Navajos Find Inspiration at Mission School
New Mexico: No One Has Dropped out of St. Bonaventure, and 22 of Its 31 Graduates Have Gone on to College. Mystery Writer Tony Hillerman Dedicated His New Book to the Small Institution.
By Richard Benke
Los Angeles Times
February 6, 1994
The sight of a shivering child standing naked on the dirt floor of a Navajo hogan inspired a missionary priest to create an educational success story in Indian Country, the St. Bonaventure mission school.
Set against red bluffs near the Continental Divide off Interstate 40, the school has no dropouts and sends nearly all its seniors to college.
When the bewhiskered, Brooklyn-born Rev. Douglas McNeill arrived here as a 32-year-old Roman Catholic missionary in 1974, the school wasn't even a twinkle in his jade-green eyes.
But the more he learned about Navajos, he said, the more he knew they would succeed -- and thus, so would a school -- and the more he knew they needed one.
"The state can boast that in this little spot, something beautiful and long-lasting is going on for our Native American people," McNeill said.
The idea for the Catholic school evolved from various encounters, he said, including visits in 1977-78 to rural Navajo homes, many of which lacked water or electricity.
McNeill said he was particularly troubled by what he found in one home.
"It was a cold day, and I went into this house with a dirt floor, and this little kid had no clothes on and that little kid was freezing," he said.
"It was seeming to me that for the young, this wasn't the best of all worlds."
He started a mission preschool in 1980 with guidance from a Gallup, N.M., Head Start coordinator, giving youngsters breakfast, lunch and early education. A few years later, he expanded the school through the high school grades.
The 300-student school, which is 90% Navajo, graduated its fifth class of seniors last spring. All but nine of its 31 graduates in those five years have gone to college. Eight of the school's nine current seniors plan on college, and there are no dropouts, McNeill said.
Paul Platero, who heads a federal education program for the tribe in Window Rock, Ariz., said that's in contrast to other experiences. Platero said a four-year study in the mid-1980s showed a 31% dropout rate among 4,742 Navajos tracked from the ninth through 12th grades.
St. Bonaventure is fully accredited. It's also praised by tribal education officials and recently received additional recognition in the latest book by New Mexico mystery writer Tony Hillerman, who sets his novels in Navajo country. The murder in Hillerman's "Sacred Clowns" occurs at the school, and the book is dedicated to McNeill and his staff.
"It just makes you feel good to be around people like the gang at that school, who are dedicating a big chunk of their lives to helping other people," Hillerman said.
McNeill said the book dedication is bringing a steady stream of modest contributions from Hillerman readers nationwide, which eventually could help build a new campus nearby, complete with gymnasium. The current school has no sports facilities.
Despite that lack, there is a waiting list to enroll at St. Bonaventure, known formally as Kateri Tekakwitha Academy.
Dominic Pedro, 16, a Laguna Pueblo Indian in his junior year at the school, said he wishes it had a baseball team.
"And I like basketball and football because my cousins are involved," he said. "I feel a little left out."
He could have attended Crownpoint High School near his home, but prefers St. Bonaventure "because you get to learn more," he said.
He plans to attend college to become a medical technician.
Seven lay missionaries teach here, many of them young men from Notre Dame University on their first assignments, full of "commitment and creativity and patience," McNeill said.
The school features small classes and an acceptance of Navajo culture -- showing students "it's good to be Navajo, because sometimes life doesn't always tell them that," McNeill said.
"There are less students than in public school," Pedro said. "They (teachers) get to help you more."
Terri Dakia, 16, a Navajo on the school's student council and honor society, said: "The work here is more challenging. It keeps me on my toes."
Like Pedro, Dakia probably would have attended Crownpoint High 25 miles north of here if she had opted for public education.
"I don't think I would've enjoyed myself over there," said Dakia, who wants to study psychology in college.
Last year's valedictorian, Tonya Anderson, 19, is now at New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs, taking a premedical course and planning to transfer to the University of New Mexico or Alaska.
For her, a mission school day included a 40-mile round-trip bus ride, often beginning before sunrise and ending after sunset.
"I got on the bus at 6:30, and it was close to 5 when I got home," she said.
McNeill said a Navajo woman once told him how a public school counselor suggested her son not bother applying to college because he would only be disappointed -- and the boy followed that advice.
"I remembered thinking the counselor believed she was doing the right thing and didn't realize she was crushing his whole future," he said.
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