to the point where there is no Indian education in Seattle Public Schools. I wouldn't be putting in the kind of effort that I am if Seattle Public Schools was doing base level effort."

There's a chance the school will get leftover federal funds after all the schools who applied on time get their money. And the district will have a chance to apply for the grant again next year.

In the meantime, the program coordinator and one certified teacher will remain to serve the district's more than 800 kids. The district plans to hire two part–time coordinators to fill the staffing gap with the slashed budget.

For KUOW News, I'm Carolyn Beeler

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