Earl Sisto of Inglewood, who earned a degree in fine arts at UCLA, is too modestly Apache to suggest that his academic success was because of talent.
"A lot of my classmates were really intelligent kids, much more intelligent than I am," he recalls of the young Apaches and Papagos he went to school with in his native Arizona. "If they had had a higher education, I think they would have been much more advanced than I am. Something happens. Something breaks down along the way."
What so often happens is dropping out of school.
In 1980, only 55.5% of Indian adults had completed high school (in contrast to 66.5% of the general population). Without a diploma, many discover almost immediately, that there is less work, less money, less hope.
A recent study by UCLA estimates that a male dropout loses $266,000 in potential earnings over his lifetime, a woman $199,000.
Earlier this summer, a dozen members of half a dozen Indian tribes sat in a hushed classroom at the central office of the Indian Centers Inc., in downtown Los Angeles. Bent over workbooks, the men and women, all school dropouts of Indian descent, were silently trying to repair their interrupted educations.
Most were preparing for the General Education Development tests, standardized tests administered by the American Council on Education. These tests consist of multiple-choice questions in five broad subject areas: writing skills, social studies, science, reading skills, and mathematics.
Each year about 500,000 American and Canadian adults pass the tests and are awarded a high school equivalency credential. Every year about 300,000 fail.
Teacher Mary Mareno of Monterey Park explained that each student in her all-Indian class has specific academic deficiencies. Some need instruction and practice in math, some in reading comprehension. Once the individual's needs are determined, he begins to work on a personalized lesson plan.
"It's like the old-fashioned little red schoolhouse where there are all subjects and all grades," Mareno said, as she gestured toward the class, silent except for the almost audible crackle of concentration.
Whatever the reason for leaving school, the failure to graduate often feels like just that--a failure. An adult education specialist, Mareno said she is aware of the dignity of her students. They are not made to feel stupid. Sometimes even the teacher doesn't know the answer to a question.
According to Mareno, the students learn with the help of non-patronizing, adult-oriented instructional materials. Textbooks are free of childish illustrations. Examples and word problems are drawn from real or at least adult life. One math book, for example, instructs students to "look at this record of payments you are making for a rented car. How much is left to pay?"
Each student had come to the class by a different path.
Terence Miguel, 28, who is of O'odham, Comanche and Irish descent, completed his sophomore year at Venice High School, then moved to Arizona where he dropped out after a year at a reservation high school. He came to the Los Angeles Indian Center hoping to be trained as an electrician. After an employment counselor told Miguel about Mareno's course, he decided to pass his GED tests before putting himself on the job market.
"Most employers want that education," Miguel said, explaining why he was spending six hours a day, five days a week, boning up on science and social studies.
Asked why she was taking the course, Marion Franz, 55, said: "I decided it was about time."
Franz, who is Aleut, said she is a recovering alcoholic and saw the equivalency exams as part of an AA-encouraged commitment to "clean up the wreckage of the past." The class, she said, was part of her renewed effort to "do things right." After she has her equivalency credential, she said, she's going to get her typing speed back up to 60 words a minute.
Franz, who grew up in Northern California, said she left high school after her sophomore year to get married. A diagnostic test at the beginning of the course indicated that Franz needed to study mathematics.
"I'm used to using a handy-dandy little calculator, and what I learned of math in high school 40 years ago I've forgotten," the handsome, white-haired woman said.
Vicki Preciado, 24, is a Shawnee from Oklahoma, who now lives, like Miguel and Franz, in Los Angeles.
Preciado quit Bell High School after her junior year.
'Tired of Moving'
"My family moved a lot," she recalled. "I got tired of moving from school to school so I dropped out."
Like many of her classmates, Preciado sees the GED tests as a ticket to more lucrative, more rewarding work--a career perhaps, instead of a job. Her 4-year-old daughter, Christine, is starting nursery school in the fall, and Preciado hopes to find a full-time position working with computers.
Preciado's diagnostic test showed that math was her stumbling block, no surprise to Vicki, who had hated the subject and failed it in high school.
As a teen-ager, she said, she suffered from math anxiety, fear and loathing of the word problem and geometry proof. Now, after working math problems day in and day out for two months, she has found she's much better at the subject than she had ever realized.
Miguel and Preciado took their GED tests on June 24.
A week later both learned that they had passed.