By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Two years ago, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation began its program to turn around a horrible educational record and strengthen its community.
Since then, New Times has been monitoring these wide-ranging efforts, visiting classrooms and homework laboratories, eating in the school cafeteria and attending graduation and awards ceremonies, visiting homes and tribal offices, and interviewing dozens of students, teachers, parents, tribal elders, education officials and tribal authorities.
Is it working? Can a community armed with the best intentions and plenty of money essentially reinvent itself, stressing education as the key to cure problems that have plagued it for generations?
"Definitely," says tribal president Clinton Pattea.
He says the new policy of tracking every student is showing results.
"We've shown tremendous improvement in the last year or two," he says.
Everywhere, there is evidence to support what he says, signs that these new tactics are beginning to pay off.
This year, more Fort McDowell high school students than ever graduated. That's only 14 kids, but it's a tribal record and represents 52 percent of those eligible to graduate this year. Last year, there were 13 high school graduates, less than half of those eligible.
Attendance at the expanded summer programs for kids age 3 and up as well as spring and winter break sessions has reached record levels. The programs combine fun and recreation with academic instruction, character-building exercises, career exploration and cultural instruction.
Many students are leaving the 'Hman 'shawa tribal school well prepared for any public school. Several third-grade graduates have been placed in gifted fourth-grade programs. And kindergartners who have started first grade in the Mesa Public Schools District are so advanced that teachers paid Fort McDowell's tribal school a visit to observe and learn from its kindergarten programs.
An incentive reading program that begins at the tribe's preschool class is yielding results. Students as young as 3 years old are finishing hundreds of books a year, earning new books as prizes and big rewards at the end of the year. The tribe's librarian says she has seen a marked improvement in the boys' and girls' attention span and comprehension.
A pilot program to help save the endangered Yavapai language by teaching it at the elementary school level is showing some results. The youngest children are speaking basic Yavapai words and songs. The third-graders are sprinkling their school work with Yavapai phrases and simple sentences. Studies say Indian children who are well-grounded in their culture and language have a better chance at academic success.
Throughout the community, there are palpable signs of an underlying theme: Education is vital. The tribe will honor and assist those children who attend school, try their best, and go on to high school, college and beyond. And leaders will create and amend whatever social programs are needed to help youth and adults reach their potential.