Compared to other areas of the U.S., Colorado has a wide degree attainment gap between its white and minority populations and unless the gap narrows, state growth will be “drastically curtailed.”
That was the assessment of Lt. Gov. Joseph Garcia, who heads both the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs (CCIA) and the state Department of Education as he addressed the 7th Annual Indian Biz Expo conducted April 11 by the Rocky Mountain Indian Chamber of Commerce (RMICC).
Addressing the needs of minority youth, the state’s fastest-growing demographic, will be necessary in order to “move forward as a state,” he said, noting that “Too many Native students don’t graduate high school and too many have decided to drop out by the eighth or ninth grade.”
As CCIA head, he has visited the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in the southwestern part of the state where the tribes have invested in surrounding communities that have high unemployment rates.
But “most of the Native population is up and down the Front Range where small businesses are that we want to see grow and succeed,” he said.
To that end, the CCIA has provided free seminars with the RMICC on small business formation and development, created a small business website with the Office of Economic Development and International Trade, developed the Colorado Business Resource Guide, strengthened ties with Colorado’s Minority Business Office, and worked to promote tourism for Native and tribal enterprises.
Overall, “Education is the key to economic growth,” he said. “Colorado can and must educate its way to a stronger economy.”
Garcia is particularly concerned with communities of color, especially Native Americans, where “we haven’t done the best job of educating these communities.” He cited the boarding schools with their forced assimilation and acculturation policies, which led schools of the past to be regarded as “a source of loss rather than of growth.”
“We know that education is an important key if we want our young people to learn that education is one thing no one can take from you,” he said.
Schools must be accountable, because the state cannot afford to be crippled by an education system that does not support all cultures and that does not have high expectations for students of color, he said.
It is important to be certain all students can read before they leave third grade and it’s also important for more Native professionals to be in the classroom: “They need to see people who look like them and grew up like them,” he said.
Native students who succeed in graduating from high school may be underprepared for college and may have to take remedial classes for which they must pay but which don’t confer college credit, he said.
The Education Leadership Council has been established in the lieutenant governor’s office by Gov. John Hickenlooper particularly to deal with education issues in communities of color and low-income communities.
Garcia urged families to create a desire to learn, to value and respect education and educators, to value books and reading, to have high expectations of their students, and to show up in schools if students aren’t getting the education or respect they deserve.
Josh Running Wolf, RMICC president, Dee St. Cyr, RMICC chair, and Colleen Brave Honomichl, RMICC vice chair presented Garcia with a colorful blanket for his service in Colorado economic and educational spheres.