Life on the border, where education gets lost

  Before I started my job this year as librarian and English teacher on the Tohono O'odham reservation, I visited the campus. A teacher looked me over and said, "You better come in that library like a gangbuster."

A gangbuster? Having just turned 25, I must have looked as young as I felt. But I'd studied Native American poetry and wanted to teach on a reservation -- to see firsthand what I had only read and thought about. But I'd come to a battleground. The Tohono O'odham reservation, extending across southern Arizona, is where most of the 146 deaths of illegal border-crossers took place in 2002. On the 100-mile round trip I took daily to and from the reservation, I always saw someone pulled over by the Border Patrol, and about once every week I saw illegals sitting in the shade, waiting to be taken back into Mexico.

I worked for the Indian Oasis Unified School District, which runs three public schools just a few miles north of the Mexican border. About 1,000 students were bused from all over the reservation, including two students who crossed the border every morning to attend school.

It is not surprising that what happens outside of a school finds its way in. A "code red" was announced over the loudspeaker during the third week of school. That meant we were to lock ourselves in our rooms, a precaution for a "Columbine-like situation." We waited in the library for two hours while the Border Patrol scoured the school for some illegals who had ditched their car in the high school parking lot, then run from agents. The kids were bored. "Read a book," I suggested. Nobody was ever found; our school day resumed.

Later in the quarter, we learned that our high school would be labeled "under-performing." Most of us, as new teachers, had no idea what this category meant. We learned that Arizona labels all schools to comply with the federal Leave No Child Behind legislation. Schools that score below a certain level are given three years to show progress. A failing label results in state intervention.

None of us were surprised. Though we'd been teaching for only six weeks, we were already worn down. Discipline policies toward the kids were strict, teachers were encouraged not to complain and the desert heat, reaching up to 110 degrees daily, made us listless.

Veteran teachers watched us struggle with a little sympathy and some bitterness. Teachers rarely received supplies; there were no books for ninth-grade English, the class I was teaching.

Two days after we found out about our under-performing status, the Arizona Daily Star published an article about our predicament. The state Board of Education had voted to withhold about $30,000 per month from our district because of accounting problems that had persisted since 1999. The state cited more than two dozen instances of the school district's sloppy bookkeeping and failure to follow state accounting guidelines. These failures included not following competitive purchasing guidelines, not properly inventorying items, and lacking control over cash, resulting in the risk of theft.

Though the district had a budget larger than most public schools, the only evidence of this was our new gym.

That same week a student had been skipping a computer class held in the library, hiding in the reading room while his teacher took roll. I asked him what was wrong. "Every time I finish the program, it makes me start over until I get it right. I have been doing the same thing for weeks." I walked over to the teacher as he was calling this student's name. He looked around the room, and without lowering his voice, said, "He is a failure, anyway." When I approached the student again, he repeated what he'd heard: "Don't you know I'm a failure? I have no future."

Other teachers told me that the students could not learn. Though I met many talented and dedicated teachers, others who shouldn't be in front of a classroom were allowed to remain out of necessity.

Seeing students searched for drugs and weapons, I began to ask myself why a kid would act out at my school. Looking out the window and hearing the sirens of the Border Patrol, I was quickly reminded that our classrooms were within a war zone.

The community responded to the district's troubles by turning in a petition with over 1,700 signatures, forcing a recall of the school board. Yet while a new school board is a start toward reform, deeper problems remain. The teachers and students who struggle to teach and learn under these conditions every day should not be forgotten.

Natalie Peeterse is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( She is a fellow with the Arizona Commission on the Arts.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at