Native America's Class of 2000

The Pecos River Valley of New Mexico was home to the Pueblo people before the conquest of the West forced them onto reservations. It's an old, sad story. But as CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Allison Stewart reports, a new chapter is being written.

At the Native American Preparatory School (NAPS), 74 American Indian students from 32 tribes come together in one of the few privately funded boarding schools solely for native kids.

Dr. Milledge Bennett's American history class is very different from the American history most of these students were taught on their reservations.

"They usually come into the room, and they go, 'American history, here we go'," says Bennett. "Then I start writing on the board and they see me immediately split the blackboard in half. Part of it says 'us,' and I say 'Native American perspective,' or 'Native American viewpoint' of historical event. All of a sudden you see high fives, and that usually keeps them glued for the entire year."

Class of 2000 member Ben Calabaza is from the Santo Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico. Like most of the students at the school, Ben is keenly aware that the opportunities he finds at NAPS are not the norm for Native Americans.

"Before I came here, my culture was around me all the time and it didn't really affect me how important it was," says Ben. "There's a lot of people on my reservation who don't have what I have, like kids my ageÂ…It makes me sad."

The education system has continually failed Native Americans throughout U.S. history. Only half of Native kids go to college, and of those fewer than five percent receive a post-graduate education.

Virtually all of the students at NAPS are on scholarship, their families paying only what they can afford. Because it's a new school, there aren't any alumni donations. But what the school lacks in funds it makes up for in faculty. Like Dr. Milledge Bennett, a Black Creek and Cherokee Indian who was drawn to the program.

"I rarely see anybody who looks like me in the teaching situations," says Bennett. "For the first time in my life, I was teaching my own people, you know, the things I would have loved to have had from a Native."

The academics are demanding at the Native American Prep School. Modeled after East Coast boarding schools, the curriculum is rigorous. Yet they offer Navajo as a language, and are mindful about student ties to tribe and family.

"They just do amazing things," Bennett continues. "It's like our poetry slam team. The majority of those students could measure up person for person with any white student at a white prep school."

Indeed, poetry slam, a kind of competitive poetry improvisation, brings the Native American tradition of oral history into the millennium. But exactly what type of student prospers in this environment?

"A student that already has dreams of going to college," says SveHuseby, head of NAPS. "I think it's someone who has already demonstrated a willingness to work, and clearly somebody who has the aptitude to meet the high academic standards that are in place."

The Native American Prep School was the dream of Prentiss Hall Publishing heir Richard Ettinger, who wondered as a student at Dartmouth College why there were no Native Americans in a college that has the education of Indians in its charter.

Ettinger's daughter Barbara took responsibility for running the school in 1995 after her father died of cancer. For Richard Ettinger, founding this school was the culmination of a lifetime of effort.

"He would call people and say, 'I'm calling from my hospital bed. I expected to die about two weeks ago but I'm behind schedule, so what about that money you're going to send the school?'" Barbara remembers. "And we would say, 'Dad, this is really embarrassing.' But he had it in his mind until his dying day."

The Native American Prep School has had its share of growing pains. Only 21 of the original class of 52 are graduating this year, partly due to their earlier poor education on the reservations. Then there was the problem of getting their elders to agree to let children attend the school.

"They worry about the loss of identity, the loss of their culture," says Christopher Johnson, director of admissions. "It's a very fine line that these kids walk in terms of staying rooted in who they are. I still battle the stigma of the old boarding schools. A lot of elders have bad memories of what it was like for them when they were in school."

"I think they're going to do great things," says Barbara. "I think they're going to create an entirely new image for mainstream America of who Native America is."