Specialized charter school provides desire to learn

Jessica Thompson

When 17-year-old Marc Smith left Minneapolis’ Northeast Middle School last year, he was hoping to escape the prejudice that ostracized him.
The Ojibwe Indian left public schools and sought refuge at a Dinkytown charter school — Heart of the Earth Center for American Indian Education. The school focuses on American Indian culture and history.
“I got in a lot of fights before because people would pick on me for being Indian,” Smith said. “Now I don’t feel out of place and I feel proud of my heritage. If I feel good about myself, then I do good in school.”
Smith’s story is common among the students at Heart of the Earth. Although some attend the school their entire lives, most transfer to the school because of harassment, biased curriculums or problems adjusting to public schools.
These problems led to the creation of the school, said Clyde Bellecourt, Heart of the Earth chairman .
“High dropout rates, incorrect curricula, and racism within the school system convinced us an alternative was necessary,” he said.
Bellecourt added the final push for the school’s creation came in 1972, when a local couple withdrew three boys from a public school because of racial harassment. When the parents refused to make the boys return to school, the court threatened to take the children away unless alternative schooling could be found.
This led to the Heart of the Earth’s founding by Bellecourt and University student Chuck Robertson.
Since its formation, the school has combatted extremely low levels of education among American Indians.
The 1990 U.S. Bureau of the Census report showed American Indians are among the least educated groups in the country. The report stated only two-thirds of all American Indians ages 25 and older graduate high school, compared with four-fifths of whites. Additionally, the percentage of American Indians in that age category who eventually graduated from college was less than half that of whites.
Heart of the Earth aims to empower American Indian youth through curricula emphasizing cultural pride.
The school features a “Circle Time,” during which students and staff gather for drumming, dancing, a pipe ceremony, prayers and song in Ojibwe and Lakota.
“As a spiritual people, we try to connect with who we are,” said Heart of the Earth executive director Chris Warren. “Circle Time is a time of self-reflection and reflection as a whole.”
Warren said his negative experiences at a predominantly white high school encouraged him to work within the community to promote Indian pride.
“The context in which Indians were discussed, such as battles and wars, made me feel kind of bad for who I was,” Warren said. “I wanted to be a cowboy.”
University instructor Neal McKay teaches Dakota language and said there is a connection between curriculum bias, self-esteem problems and high drop-out rates for American Indians.
“It is important for students to have healthy Indian people in the community to look upon as role models,” McKay said. “Traditional history classes have not provided this kind of positive encouragement.”
McKay said he also thinks many of the problems American Indian youths have in conventional school settings are a result of culturally based traits.
“Cultural differences are often perceived as problems,” McKay said. “For example, if an Indian student doesn’t look a teacher in the eye, the teacher may think they are lacking social skills, when it may just be a cultural difference.”
The school of 250 has a high population of at-risk students. Many have problems with drugs, poverty, mental health, homelessness, or the law, Warren said. He added the school often becomes a sanctuary for troubled students.
Heart of the Earth sophomore Nicole Barlow transferred to the school in 1998 and said her attendance has increased because of focused attention.
“I was pushed too hard before, and I never got one-on-one attention,” she said. “I almost never attended school. Now I go to school every day and my expectations of myself keep growing.”
Warren cites recent standardized tests as evidence of the school’s achievements. Last year, Heart of the Earth achieved the highest rating of all Minneapolis public schools for the 10th grade writing basic standardized test.
He added that of the 40 American Indians graduating from Minneapolis public schools in 1999, 26 were from Heart of the Earth.
Since Marc Smith transferred to the school, he has put himself back on track to graduate. His grades have improved and he says his interest in learning has increased.
Smith attributes his success to the school’s individual attention and American Indian environment.
“It is easier to fit in when I’m around others of my culture,” he said. “And I really like learning about Indian heritage.”
Following his 2002 graduation, Smith plans on going to college and studying computer technology.

Jessica Thompson welcomes comments at [email protected]