Navajos seeking education control
The Arizona Republic
Sept. 4, 2005
Betty Reid
Navajo Nation leaders say schools on their territory are better off under their control and recently took an initial step to wrest control of classrooms from the state.

Although it's uncertain when or whether their plan will be realized, Navajo leaders have said they would create a department of education and institute their own testing and learning standards, which they say are better suited for Navajo students.

"It's never been attempted by any tribe (in Arizona)," said Leland Leonard, director of Navajo Nation's Division of Dine Education. "The current academic approach is a borrowed concept from BIA and the state. We want to close the achievement gap by building our own standards.

"It would be a department equal to or better than the three where our children attend schools," Leonard added.

State officials say they are open to that concept but transferring control of state schools to Native American governments is a difficult prospect, and the state may have the best education programs available for students on reservations.

On July 19, the Navajo Nation legislators, exercising sovereign powers, made changes to its education code that would be in place by 2017. An 11-member board and a superintendent of schools would oversee its function.

Navajo Reservation schools are currently overseen by the Arizona, Utah and New Mexico Department of Education, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and in the case of parochial school, the Diocese of Gallup.

Through a new department of education, the Navajo Nation would also establish its own curriculum, its own standards of performance, its own test scores and an adequate yearly progress report. It would likely mean Navajo students would not take Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards to receive a high school diploma or even glance at the national standardized test, the TerraNova.

However, Navajo leaders said they were not interested in assuming financial control of the state's $140 million budget for the schools, which educates 21,000 students, a majority Navajo. Percy Deal, a member of the board of supervisors in Navajo County, is ecstatic about the tribe's philosophy to exert sovereignty. What troubles him is the elimination of Arizona standards and the high-stakes tests like AIMS and TerraNova.

"That is to say, we have our own standards and we only learn about our little world and we don't want our students to compete on the national level. That is wrong." Deal said. "Our children's world, their future, is not within the Navajo Nation. It is outside the reservation. So they have to compete nationally."

Education of Navajo children started in 1868 when the tribe agreed to end its wars with the U.S. government and agreed to send their children to boarding schools run by the BIA. In the 1960s, Navajo children traveled as far away as Phoenix or Brigham City, Utah, for nine months to attend high school.

Tired of sending their children out of state for high school, Navajo activists, with the help of legal services, demanded local schools. Local control appealed to Navajo parents and the emergence of district schools on the Navajo Nation started in the late 1950s and 1960s.

The Navajo Nation has eight large public schools, many located in urban residential areas like Tuba City, Kayenta and Chinle.

Cyndi Thompson, a parent at Chinle Unified School District, said many parents are unaware of the tribe's plan to consolidate all schools under its own department of education. She is satisfied with her children's schools but admits she overhears the community repeat, "Nihina'nitin baa'diil dééh," or "our oral Navajo philosophy and instruction is fading."

Tom Horne, superintendent of Arizona Public Instruction, said he agreed to be "open-minded" about the Navajo Nation's plan and had met with tribal leaders in June. District employees, governing school board members and parents from Navajo district school are already inquiring about how realistic the Navajo Nation plan is, Horne said.

People need to understand that under federal and state laws he remains in charge of educating Navajo students at public schools, he said.

National test scores at reservation public schools fall below the 50th national percentile mark in language arts, math and reading. Navajo students improved on AIMS 2005, a test which was made easier to take than in previous years.

"I'm still responsible for the academic performance of the schools. If they (Navajo Nation) want to take over that responsibility, they have to convince Congress to pass a law transferring that responsibility from me to them," he said.

Leonard, former chief executive officer of the Phoenix Indian Center, believes test scores at reservation public schools are low. That is only one reason the tribe wants to pursue its own version of a Department of Education. He believes Navajo-crafted curriculum, standards and testing would benefit Navajo children.

The beauty of such a move is that school districts would be required to teach that Navajo language as part of the curriculum, he said.

Such a move would fly in the face of Proposition 203 a voter-approved English-only policy.

Horne said the state does not object to the teaching of Navajo language and culture with one exception.

"Students who are not proficient in English, they must become proficient in English so that they can compete academically," Horne said. "Once they are proficient in English, then teaching Navajo and culture is a positive thing. I'm only opposed to teaching Navajo to children who speak Navajo only because that puts them behind academically."