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Out of Isolation and Onto the Internet by the Year 2000

October 2, 1998 - Havasupai Day School sits at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, pretty well isolated from the rest of the world. Rocky Ridge Day School, deep in the interior of the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, is so remote it can only receive radio telephone service. Many of the Native American children who go to these schools have no electricity in their homes. Their schools have electricity, but they certainly have no computers.

By the year 2000, can Havasupai and Rocky Ridge not only have computers, but be hooked up to the Internet? What about 183 other Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, serving more than 51,000 American Indian children, across 23 states on 63 reservations in the most isolated communities in America?

Federal workers taking part in Access Native America, one of Vice President Gore's 340 reinvention labs, think so. In fact, it's it's already happening. "Its all coming together, just as we envisioned," said William J. Mehojah, Deputy Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Office of Indian Education Programs (OIEP).

The goal is ambitious: Internet access in all 185 BIA-financed schools by the year 2000. Complications abound. Some school buildings are historic sites as much as 100 years old, situated within the confines of old calvary forts such as Ft. Apache in Arizona. Some schools have inadequate electricity. Few utility lines reach deep into Indian Country. Indeed, across Indian Country only 47% of households have telephone service according to the 1990 census.

It Started with a Technology Innovation Challenge Fund Grant The idea behind the Reinvention Laboratory began less than two years ago. A group of BIA-funded schools, with OIEP's help, received a Technology Innovation Challenge Fund from the U.S. Department of Education. The grant funded the 4Directions Project, which focuses on integrating both the Native American culture and technology into the children's education. Thus students maintain and learn their heritage, while gaining the technical tools to take full advantage of their future.

The tie to tradition is just as important as the technology. New York Times writer Pamela Mendels reported reactions of school administrators in a Cybertimes column on May 6, 1998. Mendels talked with Sherry S. Tubby, principal of Red Water School, a kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school of about 100 students in Carthage, Mississippi. According to Mendels, Tubby said her students sometimes feel ill at ease in the larger community because for many students, Choctaw, not English, is their first language. The Internet, she said, will enable her students to communicate with other Native American children who also speak an indigenous tongue. "We want to let our kids know of other kids just like them all over the United States."

Project schools are widely dispersed between La Push, Washington, on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula and Indian Island, in far eastern Maine. The Laguna Department of Education, 50 miles outside of Albuquerque, leads the project. The project's immediate need was assistance to connect to the Internet so that schools in the project could collaborate on curriculum development.

President Clinton: Connect Every School and Library to the Internet by the Year 2000

In a fortuitous turn of events, President Clinton in his January of 1997 State of the Union Address challenged America to connect every classroom and library the Internet by the year 2000. OIEP, which operates one of two Federal school systems under Federal jurisdiction (the other being the Department of Defense Education Activity), was determined to meet the President's challenge.

OIEP employees approached colleagues in the Department of the Interior for assistance. Interior's Office of Information Resources Management and OIEP developed a partnership. OIEP got a Class B license to develop its own domain name system (EDNET) within the Department of Interior backbone system. Through this arrangement, all schools within the BIA system could be connected. Interior's Wide-Area-Network manager, Bobby Swain, and USGS's circuit expert, Tim Lee, soon joined the effort.

Other Departmental partners caught OIEP's vision of bringing 21st Century technology to BIA schools. The department had never undertaken a project of this magnitude. The timeline was short and the bureaucratic hurdles were great. OIEP Director Joann Sebastian Morris decided that the (then) National Performance Review Reinvention Laboratory approach would help reach the goal. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Ms. Morris chartered the Access Native America Reinvention Laboratory in April of 1997.

Immediately a Project Team, consisting of OIEP employees, school and tribal representatives, came together to begin strategizing and planning. An infrastructure team also went to work to develop the implementation plan. The first school to be connected, Tiospa Zina Tribal School, in Agency Village, SD, came on-line shortly thereafter. Things moved quickly. In October of 1997, an Access Native America Technology Conference took place at the Chief Leschi School in Puyallup, Washington, to expose school leaders to cutting edge applications of technology in school settings.

Access Native America NetDay Was a Day to Celebrate

One burst of energy, Access Native America NetDay, began in January 1998 and culminated in a celebration on May 16. Project partners wired and connected 28 schools in 107 days. During that same time, contractors under the watchful eyes of OIEP employees, Jim Roubidoux and Jim Issues, bid, competed, and completed the cabling of schools on the Navajo Nation of Arizona, the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota, the Choctaw Reservation in Mississippi, and various pueblos in New Mexico.

On NetDay the schools were provided T-1 access and participated in joint activities, such as on-line chats, and web page sharing. Assistant Secretary - Indian Affairs, Kevin Gover, attended the event at Jemez Day School in the Jemez Pueblo of New Mexico. Other officials from the Office of Indian Education Programs and the U.S. Department of Education joined tribal leaders at four featured sites. Vice President Gore sent his best wishes in an online message.

For the Access Native America Net Day, OIEP's Peter Camp worked with partners from the University Texas and the University of Kansas to provide some on the ground assistance and training to teachers at the school level. In a short period of time, teachers learned to develop web pages so that Net Day schools could display information about their schools.

The issue of further teacher training looms large for the lab. Most BIA teachers have not had any comprehensive computer training. Few teachers at the schools have the skills needed to make full use of the Internet. Colleges are just beginning to provide classes to students teachers in the integration of technology into instruction. The Reinvention Laboratory will meet in October to develop recommendations for a systemwide training initiative.

Getting Results Native Amricans Care About

At this time, 108 of the 185 schools have been wired to the classroom level and 46 schools have actually been connected to EDNET. There remain numerous challenges to achieve full connectivity by the year 2000, not the least of which is the acquisition of circuits in these remote areas of the country. Lines are not always available. The lab is exploring other opportunities for connectivity, such as wireless and satellite.

Lab Leader Rodney Young is optimistic that the job can be done. He says, "The vision of connecting American Indian schools to the Internet is so exciting, it's hard not to get involved. You can't help yourself."

For More Information

For more information, contact Thomas W. Sweeney at (202) 219-4150.

Related Resources

Vice President Gore's E-Mail Message on Net Day

Bureau of Indian Affairs News Release

U.S. Program Wires Remote Native American Reservations - By Pamela Mendels, New York Times, May 6 1998

Developing Virtual Museums in Native American Schools: The 4Directions Project

Bureau of Indian Affairs, Office of Indian Education Programs

Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology

National Partnership for Reinventing Government Reinvention Labs