Injustice. That's what Geneva Wiki and her family have been fighting against for as long as she can remember. Wiki is the great-niece of Raymond Mattz, the Yurok man who refused to pay a fine for gill netting on the Klamath River and successfully appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court, eventually winning back Yurok fishing rights in the early '70s. Her aunt, Susan Masten, was the former president of the National Congress of American Indians.
Wiki is also the principal of Klamath River Early College of the Redwoods (KRECR), a two-year-old charter high school in Klamath partnered with College of the Redwoods that serves the North Coast's native community. (About 20 percent of its students are non-native). KRECR is part of the Early College High School Initiative, a program enabling students to earn both a high school diploma and an Associate's degree in just four years, and it's completely free.
"I believe that education is my generation's fight to fight for equality," Wiki said in her office last Thursday. "Our native young people are underrepresented in educational achievement stats and ... we won't be able to break out of poverty unless we're able to reclaim education." Wiki, small and sprightly, wears her heart on her sleeve.
But KRECR, her brainchild, is less conspicuous. Housed in an office beside a convenient store in Klamath, you'd hardly guess it was a hotbed of progressive education from outside. Nonetheless, this little place is making a big difference.
After earning her master's degree in public administration with a focus on Native American education from the University of Washington, Wiki worked at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy in Washington D.C. That's where she learned that "People who are committed to do the right thing, who are using good research to back them and who are deeply dedicated in the right charter environment can have the flexibility and the autonomy to make magic happen."
She hoped to do the same in Klamath where, before KRECR started in 2005, the high school dropout rate was 60 percent. And only 40 percent of high school graduates placed into college-level English.
Now, after just two years in operation, Wiki's students are already beating those statistics. As of spring 2007, over 45 percent of them placed into college-level English and attendance rates at the school were as high as 90 percent.
During the first week of orientation this fall, there were 29 students enrolled, an increase from last year, but still only a portion of the kids who need help. So far, a shoestring budget and the lack of better facilities prevent the school from expanding. Not to mention the difficulty of convincing at-risk students, some who commute daily from as far as Smith River, 67 miles away, that KRECR is the best option for them.
At 9 a.m. on Thursday, students and teachers (of which there are five, part and full time) gathered for a community meeting. Marvin Mattz, a Yurok elder, was also there. People were asked to share their most valuable possessions. The soft-spoken Mattz imparted a piece of wisdom: "You never want to embarrass anyone," he said. The students listened intently. Wiki held up two pictures, one of her great-grandmother, Geneva, and the other taken the day she received her master's degree. Wiki is a poster child for Native American success. She was recently chosen by *Smithsonian Magazine* as one of this year's 37 young innovators under the age of 36.
After the meeting, students broke up into smaller groups. There are no grades at KRECR. Rather, the school is divided into upper and lower divisions.
In one classroom, Wiki led the new students in an exercise. A table in the back of the room was covered with different kinds of cookies. At first glance, it seemed like snack time, but in fact the students were learning a very important lesson: the advantages of "scoring guides" versus conventional grading. When the students were asked to grade the different cookies, and then plot that data on the board, they noticed that the grades were extremely inconsistent. What is an A-cookie versus a C-cookie, anyway? But when they evaluated the cookies based on other characteristics like creaminess, flakiness, etc. they started to see more consensus. This was their first lesson in why KRECR's progressive pedagogy is so effective. During their time here, student achievement will be evaluated using the categories "advanced," "developing," "proficient" or "emerging," rather than letter grades.
"There is no mystery about what students need to know and do at our school." Wiki told me during a 10-minute break. "They have an ‘everything notebook' that has all of the standards for education and the scoring guides allow them to know what those expectations are."
An everything notebook is a large three-ring binder that each student has -- it's not locked away in a file cabinet in the principal's office. It contains an evaluation of student performance and all of the California state standards they're expected to meet in order to graduate. Some students come here expecting to be able to slack off, Wiki said. But she tells them, "I don't give credits, you *earn* credits."
After lunch, she admitted she was a little disappointed with how the new students did. But that's why orientation lasts two weeks. It takes time for students to get used to a totally different learning environment. By the end of it, Wiki hopes that they will understand that "they are part of something that has a much bigger purpose and that this is about creating justice in the world." No small feat for a ragtag bunch of teenagers.
But while Wiki was teaching the drawbacks of conventional grading, Mike Muldoon, the school's new part-time history teacher, was conducting his government class. In Muldoon's class, it's apparent that KRECR's lofty ideals are sinking in.
Muldoon, balding and sporting a thick white goatee and a Hawaiian shirt, had 36 years of teaching experience under his belt when he retired recently. Now he's at it again. "I'm drawn to schools that are controversial," he told me earlier that morning. Then added: "This is a wonderful job. I am absolutely loving it, loving it." Today is his second day teaching and he's asked a small group of upper division students what problems America has.
Poverty is a big problem, said Darren Davis, an outspoken student with a shaggy head of braided hair. "There's people out there that are family and they're out there sleeping on the dirt because you don't want to help 'em out," he said passionately. "There's people that are good people inside but just because they don't got a job and they can't pay for their own stuff, they're considered pieces of shit. And I don't think that's right. I think that just because he ain't got enough money to pay for somewhere to live doesn't mean he shouldn't be able to live."
When Davis met his new history teacher earlier in the week he discovered that he's the third generation of his family Muldoon has taught.
Coincidence or not, continuity is something that the Yurok have depended on for thousands of years. It was the bedrock of their fishing culture until outside influences altered timeless cycles. And it's something they hope to regain in the field of education where it's been missing for some time now. KRECR is a sign of the change to come. Students here study Yurok language four times a week and 90 percent of the upper division students passed the California High School Exit Exam in 2007 compared to around 60 percent of Native Americans statewide.
As students trickled into the classroom after lunch for a class on Yurok language, the estuary at the mouth of the Klamath River was teeming with fishermen. "Our culture is a quiet culture," Marvin Mattz told me in a whisper earlier that morning. And so, tucked away in a building across the street from the Yurok tribal office, the teachers and students at Klamath River Early College of the Redwoods are changing the face of native education -- quietly, perhaps, but profoundly.