In mainstream research the phenomenon of “dropping out” is commonly defined as an issue of individual failure (see Note 2). Youth “fail,” either academically or socially, to make it through school. The problem exists not because of deficiencies in the schools but rather because of deficiencies in individuals and families. Youth who leave school are described as deviant, dysfunctional, or deficient because of individual, family, or community characteristics. Solutions reside on remediating or changing youth and families to better “fit in.” After all, most youth do succeed in school, suggesting evidence of the school as an effective institution. This body of research ignores the barriers institutions themselves create for youth. Another line of research on dropouts has turned a critical eye towards the role the school and structural barriers play in creating the problem (see Note 3). The research reported in this article follows this line of inquiry. A critical examination of the “place” of Navajo and Ute youth in their school and community reveals other reasons than just individual failure for “dropping out.” Structural factors restricting opportunities, in effect, “fail” youth. The decision to leave school can then be seen, in part, as a rational response to irrelevant schooling, racism, restricted political, social and economic opportunities, and the desire to maintain a culturally distinct identity.
There are many similarities between Indian and other kinds of dropouts. In most cases, the reasons for leaving school are alike. For example, nearly all dropouts say school is boring, teachers don't care, and school will not help them with what they want to do in life (LeCompte, 1987). Many come from substance abusing families. There are, however, differences between other dropouts and these Navajo and Ute school leavers that only become clear when examining the cultural context surrounding these youth. Cultural and structural factors that might be easy to overlook if only examining “student characteristics” are important in understanding why many Navajo and Ute youth leave school. Specific to this cultural framework are 1) racial and economic relations in the community and school, 2) home child-rearing patterns of non-interference and early adulthood and, 3) cultural integrity and resistance.
The Data Base: Master Student List, Questionnaires and Ethnography
In the fall of 1984 1 started an ethnographic study of a border reservation community. I looked at interactions, understandings, and strategies related to education, schooling, success, and failure both in and out of school, among and between three culturally distinct groups of adolescents—Anglo, Navajo, and Ute. Presented here is only one part of this ethnography, focused on school leavers. Throughout this article I use the tribal names, Navajo and Ute, in recognition of the distinctness of these two cultures. I use the term “Indian” in situations which include both Navajo and Ute for simplicity, not for stereotyping. In addition, fictitious names are used for both communities and schools. These results were produced from four data sets: 1) a master data base from school records; 2) ethnographic field notes and collected documents; 3) interviews with a convenience sample of school leavers, and; 4) a questionnaire. In trying to determine an accurate picture of the attrition rates in this district, a data base was established to track all of the Navajo and Ute students by name who had attended Border High School (BHS) and Navajo High School (NHS) from 1980-81 to the 1988-89 school year. This master list contained attendance data, grade point averages, standardized test scores, dropout and graduation rates, community locations, current employment situations, post high school training, and type of diploma received for 1,489 youth. This list has been verified by official district records, local Navajo and Ute community members, school officials, and the youth themselves.
The graduation and dropout rate in this community was determined by following “cohorts” of youth throughout their school careers. A total of 629 students forming six different cohorts, from the class of 1984 to the class of 1989, from each of the two high schools are represented with complete four year high school records. Students who took either additional years and/or completed alternative high school degrees are included in the total graduation figures.