Urban American Indian Preschool


During the past 15 years, American Indians in the San Francisco Bay Area have established and maintained an early childhood education school to meet the community's special needs. The results have been significant and far-reaching. A setting has been created that reinforces a strong and positive sense of self-identity for Indian children, while developing social and academic skills. The extended family has become strengthened while participating in the process of school building, and parents (particularly mothers) have been freed to find employment or to study. In addition, the Indian community, structured as a web of relationships with various spheres of activity, has been fortified over the long term by sustaining the school in the face of many crises.

Founding the Pre-School

Since the 1940s, the San Francisco Bay Area has acted as a magnet for American Indian people from throughout the United States. They have migrated primarily from rural and reservation areas. Many have come to escape dire living conditions or crisis at home, or to follow the hope of a better life in the city. This migration swelled substantially in the 1950s with the establishment of the Federal Relocation Act. Oakland was designated as one of the national relocation sites, creating there a large, active, and multitribal Indian community. Current estimates based on the 1980 census indicate approximately 40,000 American Indians in the greater Bay Area.

One result of the residential dispersion in the city has been that Indian people come together in ways other than sharing a neighborhood: through sports teams, at the Indian centers in Oakland and San Francisco, in the Indian bars, and at the many Indian agencies and organizations that developed as specialized needs were recognized. The development of the American Indian Pre-School has been a particularly effective response to the educational needs of the children.

In 1971-72 a group of Indian parents with children at Hawthorne Elementary School formed Concerned Parents of Oakland. The need for appropriate and good education for their children was something that touched all families in a very personal way. It touched off the process of learning about the Oakland Public School system, and how to make a change in that system.

Hawthorne School had a high Indian enrollment, and also the only American Indian teacher then in the district. As the group began to meet and draw in more and more parents, they began to articulate their motivations.

We know that a part of our survival means maintaining ourselves as a people...We have a consciousness that there is an educational history of our the first three-year grant period, enrollment had increased to 100 students.

Again there were trips to the school board. In response to wide parent support and effective appeals, it was finally decided that the pre-school could be values being taken away from us at boarding schools...Here in the city we were seeing the same kinds of things happening. Maintaining our values as Indian people is very important.

The Concerned Parents of Oakland was formed to work with the superintendent and the school district in a collaborative way to address these needs. The superintendent at that time was responsive, particularly when the Concerned Parents pointed out the extremely high dropout rate for American Indian children, even in elementary grades. An American Indian liaison position was established.

At that time federal and state money was becoming available for educational innovations. The American Indian liaison working with the Oakland Public School staff and the Concerned Parents wrote a proposal, and received a three-year Title III ESEA grant for the American Indian Pre-School. Previously established Chicano and Chinese pro-Schools affiliated with the Oakland Public School system created a precedent for the concept, and served as a model for structuring the pre-school.

In the fall of 1973, the pre-school was started in the large recreation room of Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland. Intertribal, established in 1955, had long been the focal point of community social services and a meeting spot where many Indian community issues are worked out.

The pre-school started with one morning and one afternoon class with 25 children, one teacher and four parents per class. Since this was a parent participation pre-school, each parent worked one day a week in the classroom and attended a weekly one-day parent workshop. Parents received a stipend of $25 per month, which assisted with transportation and other necessities for their participation and that of their children. The room was painted, toys and games were donated, and shelving was built through parent effort.

One of the strengths of these first years was the weekly workshop in which the parents made materials for the school representing different tribes. There were pottery workshops and cooking workshops, and beading and weaving demonstrations for the children. Parents and grandparents became "cultural consultants," and were eventually paid by the school district. One mother comments:

One elder tells stories to the kids, and the kids tell us, and it goes into their writing. It is all linked. It all comes back to us in that way.

A teacher says:

It has helped to have the grandparents involving. They taught the younger teachers to be more patient.

During the Friday parents' workshops there were many discussions on ways of surviving in the city, and how it was different raising children in the that in the country or on a reservation. A teacher says:

The workshops particularly became a gathering spot and focus of community action and decision making. It was a structure that allowed people in the community to have a voice and to participate.

The pre-school increasingly played a role in strengthening the fabric of the Indian community. A teacher comments:

There are different spheres in the community. Then something comes along that cross-cuts those spheres and brings the community together. For 15 years, that's what the pre-school has done.

