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Bell High Experience of Young Hopi Reflects Hurdles in Indian Education

July 27, 1986|Patricia Ward Biederman

Linda Lomaintewa, one of hundreds of Hopis in greater Los Angeles, laughs uneasily when she recalls how close she came to dropping out of Bell High School.

Linda, now 18, would dutifully go to school in the morning, dump her books in her locker and then head right back out the door.

A favorite teacher was concerned enough to foil most of her attempts to ditch her classes. Her mother also pressured her to continue her education.

"She used to tell me that I better not drop out or she was going to ship me off to boarding school," Linda recalls, tossing back her straight, jet-black hair.

Her mother, Madeline Kaye Lomaintewa, grew up on the Hopi reservation in Keams Canyon, Ariz. Like many of her tribe, Mrs. Lomaintewa was educated at a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school that was as strictly run as a convent. (As to the threat, it was idle but effective, according to Mrs. Lomaintewa, who explains: "You have to keep the kids in line somehow. They're too big to send to their rooms.")

Long before a mainstream education was regarded as desirable in Indian circles, a few prescient leaders saw that Anglo learning could be an invaluable tool. The Navajo leader Manuelito advised his tribe a century ago: "We are like people trapped in a canyon. Education is the ladder. Take it."

But the ladder has been a shaky one for Indians. As recently as 1980 only 55.5% of Indian adults had finished high school, compared to 66.5% of the adult population as a whole. Statistics on college attendance are even bleaker. Only 7.7% of Indian adults had college degrees in 1980, compared to 16.2% of the adult population as a whole.

Linda Lomaintewa's experience is both hopeful and disturbing in what it suggests about the education of Indian students in Los Angeles today. Linda got her high school diploma, unlike her two older brothers, and she has begun taking courses at East Los Angeles Community College.

"My brother (who passed a high-school equivalency exam) and I are the first in our family to go to college," she says. "We're the first to go in who-knows-how-many generations."

But Linda was not a distinguished student in high school, and her college work so far has also been disappointing. "I have the potential, but my problem is letting my potential out," she says.

Linda wants to be a chemistry teacher and plans to transfer to UCLA to finish her undergraduate work. So far, however, she has dropped most of her community college courses, even such favorites as chemistry. She theorizes that she wasn't prepared for the permissiveness of college so soon after the wit-testing repression of high school.

"I had a jolly old time in high school, trying to get around the system. Then all this freedom hit me, and I couldn't handle it in the right way," she says.

Her mother, who is an education aide for the school district, says Linda had time-management problems in high school and was often distracted by outside interests, notably sports and a boyfriend. But Linda speculates that she was rebellious as well, resistant to the pressure to succeed that her mother and several teacher mentors put on her.

Linda grew up in Los Angeles. As a result, she didn't experience the culture shock that Indian children accustomed to the homogeneous classes and personal attention of reservation schools often experience when they transfer to a big urban school, according to Alicia Stevenson, the part-Penobscot director of the district's American Indian Education Commission.

But Bell, which has the largest Indian enrollment of any school in the Los Angeles district (43), is no academic paradise.

High Attrition Rate

A year-round school, Bell serves Bell, Maywood and Cudahy, among the poorest, most densely populated communities in the county. The school's attrition rate is 53.4%, eighth highest in the district. Three-quarters of the high schools in the district scored higher than Bell on the last California Assessment Program test for seniors.

Bell's Indian students form a tiny minority in a student body of 3,690 that is almost 90% Latino.

Linda, who now tutors Indian students at Bell and helps run the school's Indian club, says her alma mater suffers most from the non-academic orientation of many of its students and the unwillingness or inability of their parents to prod them into taking school seriously.

There are a number of fine teachers at Bell, she says, "but the school could be a lot better. Most of the kids just come to school because they have to. They don't come to learn."

In Linda's experience, being Indian complicates the academic experience. Her mother is a champion of education. But she is also Hopi. And as Linda explains, "in the Hopi way," moral and spiritual values are paramount. Being a good person is far more important than scholastic achievement.

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