By JOHN SENA | The New Mexican
Native American officials make plea for change to Sen. Jeff Bingaman at hearing
Native American officials and educators told U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., that the federal No Child Left Behind Act does not recognize native cultures and languages, and limits the ways schools can use them in their curriculums.
Bingaman was in Santa Fe on Friday to conduct a hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which has jurisdiction over federal education law.
The hearing was part of an effort to seek public input on the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind and specifically on how it affects Native American students.
“I’ve come across nothing that would enable me to be a proponent of the act,” said James Mountain, governor of San Ildefonso Pueblo.
Mountain said he’s heard from teachers in the Pojoaque school district, where many San Ildefonso pupils attend classes, that the act does not take into account cultural differences and has forced schools to focus strictly on English, leaving no room for native languages. “Once we lose our language, we lose our culture,” Mountain said.
Maggie Benally, principal of the Navajo Immersion School in Fort Defiance, Ariz., said her school is an example of what can happen when schools use native language as a tool. Pupils in grades K-2 there learn only in the Diné language and switch gradually to an English-language curriculum after that.
The school has made adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind for the past three years, Benally said. “Language and culture have a positive effect on student achievement,” she said.
If lawmakers reauthorize the act, Benally said, they need to leave room for schools to incorporate language and culture. The government also should encourage and fund ways to make sure Indian schools have enough high-quality teachers, she said.
State Secretary of Education Veronica Garcia said schools in isolated rural areas, where many tribal and pueblo schools are located, often have difficulty recruiting teachers. The government needs to support ways to encourage Native Americans to become teachers so they can return to teach in their tribes and pueblos, Garcia said.
The law also disregards tribal sovereignty by forcing schools to adhere to state academic standards, said Samantha Pasena, a recent graduate of the Santa Fe Indian School.
In addition to issues facing Native Americans, the panel also brought up the concern that under No Child Left Behind, special-education students are forced to take the same tests as regular students.
“A lot of specifics were brought up that I had never heard before,” Bingaman said after the hearing. He said would take concerns about maintaining culture in the face of the federal law back to Washington.
No Child Left Behind requires testing of students in grades three to eight and at least one grade of high school. Proponents of changes to the law argue there should be different methods of assessment, including a growth model that follows the progress of individual students.
Gov. Bill Richardson, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, has said he will work to get rid of the law if he is elected.
Supporters of the law say changes might weaken it and undermine the accountability it was intended to establish.
Contact John Sena at 995-3812 or firstname.lastname@example.org