PLEASANT POINT, Maine — President Barack Obama’s administration dispatched a pair of Cabinet secretaries to the easternmost region of the U.S. on Monday to get a firsthand look at a Passamaquoddy Tribe school that has been targeted for replacement.
Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan toured the K-8 Beatrice Rafferty School for about an hour, led by principal Michael Chadwick. The school serves about 125 Native American students from the tribe’s Pleasant Point reservation as well as surrounding towns.
Jewell and Duncan were greeted at the school by the two Passamaquoddy Tribe governors, Clayton Cleaves of the Pleasant Point tribe and Joseph Socobasin of the Indian Township reservation. They toured with an entourage of staff and officials that included William Mendoza, executive director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education.
As they passed through a small special education classroom, Chadwick pointed out a kitchen range with an oven that is used to help heat the room in winter. He told the group of other shortcomings in the building and the crowded conditions.
Student enrollment has been increasing in recent years, Chadwick told the secretaries at the start of the tour. Duncan wanted to know why.
“Young families having children,” said Chadwick.
The Cabinet members asked a range of questions about the school facility as well as the staff and services the students receive.
“Only one recess for the little guys?” Jewell asked as the entourage left a pre-kindergarten classroom.
Duncan wanted to know what kind of mental health problems the youngsters face and what services are available.
“We have a number of kids that are in counseling,” said Chadwick, explaining that they are served by counselors in a building adjacent to the school.
Jewell wanted to know what effects the high rates of joblessness on the reservation have on students.
“It’s an issue” for Greater Washington County as well as the reservation, Chadwick said.
Teachers are responsible for the youngsters, he said, not only for their education but also to help monitor them to ensure they are fed, clothed and healthy.
“All the different tribal entities work so well together,” said Chadwick.
“It looks like they’ve got some great things going on at Beatrice Rafferty School,” Jewell said at the conclusion of the tour, praising Chadwick and the teaching staff for their leadership. The biggest need, she said, is to upgrade the building, which has been on a list of schools targeted for replacement for 10 years.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud announced in January that an estimated $18.5 million in federal funding would be approved to replace the aging, troubled school building. Students and staff have been exposed to “dangerous and unsafe conditions including weakened walls and mold,” they said in their announcement.
The omnibus budget bill included funding for just one Bureau of Indian Education School in the entire country — the school at Pleasant Point. The budget that passed included $1 million for planning a new school. The next budget will include $2.2 million toward construction, with the remainder to come in succeeding budgets, subject to approval.
Pingree visited the school in June with U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota; both lawmakers serve on a pertinent subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.
Jewell and Duncan convened a study group in 2013 to examine challenges facing Bureau of Indian Education-funded schools and to propose reforms. The study group issued its proposals in June, and Jewell issued a secretarial order the same month to redesign the bureau over a two-year period.
The bureau’s aim will go from being a provider of education to an organization to help tribes operate schools. The first phase will be the establishment of a school operations division that will focus on recruiting top teachers and principals, acquisition and grants, school facilities and educational technology. An office of sovereignty and Indian education will be created to help tribes operate schools and shape what their children learn about their Native American culture and language.
The second phase will focus on improving performance of individual schools through support teams and a cradle-to-the-classroom approach of providing such services as prenatal care, early literacy, children’s health care and counseling.