MISSION - Ten years ago, Nixyaawii Community School was a dream spoken about with hope by a tribal community worried about high school drop out rates and truancy. Supporters envisioned an educational system that was small enough to help students succeed and elaborate enough to bring the children of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation an understanding of their culture.
The Pendleton School District bought into that dream and the two groups worked together. Studies were mounted. Plans were produced. Professionals were hired. Space was made.
Last fall, Nixyaawii Community School opened its doors to 48 high school students. It included the teaching of tribal languages by elders. Field trips centered on culture, teaching students not just about what it means to be a tribal member but an understanding of tribal art, history and science as well.
"We are just a baby, taking baby steps," School Board Chairwoman Kat Brigham said in an earlier interview.
But Nixyaawii Community School is, according to its students, everything they hoped it would be.
The truest sign that the school had arrived came when Jesse Star, a senior, formed a student leadership group whose members act as role models for their fellow students.
Freshmen Isaiah Welch and Robert Crawford and juniors Sam Spino and Michael Eickstaedt are four of those leadership students, and they agree that Nixyaawii is the right school for them.
"They teach differently," Eickstaedt said of why he is able to be successful at the school. "We get to do more things and go outside."
Spino said the classes aren't easy, citing early difficulty he had with the tribal language classes.
"It's hard at the beginning, but after a while you catch on," he said, adding that his grades have improved dramatically at Nixyaawii. "I'm passing all my classes for the first time since first grade."
He credited the hands-on teaching practices as one of the reasons for his success. The size of the school is also important, he said.
"They notice if someone's skipping classes or not," Crawford said about the low student-teacher ratio.
All four students said the atmosphere at the school is much more relaxed than larger schools they've attended. They enjoy being able to clown around during the day but have learned there are limits.
"You can only go so far with the teachers," Spino said, adding that there are consequences if students cross the line. Earlier, Principal Annie Tester laughed when Spino suddenly emerged from a tall, lidded garbage can.
"You can have fun while you're learning here," he said. "Teachers in bigger schools are under so much more stress."
Welch said that the small student population benefits the teachers in another way.
"Here, they get to really know you," he said. "That's one of the main things."
Leadership is an important part of the mix, Welch added.
"We need to set rules and set standards," he said.
All four students said they also are impressed by the unconditional support of the tribal community. They said that whenever the students ask the community for help, the response is great.
The main goal during the school's beginning was to build relationships with the students, Tester said.
"They need to know they're going to be accepted," she said. "There are students here who have talked about what happened to them in regular schools, and it's frightening in a way. At our last parent-teacher conferences we were talking about a young man in front of his parents and his father asked, 'Are you sure you're talking about my son?' He has blossomed here. We have at least 10 kids who have shown that kind of amazing improvement, and they all are trying."
The students like what they have, but they'd like even more. The four leadership students said they'd like more advanced math and science classes as well as the addition of baseball and track to the athletic schedule. Next year, Nixyaawii will add volleyball and 8-man football. This year athletics were limited to basketball and golf. They also look forward to plans by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation to relocate government buildings to another site so the school can have more space.
Tester is also making plans for some changes net year. She said that a professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla is taking a one-year sabbatical to teach English and social studies at the school. She said Nixyaawii has also just applied for a $1 million Indian education grant for curriculum development in the sciences and education.
Tester said another goal is to teach literacy, which encourages critical thinking.
An example of critical thinking was displayed by students when Tester spoke to them about fighting. "What can we do besides retaliate?" she asked. "How can we use our brain instead of our brawn?"
Tester said the students considered that, and one replied, "So, we can out think the enemy?"
"Teaching critical thinking is, in essence, teaching literacy," she said. "We have some kids here that really, really get it."
As Nixyaawii Community School was being planned, the Oregon Small Schools Initiative was capturing the fancy of numerous educators and power brokers. The Meyer Memorial Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have invested $25 million to start new small high schools and transform large ones across Oregon.
"Young people who attend smaller schools that provide a rigorous, personalized education and enable close relationships with adults are more likely to graduate and continue their education," said Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Nixyaawii was one of the first small schools to receive a grant - $137,000 - from the body set up to distribute the grant money.
"Educators in the classroom understand, all too well, that underserved students can benefit from smaller and innovative learning and teaching," said Oregon Education Association President Kris Kain. "We know much about learning is about building relationships with our students and this program supports that."
Principal Annie Tester, formerly a teacher at Pilot Rock High School, can also see a difference.
"I used to have 150 kids who I would only see for 45 minutes at a time," she said. "It's a different world out here. You really get to know them so well. There's just nothing else like this. You really get to know their lives, their family and their history."