Inside a double-wide trailer on the Warm Springs reservation in central Oregon, nearly two dozen American Indian high-school students sit facing computers, teaching themselves math and history. Rain slaps the roof. Ear buds dangle from one girl’s left ear. Two more students whisper, sharing a joke. Still another student, his face set in a serious expression, stares at the screen before him. The one teacher in the room previously taught third grade; he’s certified to teach high-school continuing education and agricultural science. Nearly all of the young people who study in this trailer—officially called the Bridges Career and Technical High School at Warm Springs—are Native Americans. Bridges is a public school, created as an alternative for teens who aren’t on track to graduate, or who have been repeatedly suspended or expelled from the large, diverse high school in the town of Madras—“up there,” as the residents of the reservation call it.
Here in the Jefferson County 509J School District, more than a third of all American Indian students in sixth through 12th grades were suspended at least once during the 2015–16 school year, making them more than twice as likely to be suspended from school as their white peers. Native Americans make up one-third of the district’s student population but receive nearly two-thirds of the expulsions. They are the kids that the district has “thrown away,” said Dawn Smith, a former elementary-school teacher and administrator who worked for the district for nearly 30 years.
Savannah Holliday, a poised 18-year-old who lives on the Warm Springs reservation, was expelled in each year of middle school, once after fighting with another student who, Holliday said, called her a racial slur. After she was kicked out, Holliday’s only option was to attend virtual classes like those offered in the trailer at Warm Springs. The computer-taught lessons weren’t very engaging, Holliday said, and she still doesn’t understand many basic math concepts. “I missed out on a lot of learning opportunities. You were kind of on your own—they’d have people watching you, but sometimes, if we asked for help, they couldn’t help.” Many of her classmates who were suspended or expelled eventually dropped out of school altogether. When I asked Holliday if she could introduce me to some of them, she texted back: “Most of them are pregnant, parents, addicted to drugs, moved away or dead…so would be hard for me to contact them.”
Last year, less than two-thirds of the tribal members who were enrolled as seniors in the 509J School District graduated. Warm Springs Tribal Councilwoman Carina Miller, who graduated from the district in 2005, is concerned that Native students aren’t receiving an equal education. The administrators “don’t see us as people deserving the same sort of education and opportunities,” she said. Miller was suspended several times herself, once for swearing; a white student once called her a “prairie nigger.” As a student, she added, “I felt worthless—like I wasn’t worth the effort or patience to understand who I am and my history. This school district has failed us my entire lifetime, and it continues to do this today.”
Warm Springs is not an outlier in this. Across the country, American Indian and Alaska Native students are disciplined more than most other racial groups, and they have a dropout rate twice the national average, resulting in what academic experts call a nationwide “crisis” for Native students. Many tribal leaders and education experts say these dismal statistics reflect, at worst, overt discrimination—and, at best, the alienation that Native students feel in a school system that has few Native teachers overall as well as limited lessons on Native American history and culture. For decades, the US Congress has allocated money to enhance the learning opportunities for Native students, who are among the poorest in the nation. But that amount is steadily declining on a per-pupil basis, and there is little oversight of how the money is actually used.