Native schools move forward by looking to the past

How a New Mexico network is building a new generation of native schools.


In one Albuquerque charter school, students read mostly Native American authors until the eleventh grade. In western New Mexico, Navajo students harvest corn as a class project. And in Santa Clara Pueblo, teachers scrapped generic scripts they once recited to teach math and reading, and now organize projects based on their students’ cultures to explain the same concepts.

Nationwide, outcomes languish for students of Native American descent: Native students on average perform two to three grade levels below their white peers in reading and math, and are more likely to drop out of school than white students. As a result, native communities in New Mexico and elsewhere are reimagining what their schools should look like. What, exactly, should native students learn? Should school primarily be a place to learn practical skills for today’s world, or one where students are steeped in the traditions of their native culture? Who gets to decide?

Isaac Garcia, 11, and Mikella Vigil, 12, paint the symbolic family seals they designed as part of a class project at Kha’p’o Community School in Santa Clara Pueblo.
Leah Todd

One growing network of New Mexico schools says the answers to those questions should be left squarely up to each community, and that the pervasive lack of cultural education in majority native schools is partly to blame for students’ poor outcomes. The NACA-Inspired Schools Network, a cluster of six charter and tribal-led schools in New Mexico, has developed a replicable process for reinventing schools in native communities. The network is expanding — and quickly. In the past two years, five new NISN schools have opened across New Mexico, all but one in rural areas.

School leaders acknowledge there are many possible reasons why native students struggle, including inadequate school funding, the difficulty of recruiting skilled teachers to rural places, and poverty. But for NISN, designing a culturally relevant curriculum is part of a bigger task: correcting decades of colonial education models intended to deprive young native people of their traditional culture, and to improve student outcomes in the process.

“The most positive thing we can do is help them explore their identity,” said Bronson Elliott, director of college engagement at the Native American Community Academy, the first institution in the network. “That’s important for any student, but especially for native students, who are kind of invisible in a lot of ways in the dominant culture.”

It’s a revolutionary model, one that could overturn educational approaches at native schools around the country — if it works. NISN doesn’t just want to improve conventional outcomes for native students; it wants to create a whole new measuring stick.

At the heart of this experiment is the Native American Community Academy, founded in 2006, whose high school-aged students fill a few spare classrooms on the University of New Mexico campus in Albuquerque. University pennants hang prominently in the entryway. Names and pictures of NACA grads who went to college are posted on an office door. Every student here takes two Advanced Placement courses and, as a senior, must apply to at least 10 colleges.

This sweeping college-oriented culture seems to work: All but two of the school’s 28 seniors graduated high school last year. Nineteen of those graduates — a full 70 percent — are now enrolled in college. NACA grads have gone on to Yale, Brown and Princeton, as well as the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Statewide, just 61 percent of Native American students finish high school in four years. Nationally, only about 35 percent of all American Indian or Alaska Native students continue onto some college.

NACA’s success, proponents claim, is partly thanks to the fact that it teaches students as much about themselves, and their own cultures, as it does the world around them. That’s a radical approach. For decades, the U.S. strategy for Native American education was to ship young people to boarding schools where, in the now infamous words of former U.S. official Richard Pratt, the intent was to “kill the Indian…save the man.” Strategically separated from their family and community, and punished for speaking native languages, students were taught that culture was to be corrected, not celebrated.

NISN’s leaders say reclaiming culture in the classroom has been a piecemeal process. Anpao Duta Flying Earth, NACA’s associate director, grew up in South Dakota on the Standing Rock reservation, where he said indigenous studies felt like an “extra,” an afterthought appended to the curriculum.

Not so at NACA.

“We want to be an indigenous school, not a school for indigenous students,” Flying Earth said. “I think those are two different things.”

How does NACA put that approach into practice? The day begins in a circle, with students reverently listening to Flying Earth sing a traditional song that pays respect to life. Until eleventh grade, the literature curriculum is composed almost entirely of Native American authors, like Sherman Alexie and Joseph Bruchac; though it might place them at a disadvantage when competing in national exams, students don’t read Shakespeare until they enroll in Advanced Placement literature. The first year all NACA students were required to take the AP literature exam, no one passed. Last year, two students passed — but with the lowest qualifying score. 