While intertribal Friendship House was an ideal setting for the pre-school in terms of the social support it represented, there were also drawbacks, and the program eventually outgrew its quarters. By the end of funded through the Oakland Public Schools Child centers Program, and that a more permanent site would be located. A mother says,

Once my daughter (who was 10) went to the school board and spoke. I was really proud of her. It takes care of the families, and then the families take care of the pre-school. It is now a part of our way of life.

The pre-school relocated to the Carl Munck School, at the same time changing its name to Hintil Kuu Ca, a Pomo Indian phrase meaning "Indian children's house."

There were other changes too. Hintil expanded to full day care from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Enrollment was limited to 110 and there is a waiting list. In addition to the pre-school group, there is a kindergarten group, and first through sixth graders participate in before and after-school programs. Tutoring for grade schoolers is also provided. There are six teachers and aides for the pre-school, and four for the before - and after-school program. There is a parent education teacher and an educational resource teacher. Over the years, the school's existence has created a large pool of Indian teachers and aides with classroom experience.

The school district's criterion for accepting children in the school is that parents are working or in school. Some feel there has been a shift away from active parent participation and that this might mean a "professionalization," and a move away from the community-based decision making and control that had characterized the pre-school from the beginning.

Yet in the characteristically strategic style that the parents had carefully honed by years of dealing with the school district, resources and structures were found or shaped to fit their needs. For example, although the Friday parents' workshop no longer exists, a class in parent education functions similarly to the original parents' workshop. This group continues to act as a support group for the school, making classroom materials that reflect tribal values and orientation.

At Hintil, the introduction of a resource teacher furthers the use of educational materials that reinforce the children's cultural identity. The designs from basketry and beadwork are used in matching games. Parents continue to make tribal outfits that children use on special days and at community-wide events. Teachers use stories and legends of the various tribes and often have children use natural materials found outside for their classroom projects.

At the high school level, Indian youth in Oakland who were in elementary school before Hintil have difficulties, some of which are reflected in the extremely high dropout rate. For example, in 1983 there were 41 Indian students in ninth grade in Oakland public schools. By 1986, that class had dwindled to 12 Indian students, and of those, only five graduated. Parents and teachers who have seen children go through the pre school and the support system offered by Hintil feel they are doing better than their older brothers and sisters who did not have this opportunity. These younger children are now generally doing well at Carl Munck and will be graduating from the sixth grade in June 1987. They represent one-third of the school's population; they are staying in school; and in many ways their lives reflect the values that were taught during their early pre-school years.

Since the beginning of the pre-school, an educational philosophy has taken form. This philosophy took shape in an urban intertribal setting, with strong participation by parents and teachers, many of whom had spent their school years in boarding schools far from their homes, their parents and community participation in the educational process.

This philosophy took shape in an urban intertribal setting, with strong participation by parents and teachers, many of whom had spent their school years in boarding schools far from their homes, their parents and community participation in the educational process.

Teachers and parents at Hintil speak of the schools philosophy of reinforcing the children's sense of self identity:

The original idea has been to have a place to strengthen the young child, to give them a good positive image of themselves, an image of Indian people before they had to go into kindergarten in a mixed environment. We are helping support the families in giving the child self-confidence. Fifteen years ago, there wasn't even that option.

The emphasis in public schools is on what can be measured, not how you feel about things, which can't be measured. Self-awareness and self-image is never tested in public schools.

The education in the White world is for different purposes. There one is successful as an individual through competition. In tribal society what's important is finding one's place and relating to a large number of people. This is a very different perception of what a real human being is. Every Indian person is working on reconciling these different philosophies…

Many acknowledge that the federal program of relocation, with the underlying goal of assimilating Indians into the larger society, ironically helped the Oakland Indians create an educational setting in which Indian parents are active participants, and tribal values can be passed down to the children. The school is another victory for Indian survival, and another demonstration of the tenacity and energy that can be directed toward assuring that survival.

Program Funding in Danger

Because of recent statewide funding cuts in California, Hintil and many other children's centers may be severely affected in the near future. Parents and staff are building a strategy to raise alternative funds to keep the school going.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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