It Takes a Tribe

A tiny Indian community struggles to educate its young

She sounded off about the district's disciplinary policy that suspends Fort McDowell children who are tardy or cutting class.

"I laughed when I heard that," she says. "I said, You are rewarding them for their behavior. Instead of making them complete their assignments, you are telling them they don't have to go to school.'"

Torres offers reassurance, advice, encouragement to parents and their children on a daily basis.

Arianna Dorchester, 5, a graduate of the Fort McDowell kindergarten class, is the pride of her mother, Jessica.
Erik Guzowski
Arianna Dorchester, 5, a graduate of the Fort McDowell kindergarten class, is the pride of her mother, Jessica.
Arianna in her cap and gown.
Erik Guzowski
Arianna in her cap and gown.

One day while walking through the tribal office complex, she said hello to a father, then told him how well his daughter was doing in 'Hman 'shawa.

On another day, a call came in from the mother of Ian, a fourth-grader who had completed third grade at 'Hman 'shawa the previous spring.

A smart boy, who wore Pokémon shirts and a long braid down his back, Ian had won a perfect attendance award — and a new bicycle as a prize — that year.

Before he left, Ian promised Torres he would graduate from high school.

"I told him I will look forward to it," she says. "And I will be there."

She also asked him to keep in touch, to let her know how he was doing at his new, larger, off-reservation school.

His mother called that day at Ian's request. He wanted to let Torres know he was doing well, he was thinking about her and he missed her.

At Fort McDowell, the 'Hman 'shawa school bus comes to each child's house.

Each morning last school year, while 4-year-old Lucy Sanchez waited for a ride to preschool, she and her grandmother would pass the time reading books together.

Brenda Jones, Lucy's grandma (and Jayson Jones' aunt), said it became an enjoyable routine, one spurred by a reading incentive program at the 'Hman 'shawa school that rewarded children for how many books they read during the year. (The prize — one free book for every five read.)

Lucy loves Bible stories and books about bugs. And so that is what her grandmother read to her. Day after day.

During "Turn Off Your TV" week — a national effort that hasn't really caught on among the rest of the population — Jones heeded the suggestion made in a note sent home from preschool. She turned off the television.

And she and Lucy passed the extra time reading more books — about 25 a day.

Still, when Lucy won the top reading award at the 'Hman 'shawa preschool graduation ceremony this year, Jones was shocked to hear that they had logged 950 books.

"I had no idea it was that many!" she said.

Lucy, a shy child, won a $100 gift certificate from Toys "R" Us and a gift sack full of more prizes just for making it through preschool. "Look!" she said as she pulled out color crayons, a coloring book and a hardbound collection of classic stories.

Last year, 4-year-old Makea Carmelo-Preston earned the top preschool reading award and received a trophy almost as big as her. She and her mom had read 645 books.

Wearing braided pigtails and dressed in a Mickey Mouse outfit, Makea said she prefers stories about teddy bears and ghosts. Her mother, Roann Carmelo, says Makea was inspired by the school's incentive program and kept wanting to go to the library to look for new books.

An avid reader herself, Carmelo said she even reads at home to her 18-month-old nephew.

These top achievers — and other preschoolers who won awards for reading hundreds of books — show the tribe's new education efforts are paying off. Programs designed to engage parents and grandparents in their children's education — and help them get an early jump on academic achievement — are doing just that.

Passing out generous gift certificates and huge trophies help the tribe make a very public point. Such educational accomplishments — along with nearly every imaginable smaller one — need to be rewarded, tribal officials believe, so that the children and adults will continue their efforts.

Fort McDowell's year-round program of school celebrations, incentives and rewards is a calculated part of the grand new educational plan.

Here is the philosophy:

Children need to be encouraged every step of the way, to know that their teachers, their tribe and their community are behind them. Parents, grandparents and other community members need to outwardly show their support for these young learners. And those supporters also need to be recognized so they will continue to back the tribe's efforts.

And so during the school year, the tribe passes out special 'Hman 'shawa pencils for good behavior, features lists of Star Students on the walls of the lunchroom and even rewards parents with prizes if their children show improvements in their behavior, grades or attendance.

At year's end, the school makes a big deal of the preschool, prekindergarten and kindergarten graduations and holds awards ceremonies for its first, second and third graders. Everyone gets not only a diploma or certificate, but a medal selected just for him or her: "Best Math Student" or "Best Art Student" for the older kids. "Outstanding Achievement in Coloring," "Most Athletic" and "Best Improvement in Expressing Himself" for the preschoolers. The teachers find a good quality in each child, something to celebrate. This year, a boy who liked to wander all over the classroom earned a "Best Explorer" award.

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