"If you don't have a strong cultural identity, it becomes very hard to assimilate yourself into today's educational system," said Steven Trubow with Olympic Behavior Labs. "When this identity is put into doubt, it begins a cycle of disengagement."
Last school year, Utah public schools enrolled 7,716 American Indian students. Only 75 percent of those students graduated in 2007, compared with 88 percent of students statewide. Several other minority groups also had lower graduation rates than the state overall.
That's why the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, the state's Indian Education Office and the Utah State Office of Ethnic Affairs invited Trubow and others to speak Wednesday about why those percentages are low and what might be done about them. Trubow presented a program, the Dropout Early Warning System, created by Olympic Behavior Labs, Microsoft and The National Center for Dropout Prevention to help schools identify early on which students are at risk of dropping out.
The system allows educators to look at many different kinds of data about students to determine which are most at risk of dropping out. Trubow displayed a long list of factors including educational level of parents, attendance, GPA and discipline that can often help schools predict which students might one day drop out.
But he said one thing schools can do when it comes to minority students is to integrate those students' cultures into their classrooms. Otherwise, students can become uninterested in school leading them to struggle academically and become even less interested in school. Trubow calls it the cycle of disengagement.
"If I live in a native culture and go to school eight hours a day, 180 days a year and there's never a mention of my culture, of my lifestyle, then it's going to kind of send a message to me that my culture isn't important," he said.
In a survey given as part of the 2007 National Indian Education Study, only 29 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native students said they knew "a lot" about their tribe or group. Nineteen percent said they knew "nothing or not much."
Chuck Foster, an American Indian Education Specialist at the state office of education, said in Utah, individual schools largely decide how to integrate students' cultures into the classroom. Foster, who attended the presentation Wednesday, also said the state held cultural diversity training for teachers in the Uintah and Sevier school districts last year.
Downstate, members of the Ute Education Board and the Uintah School District board are working together to improve education, said Sonja Willie, who sits on the Ute Education Board
Willie said the dropout rate among American Indian students is everyone's problem, not just American Indians.
"We all work together as a society," Willie said.
Trubow said no Utah school districts use the Dropout Early Warning System, which can cost several dollars per student per year, he said. Foster said that's partly why Trubow was invited to present - to get state educators and leaders thinking about possible solutions.
"It's everyone's issue," Foster said.
* Whole state: 88 percent
* Asian: 91 percent
* African American: 77 percent
* American Indian: 75 percent
* Caucasian: 90 percent
* Hispanic: 72 percent
* Pacific Islander: 86 percent
Source: Utah State Office of Education