“A lot of the things that were being offered to native students in public education were one-off classes in native studies or language,” said Kara Bobroff, NISN’s founder and executive director. But those programs’ sustainability depended on the whims of the school’s leader and annual funding, and Bobroff wanted something more sustainable. “How can we have something that’s mission-wide, that’s created from the community, that’s reflective of the community, that’s not fragmented?”

Although the program’s roots lie in Albuquerque, NISN has lately begun to expand the NACA model to rural communities. Many school leaders completed NISN’s year-long fellowship program, an incubator for culturally competent school leaders, billed as the only one of its kind, for which the group recruits nationally.

With help from the NACA-Inspired Schools Network, the Kha’p’o Community School recently transitioned to a tribally led school, which gives the community more authority over what is taught in the classrooms.
Leah Todd

At the K-6 Kha’p’o Community School in Santa Clara Pueblo near Española, which opened this fall, principal Michael Dabrieo greets each student with a high-five and the Tewa phrase for “good morning.” Young students recite both the Pledge of Allegiance and a Tewa morning prayer. 

The building still says “Santa Clara Day School,” its name for about a century before it converted this year from a Bureau of Indian Education-run operation to a NACA-inspired school after NISN’s intensive two-year planning process. The change was fueled by the community’s frustration that their children were losing the Tewa language.

“My first priority is not PARCC,” Dabrieo said, referring to the standardized test all New Mexico public school students must take. Much more important is whether the community, staff and students are satisfied and still committed to the school’s vision after the school’s first year, he said.

“I’m just the hands here,” he said. “The community is the mind.”

In previous years, following federal directives to improve math and reading scores, teachers at the school taught those subjects by reading from a scripted curriculum. History and science were hardly mentioned. In a way, that worked: the Santa Clara Day School met its annual improvement benchmarks as required by federal education law. But the community wasn’t satisfied.

Today, teachers transmit the mandatory state standards via project-based learning, a method where students tackle concepts from several subject areas at once through hands-on projects. On a recent morning, Carlos Escobedo, 10, typed sentences about his family for a school assignment. “Every couple weeks my family picks crops, like chili and squash,” he wrote. Other students painted wooden seals they had designed to represent their families, many of them inscribed with their native names. In another classroom, students researched ongoing protests over a proposed oil pipeline in Standing Rock. 

NISN schools have not yet drastically changed outcomes for all the children they serve. Dream Dine, a K-2 elementary school in Shiprock, is rated an “F” this year on the state’s report card, which measures several different metrics, including student growth and parental engagement. DEAP, a middle school focused on agriculture, earned a “C.” NACA is ranked a “C,” too, though they earned an A for college and career readiness.

Returning accountability to communities, thereby reclaiming culture that had been lost to colonization, is easier said than done. The state, after all, does not use NACA’s goals to determine whether NACA, a publicly funded school, stays open. It’s a tension NACA and other schools in the network must navigate daily.

“People perceive us as a ‘Yes, and,’ school,” Flying Earth said. “Yes, we’re trying to get students into the best colleges and universities in the country. But we’re also trying to create cultural and spiritual leaders within our community.” 

Still, research suggests that NISN’s culturally relevant curriculum could pay conventional academic dividends in the long run. In Alaska, where American Indian students lagged behind other ethnic groups in math, a team of University of Alaska-Fairbanks researchers created a curriculum that made math more accessible to native students by presenting examples of subsistence lifestyles, and by using a Yup’ik counting system.

Jerry Lipka, a lead researcher on the project, tested the second grade curriculum in 25 schools across four different native groups. He found that students who learned math using his curriculum showed more dramatic improvements than peers who didn’t go through his program.

“Elders told us they wanted kids to be thinkers,” Lipka said. “They didn’t like the idea that the kids seemed lost. That they didn’t do well on the Western side, and they didn’t do well on the Yup’ik side.”

A few months into the school year at the new Kha’p’o Community School, the staff is optimistic. Enrollment is up this year — from 100 students to 109. Danielle Martinez, the school’s assistant principal, who grew up in Santa Clara Pueblo and attended the school when it was run by the federal government, said the community is more involved than it has been in years.

On a recent morning, former tribal councilman and local artist Randolph Silva, 64, walked the school grounds. As Silva approached a group of students, they stood and greeted him by reciting a few Tewa sentences. Silva beamed.

Silva attended the school as a child, and remembers just one teacher who encouraged him to speak Tewa in class. He’s hopeful the school will teach more culture than it has in the past.

Said Silva: “They need to know who they are.”

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.

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