Geneva Wiki is fighting the flu. "You're seeing me at only about 75 percent of my normal energy," says the director of the Klamath River Early College of the Redwoods, in Klamath, California. It's a formidable 75 percent. Two of her teachers are absent, so Wiki, a 30-year-old Yurok Indian, darts between the school's three classrooms, her bobbed hair swinging. She counsels a student struggling with an essay; murmurs "language!" to a boy who has just shouted an expletive; puts out plates and plastic utensils for lunch; and tells two other students they can't eat potato chips while walking and call it PE. Since there's no school bus, Wiki, who is married with a toddler at home, began the day by driving several students to school.
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More than half of the 30 teens attending this public charter school are Yurok and more than two-thirds are American Indians. As young as 13, they have all taken college placement exams and are co-enrolled in high school and the local community college, working simultaneously toward high-school diplomas and college credits. The idea behind this innovative project, part of the Early College High School Initiative, largely funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is that low-income, minority and otherwise disadvantaged young people at risk of dropping out are encouraged to stay in school and get a free, non-intimidating taste of college. There are now 147 such schools in 23 states and the District of Columbia, 11 of which are specifically for American Indians.
"This is the front line of our civil rights movement," says Wiki. "Past generations struggled first over rights to fish and hunt, and then to govern ourselves. Now we need to work on reclaiming ourselves through education." Wiki helped establish schools for the Early Colleges for Native Youth program before she was tapped, in 2003, to be deputy executive director of the Yurok tribal council. (Settled along the Klamath River, just south of the Oregon border, the 5,000-member tribe is California's largest and poorest.) There she began talking to parents and community leaders about starting an early college high school on the reservation. The idea was popular—and was eligible for a Gates grant. Soon after getting one, tribal leaders and parents asked Wiki to be the school's first director. It opened in September 2005 in rooms in back of a convenience store, just off redwood-lined Highway 101.
Wiki and her younger brother, Thomas, a recent college graduate, were raised in relative privilege in a Portland, Oregon, suburb; at the time, her mother worked as a mortgage broker and her father, as a maintenance director for Coca-Cola. Wiki's family are "regalia holders"—keepers of ceremonial treasures used in Yurok rituals. Her great-grandmother was famed for her basketry; her aunt was president of the National Congress of American Indians. "I always knew strongly who I was and what I was supposed to do," Wiki says.
These days, she continues, that means helping other American Indians "develop their best selves" through education. The idea is at the heart of a quest that has consumed her ever since she heard the story of how her great-grandmother had been beaten at age 6 for speaking her native language at boarding school. Wiki believes that encouraging young American Indians to understand and value their own culture is key to keeping them invested in a broader education.
Wiki's own education was in public schools outside the reservation. But she went back often to spend time with relatives and to participate in Yurok rituals and customs. After high school, which she says she hated ("It was so big and so impersonal"), she enrolled in the University of Oregon, where she studied planning, public policy and management, was president of the student body and was voted by her sorority most likely to succeed—and to earn the least money. She wrote both her undergraduate and graduate theses on American Indian education.
In addition to math, science, English and social sciences, Wiki's students study the Yurok language and such tribal skills as carving redwood canoes, catching eels and making acorn soup. Some educators—including Wiki—believe that such knowledge can make the difference in combating an American Indian dropout rate of more than four in ten nationwide. (Wiki suspects the rate among Yuroks, who have high rates of alcoholism and methamphetamine use, may be even higher.) "You need to strengthen a student's sense of worth so they can learn," says William Demmert, part Tlingit and Oglala, and professor of education at Western Washington University in Bellingham. "If they don't develop that sense, they'll be in trouble."
Only a year ago, Mason Van Mechelen, now 16, fit that description. Drinking and smoking had gotten him suspended from high school. When he broached the idea of going to the Klamath River Early College of the Redwoods, his father, Paul, was skeptical that the petite young woman in charge could handle the tough teens who, like his son, had turned to the school as a last resort. But as he watched his son thrive, the senior Van Mechelen became an advocate. "There's enough one-on-one attention, so you know someone will catch him if he starts goofing off," he says, "and he's trying like heck to succeed."
Van Mechelen and the other students need only look to Wiki, the first member of her extended family to get a master's degree, for inspiration. "She's really extraordinary," says Linda Campbell, director of the Center for Native Education at Antioch University in Seattle, which oversees Wiki's project. It's not only still rare to find American Indians with advanced degrees, Campbell says, it's hard to find anyone at all who's quite so motivated.
There's an obvious danger that projects that depend on charismatic leaders can founder if those leaders disengage, and Wiki's résumé has already attracted other potential job offers. But Campbell has faith that Wiki will stick around through the hard challenges ahead, which include recruiting enough students to allow the school to receive a sustaining amount of state funding. And while Wiki dreams of attracting more high performers, she knows that she still hasn't reached the poorest of the Yurok members, about 1,000 of whom live as much as a two-and-a-half-hour drive upriver, in trailers with few phones and almost no electric power. (She hopes one day to set up a satellite site.)
The school has made considerable progress in the two years since it opened. Last year's daily attendance was up—to 92 percent from 70 percent the previous year—and 48 percent of students passed a placement exam making them eligible to take college-level English, up from 4 percent. Wiki also takes pride in the changes she has seen in students like Van Mechelen, who's contemplating a career in politics—"maybe national politics," he says with a smile.
"It's something you always hear about the schools on Indian lands, that we could do it better if we were in charge," says Wiki. "And as a matter of fact, we can."
Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. Her most recent book is The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter, published by Basic Books.