Fired After Improving Native School: Unsung Educator Deserves Better
After I wrote the last column about people who improved Indian school and got fired, I heard from some others who had the same thing happen to them. One of them was my good friend Don DeVon. After Don took the high school at White Swan, Washington to great heights, he was asked to leave.
Two-thirds of the students are Indian, from the Yakama Reservation. They are not rich; almost all of them qualify for the free or reduced lunch program. Their reservation grows thousands of tons of apples every year, but of course most of this money goes to the non-Indians who have control of the reservation lands.
I had visited that school district twice in the 1980s and 1990s. I could not believe what I saw. The first time there I was knocked out. Don had been there for several years, after working for almost 30 years as an educator before he got there. He had over 93 percent of the Native students going to college. He had already succeeded in having over 80 percent of the students graduate, in contrast to the statewide Indian graduation rate of only 50 percent. And 71 percent of the students were earning their degrees from college. Don was obviously doing a lot of things right.
The colleges and universities regularly made White Swan a stop on their recruiting tours—one of the few reservation high schools in the state that got this treatment.
The high school had started a Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program for grades six through 10. The Talent Search Program had been in existence for 10 years when I first visited. Both had achieved outstanding results. They also had a Global Technology program taught by Jerald Harris, a local tribal member who had earned a degree in engineering.
Two of the students from there, a brother and a sister, had gotten scholarships from my organization, Catching the Dream. Justin Jacob got his degree in math and came back home to teach it. After a few years he went back to college and got his master’s in mechanical engineering. His sister, Dr. Michelle Jacob, got her Ph.D. in sociology and teaches at the University of San Diego.
Before Don started in 1990, only eight percent of the Native graduates had enrolled in college. But he got them working, and all of his students had gotten into college with high grades and high ACT or SAT scores. It was a good thing, too, since Washington had eliminated its Affirmative Action policy for college admissions.
The program was also generating almost a half million dollars a year in scholarships and other college funding. The college students did not have to worry about having enough to pay for college, and had no worries about taking out loans. They did not have to look for jobs to pay their bills, either. They were highly successful. Members of other tribes were moving to Yakama so their children could attend White Swan.
In the 13 years between 1990 and 2003, the high school produced 272 college, university, and technical school graduates. Some 41 percent of them were Native, 38 percent were Anglo, 20 percent were Hispanic, and 1 percent were African American. Also, 36 graduates entered the military and 10 were graduated from Job Corps.
The superintendent was Dr. Joe Hoptowit, a Yakama tribal member and one of the first to earn a doctorate degree. Joe and the high school principal supported Don and his program to improve their high school.
But when Joe retired the next year, guess what happened to Don. The new principal and the new superintendent told him it was time for him to retire. Why they did this I don’t know, and neither does Don. These things are a great mystery to me.
They also did away with the GATE program and the Talent Search program. The only thing I can figure is that the new administration coming in thought the kids were just dumb Indians and could not learn—something that Don and his colleagues had already proven wrong.
The only other alternative I can think of is that there is a conspiracy among the non-Indian power brokers to keep Indians poor and ignorant so they can pay them below the minimum wage to make beadwork, jewelry, dig ditches, and do lawn care. I know the latter is a clear alternative in places like Gallup, Grants, Gordon, and my home, Robeson County, North Carolina. Our schools in Robeson County are getting worse instead of better. It frustrates me to no end. When can we ever get rid of these sorry people?
As a senator from South Carolina said before the start of the Civil War, without such people in slave positions, you could not have the great achievements of the white society to come forth. You must have the mudsills underneath you so you can build a society worthy of white people.
Do we have some Indian people who play along with that kind of thinking? Of course we do. We just need them to stop.
Don left White Swan immediately and went to Wellpinit, the best school in the state of Washington. It is located on the Spokane Indian Reservation. The superintendent there, Reid Riedlinger, picked Don up immediately. Don stayed there until he retired and moved home to Oroville.