Native American leaders, educators seek ways to increase students’ success
Nearly twice the number of Native Americans live below the poverty line than other Arizonans and they graduate high school at a rate 12 percent lower than other Arizonans, so tribal and public education leaders are working together to find ways to help students succeed.
The figures come from a preliminary report “Rigor and Relevance in Indian Education: A Pathway to Strengthening Communities: The State of K-12 Indian Education in Arizona” prepared by the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona and sponsored by the Helios Education Foundation.
The report looks at the academic performance of 67,261 Native American students in Arizona, about 6 percent of all Arizona students, and will be available online at the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona’s website at the end of July.
“College and career readiness is that opportunity for us to develop higher standards in a way that is based on our own community’s goals, standards, culture and economic development,” said Jacob Moore, a member of the Arizona State Board of Education for the past seven years who is an enrolled member of the Tohono O’odham Nation and earned his MBA at Arizona State University.
Moore and Travis Lane, acting assistant director of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, led Arizona State University American Indian Studies graduate student researchers Eric Hardy, Justin Hongeva, Waquin Preston and Emery Tahy in developing the report that details academic performance, demographics, current literature on education and promising practices.
The report lays the foundation for an upcoming event for tribal leaders and will be shared with all tribal governments, said Moore at the Equity and Opportunity Summit hosted by the Hispanic/Native American Indian Caucus of the Arizona School Boards Association in Phoenix on June 21.
“Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards will significantly raise the bar for our students, and focus on critical-thinking, problem solving, and effective communication skills,” Moore said. “How prepared are we to enact these standards in our classrooms? Particularly in our classrooms in rural areas where we have trouble attracting highly qualified teachers.”
National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores for eighth grade Native American students in Arizona increased two points to 240 from 2005 to 2011, yet Arizona’s Native American students scored 12 points lower than Native American students nationally and about 25 points lower than the national average, according to the Rigor and Relevance in Indian Education report.
“We have to be prepared, we have a vulnerable population, our kids are going to be the first to fail if we can’t even get teachers in our communities to teach those classes,” Moore said. “There’s a lot of work ahead of us.”
NAEP math scores for eighth grade Native American students in Arizona dropped three points to 253 from 2005 to 2011, 12 points lower than Native American students nationally, and 31 points lower than the national average, according to the report.
“It’s been pointed out our parents don’t have those same education levels, so students taking calculus or algebra II have parents who aren’t able to help them with their homework,” Moore said. “How do we address that?”
An advisory committee of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Helios Education Foundation, WestEd, Arizona School Boards Association and other key education leaders brought together a group of thought leaders to focus on issues and discuss how to respond at the Tribal Leaders Education Gathering at Ak-Chin Indian Community in March.
“We didn’t go out to the school boards or the school district themselves,” Moore said. “Our point was our tribes need to get engaged. Our elected leaders, our council members need to understand what you’re dealing with and provide you that community wide support.”
Fourteen tribes and their guests participated in sessions including one where Moore talked to the group about the impact college and career readiness, teacher/principal evaluations, Move On When Reading and Move On When Ready will have on students and schools.
Then thought leaders broke into groups to discuss education reform, juvenile justice, language and culture, parent/community involvement, education and workforce development, and tribal governments and education collaboration, identify successes they could replicate, and develop plans for their own communities.
“We wanted them to make tribal and education goals,” Moore said. “We really wanted them to think about strategies and recommendations.”
One promising practice mentioned in the Rigor and Relevance in Indian Education report is how STAR School integrates Navajo language and culture into their curriculum.
“We translated the core values out of Navajo peacemaking – which is a traditional Navajo system of resolving conflicts between people – into English to what we call the Four Rs – Respect, Responsibility, Relationships and Reasoning,” said Dr. Mark Sorensen, co-founder and director/CEO of the pre-K through eighth-grade charter school 25 miles east of Flagstaff. “We have built our curriculum and the way we act toward one another around that.”
The community school near the southwest corner of the Navajo Nation also teaches all students the basics of speaking the Navajo language.
American Sign Language is also taught to the school’s pre-school students, who “were coming into school nearly two years delayed in their academic preparation,” Sorensen said.
“Back in the 1930s and earlier, sign language was common in many public schools around the United States, but it fell out of favor when testing became the big thing,” Sorensen said. “We found that our young boys in particular were very intelligent, but sometimes weren’t able to articulate themselves very well verbally. Sign language allowed them to communicate with us and their parents even when their speech was delayed.”
These values and skills help students “grow up to be contributing members of society” as employers seek workers who are respectful and have the ability to cooperate with each other, Sorensen said.
“We think, frankly, it’s way more important for them to have these skills and values in terms of finding meaningful work to support themselves and their families than to have good test scores on standardized tests,” Sorensen said. “We know standardized tests are important predictors of academic success and school, but they’re not necessarily good predictors of performance in the workplace.”
Three graduates from the school been named Gates Millennium Scholars, and several students are Arizona Regents Scholars, Sorensen said.
“Although we only go to the eighth grade, what the kids tell us when they come back to visit is that the values they learned here help them organize their lives and when they apply them to their schooling it’s a big shift,” Sorensen said.
“Nationwide less than 1 percent of Native American students move on from high school to college,” Sorensen said. “Seventy one percent of our students go on to some form of post-secondary training. We believe it has as much to do with their practicing of these values as it does their academic preparation.”
The Inter Tribal Council education report also highlighted Ak-Chin Indian Community’s wraparound services provided by a multi-disciplinary team coordinated by the tribe’s education department that provides academic support for students, social services for students/families and increases the tribe’s emphasis on education.
There is day-to-day coordination between the tribe’s education office and school districts to make sure students are in school and on-track.
Elders remind students during tutoring sessions their individual education is important for the survival of the entire community.
In addition to wraparound services including tutoring, evening courses and free summer school available to all Phoenix Union High School District students, Native American students also have access to the district’s Native American Education Program, said Evie Cortés-Pletenik, curriculum director for language acquisition programs, student services, multicultural programs and diversity for the district.
The district has about 600 Native American students, and their graduation rate is 72 percent, said Craig Pletenik, communications manager for Phoenix Union High School District.
The program’s specialist, Judy Basham, leads five Native American advisors who divide their time between two school campuses each to make sure students graduate and succeed in their college and career endeavors by regularly checking students’ academic progress, attendance, referrals, connecting students with campuses services, and providing information to students and parents.
The advisers also assist school staff with understanding cultural issues, and work with students and parents as part of Title VII Johnson O’Malley funding, Pletenik said.
“We meet with parents once a month and let them know what’s going on, and the parents advise us on different issues that they think will help their students,” Pletenik said.
Other successful Arizona programs mentioned in the report were:
- Baboquivari Unified School District implemented the new standards two years earlier than most Arizona schools, embedded language and culture within the curriculum, and made language and culture credits required for high school graduation.
- The Arizona Department of Education and tribal governments development of a Native American Language Certificate for Native American language speakers to teach their language in Arizona classrooms.
Moore said through this process of creating the report tribal leaders learned their need “for capacity building across the board with the distribution of information, (determining) what things people need but don’t have, and coordinating of resources.”
“We have to prepare ourselves for these higher standards, and take control of that, otherwise the state is going to do that for us,” Moore said.