Two of President Obama's Cabinet secretaries visited Pleasant Point on August 18 as part of a new initiative to reform the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) and improve the quality of education received by Native students in the U.S. During the visit, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan toured the Beatrice Rafferty School (BRS) to see first-hand the need for additional funding for a new school building. They also heard about the challenges faced by the Passamaquoddy Tribe, including high unemployment, and were asked to intercede on behalf of the tribe in its disputes with the State of Maine over the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act.
"It's the first time ever that a Department of the Interior secretary has come to Pleasant Point," points out Passamaquoddy Chief Clayton Cleaves of Sipayik, who says the visit took place because of the association of the tribal chiefs in Maine with President Obama, with the chiefs having met with the president four times to discuss the matters that hinder the tribes.
Interior Secretary Jewell noted that the president "is committed to making a difference in Indian country." Both the BIE and the Bureau of Indian Affairs are part of the Department of the Interior. Because the present system for Bureau of Indian Education schools "is not serving Native children well," she said, a study group was formed to figure out the challenges. BIE will no longer be a direct provider for education; instead, the schools will be run by the tribes. "We want to be a partner with the tribes," Jewell said.
Cleaves relates that the BIE "wants the tribal government to take the lead" both in delivering a quality education to students and in school construction. He noted, though, that the tribe needs help with relocating its tribal government building, which will be the site of the new replacement school.
During a meeting that the two secretaries had with tribal leaders, including Chief Cleaves and Chief Joseph Socobasin of Indian Township, Cleaves says he told them about the tribe's financial challenges and the tribe's disagreements with the state government. He related the difficulties the tribe has faced for the past 22 years in trying to obtain approval for a gaming facility, and he spoke about the tribe's efforts to maintain its saltwater fishing rights. "It's an inherent right. The tribe never relinquished its right to hunt and fish." Noting that the state has always decided how the 1980 settlement act with the tribe is to be defined, he said that the tribe needs to have the Department of the Interior intervene with the state on behalf of the tribe.
Cleaves says the main point of the tribal leaders' discussion with Jewell was how the department could help with job creation, and he noted that the tribe does not have funding that could be used as leverage for economic development initiatives.
During the tour of the 44-year-old Beatrice Rafferty School, Jewell noted that BRS is the only school in the BIE budget slated for replacement, but the funding needs to be approved by Congress. While $1 million in planning funding has been appropriated, construction funding has not, with the remaining estimated $17.5 million to be approved in stages. "Until we get a budget passed, we won't have money for the school," noted Jewell.
The school has faced a number of issues over the years, including water leaking into the building, which has caused mold, and problems with the roof, walls and foundation. The school also is crammed for space. In response to questions from Jewell and Duncan during the tour of the building, Principal Mike Chadwick related how the student population has been increasing, with enrollment jumping 30% to 125-130 in the past few years. The lower grades have around 25 students in them, and 33 Passamaquoddy students who live off the reservation are attending the school. Chadwick noted that the new school needs to be large enough also to accommodate the non-Native students who live on the reservation, with 27 attending BRS this past year. With a new school, he estimated that perhaps 15 or 20 more Passamaquoddy students from surrounding towns will be coming to attend BRS. Pointing out that there is no room to expand at the school's present location, Chadwick said that after two years there would be a need for another classroom.
Concerning high school drop-out rates, Maine Indian Education Superintendent Ron Jenkins said that the rate has improved dramatically, having been 46% 18 years ago and now being only about 5%. Chadwick added, "We don't have drop-outs; we have kids with a delayed continuing of their education." Education Secretary Duncan congratulated Chadwick and Jenkins on the reduction in the drop-out rates and on the stability of the leadership at the school. He also appreciated the focus on teaching the Native language and culture at the school. "That sounds fantastic. You don't see that everywhere," he said.
As for the impact of poverty and unemployment, which can be as high as 65% on the reservation, Chadwick observed that high unemployment extends throughout the county. He commented, "What goes on outside the school affects what goes on inside." He pointed out that the teachers speak with their students to ensure they are getting enough to eat or if there are any issues they are dealing with outside of school. The school also has the full support of the health center, which is next door, and tribal agencies.
The principal then added, "These are the most loving kids I have worked with in 41 years. They love to hug." He noted he had only six discipline issues during the past year and had not suspended a student for five years.
Along with a tour of the building, Jewell and Duncan met with school board members, parents and youth, and they also stopped by the youth and recreation building, where Duncan gave a motivational talk to the youth. Duncan, who played professional basketball in Australia and is a former co-captain of Harvard's basketball team, also conducted some basketball drills with them.
Reform plan outlined
Concerning the educational reform initiative for BIE schools, Jewell says the decentralizing of the administration will allow for the challenges at different schools to be addressed individually. While Beatrice Rafferty School is facing challenges caused by the facility, other schools face teacher shortages or issues caused by their remoteness. "We're trying to understand the resources of each district," she said.
In 2013, Jewell and Duncan convened an American Indian Education Study Group to assess systemic issues within BIE‑funded schools C one of the lowest performing sets of schools in the country -- and to propose a comprehensive plan for reform to ensure all students attending BIE‑funded schools receive high quality education. The Departments of Education and the Interior are now working together to act on the group's recommendations.
Based on the recommendation contained in a Blueprint for Reform issued in June, Secretary Jewell has issued a Secretarial Order that will redesign the BIE from a direct provider of education into an innovative organization that will serve as a capacity‑builder and service‑provider to tribes with BIE‑funded schools.
The Secretarial Order outlines a two‑phase process to restructure and redesign the BIE over the 2014‑2015 and 2015‑2016 school years. The first phase will improve responsiveness of BIE operational support to schools, including establishing a School Operations Division that will focus on teacher and principal recruitment, acquisition and grants, school facilities and educational technology. An Office of Sovereignty and Indian Education will be established to support tribal sovereignty by building the capacity of tribes to operate high performing schools and allowing tribes to shape what their children learn about their tribes, language and culture.
The second phase will focus on improving performance of individual schools through School Support Solutions Teams. The teams will work with individual schools and tribes to help maximize school performance, including "cradle to the classroom" assistance with services such as prenatal care, early literacy, children's health care and counseling.