Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Scholars Get A Boost From New Program

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By: Brian Kehrl
Published: 08/12/11

 In an otherwise normal summer, Stephen Cabral would have been riding around on his bike, playing basketball at Attaquin Park, going for swims in Mashpee Pond to cool down, kicking around with his cousins and friends.

Keturah Peters would have been spending her summer in Mashpee, sitting around, hanging out with friends.

Instead, in what has been an exceptional summer for the two incoming 10th graders, they have been up at Regis College in Weston for the past five weeks, taking classes with a group of other Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe members and other Native American youths through a new program known as Native Tribal Scholars. Today is the final day of the residency program.

Funded by a $1.2 million federal grant, the program is aimed at preparing tribal youth for post-secondary education, providing culturally relevant academic courses, and teaching the high school students about tribal sovereignty and Native American history. The grant was provided to the tribe, the University of Massachusetts at Boston Institute for New England Native American Studies, and the Native American Indian Center of Boston. The vast majority of the nearly 40 summer participants are Mashpee tribe members.

Beyond preparing the students for college, though, the program is meant first to assure the students graduate high school, a need evidenced by the 48 percent high school graduation rate of Mashpee tribal youth, according to information provided by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council.

“If you look at it, we have a 52 percent failure rate...The educational system has not supported Native American children,” Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the tribal council, said in an interview this week. “This program is building a holistic model that is based around their life experience, so that education becomes a way of life...Talk about an identity boost, a cultural boost, right there in that college setting at Regis.”

In addition to the students attending classes and weekend field trips this summer, the program this fall will expand in number up to about 60 students, according to Gail A. Hill, director of the scholars program and a former Mashpee School District teacher. The program will also include tutoring, support in the college application process, cultural events, and monthly visits to colleges and workplaces through the school year.

The students receive a $150 stipend at the end of the summer session, a bonus funded by an individual donation separate from the federal grant, Ms. Hill said.

“Some of these students would have worked this summer. But because they decided to make a different choice and participate in this academic program, they will not be able to. It is a big sacrifice, and it says a lot about the student who is that dedicated and interested in this program to give up their summer,” Ms. Hill said.

The grant will fund the effort for four years, after which, if it proves successful, it may be endowed as a permanent program, according to Joshua L. Reid, lead instructor for Native Tribal Scholars and a history professor at UMass Boston. High school freshmen beginning the program this summer are hoped to stick with it throughout high school, with new participants joining as older students graduate.

The scholars effort is based on Upward Bound, a long-running program run through UMass Boston and other universities designed to promote college attendance for students from low-income families.

Graduation Rates
Tribe officials and a consultant contracted by the tribe to study educational attainment said the Native Tribal Scholars program addresses a need not being met by traditional schools.

The tribe’s graduation rate is far below local and state trends.

The 2010 four-year graduation rate for Mashpee High School, according to data from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is 79 percent.

The graduation rate for Native Americans at Mashpee High School in 2010 was 73 percent, according to the DESE.

The statewide, four-year graduation rate in 2010 for all students was 82 percent.

The statewide graduation rate for Native American students, including members of the Mashpee tribe and others, was 76 percent.

The scholars program is intended to address the achievement gap in several ways.

Toni Saunders, of the Sandwich- and Boston-based Associated Advocacy Center - Visions for the Future, who helped train teachers for the new program, said simply being on a college campus for a summer course can help expand the students’ horizons. “It makes you feel important and like you can accomplish this,” Ms. Saunders said. It gives them a taste of freedom, a sense of camaraderie, teaches different social skills, and provides a broader perspective to their lives on the Cape.

The courses are taught from a culturally relevant perspective, Dr. Reid said. So, for example, in the English class he taught this summer, the students read two novels, both about coming of age in indigenous cultures.

In one of the math classes, the students analyzed statistics from a public health study of the Mashpee tribe.

Another writing class asked students to look through US history textbooks to analyze where Native American history is acknowledged and left out, and then write a persuasive essay to the publisher explaining how the book should be changed, he said.

Mr. Cromwell said history books teach from the perspective of European Americans and the early colonists, a totally different perspective than what young tribe members hear from their parents and their tribal community.

“This is native-centric. So right off the bat you are feeling good because you are with other native children. You are comfortable. You fit in. And that knocks down a lot of the barrier challenges,” he said. “This program was formed by Native Americans for Native Americans.”

Ms. Saunders said that cultural relevance can be key to connecting the students to the class. “Before you go to school, there is your culture. When you get home from school, there is your culture,” she said. “So to remove their culture from education, which is what our education system did—they wanted to homogenize the classes—it erased the Native American culture,” she said.

“They need to learn in ways that are natural to them,” she said. “I believe if they had more native teachers in the schools, more native children would be graduating.”

Ms. Saunders, who is studying the records of Mashpee Wampanoag students that are struggling in schools and working with the students and their families to achieve better outcomes, said misdiagnoses of learning disabilities are a strong contributing factor in the low graduation rates.

Many of the students are dealing with “layers” of complicating issues at home, she said.

Mashpee schools do provide additional support to tribal youth. The Indian Education Program, funded through another federal grant, provides in-school and after-school assistance for tribe members.

And Mashpee teachers and administrators have said they are conscious of the town’s Native American population and heritage as they approach subjects like early American history. Sherman Alexie’s book about growing up on an Indian reservation in Washington state, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” is on the Mashpee High School summer reading list of 9th graders. It is also one of the two books read by Dr. Reid’s English class this summer.

Ms. Hill, though, said the school system leaves most of its academic support for tribal youth up to the Indian education program, which she said is not enough. “The school has to step up to the plate a little more, offer more services, take accountability for what is going on with our children,” she said. The Indian education program needs more funding to be able to provide a broader range of social and educational services, she said.

The scholars program must focus not just on academics, but also on involving parents, for example, Ms. Hill said. The parents are kept in close touch and provided with regular progress updates. “If the parents don’t think it is a good idea to be here, neither will the students,” she said.

So far, the response has been strong, she said. “We got more than the numbers we needed,” she said. “Lots of parents have really stepped up with this.”

Similar Goals For A Diverse Group
Dr. Reid said it is crucial to engage students from a range of academic backgrounds, not only high-achieving students but also those who are at risk of dropping out. “In my experience, even some of the students who have not been successful in high school, it is not because they are not smart enough to succeed. It is because they checked out at some point,” he said.

To be successful, the program must draw each of the students into the educational fold, he said.

He recalled the story of one female student who would have been headed into her senior year but has already dropped out of high school. She turned in a four-page essay for her literature class this summer, the longest piece she has ever written. It was well structured, coherent, and sharp, Dr. Reid said. “She is going back this fall to try and finish up [high school],” he said.

Keturah Peters, who is heading into her sophomore year at Mashpee High School, said she does well in school, with mostly As and Bs, and her family expects she will attend college. But the summer program has been a new opportunity to learn about subjects and gain new experiences that she would not otherwise.

And Stephen Cabral, the incoming 10th grader at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School in Harwich, said in an interview this week that he likes and does well in some of his classes at school, particularly math courses.

But he said he struggles with other classes. He failed his biology class this year, though the scholars program is helping him replace that lost credit for graduation.

He said he has been offered a job detailing automobiles by a family member, a prospect he said he is considering.

The summer program has been fun and full of new experiences but challenging, Stephen said. “Tribal sovereignty is the hardest class. Just understanding, what does sovereignty mean? Culturally, there are all sorts of different means, like economic and political, too,” he said. “I am learning new things, lots of stuff I didn’t know like new writing skills, and making new friends.”

Stephen said the experience has tied him more into school. “Because sometimes I feel like I really don’t want to do my homework. But I think when I go back I’ll be more dedicated to doing my homework and getting my work done.”

“Stephen is a great example of a burgeoning success story, I hope,” Dr. Reid said. The car business job is a lure, but Dr. Reid said that through Native Tribal Scholars, they hope he will be on course to improve his grades in high school. “With those grades, when he sees he can do well in school, we hope he will come back next year and soon he will start thinking about college.”

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