Fueling Indians' past, future
Associated Press
Aug. 19, 2006

Charter school offers lessons about heritage

Felicia Fonseca

ALBUQUERQUE - Richard Chissoe knows he has a responsibility as a parent to teach his son the cultures of his Laguna, Osage and Muscogee Creek ancestors.

But Chissoe also wants his 11-year-old son, Josiah, to have a public education that offers him lessons on such things as tribal sovereignty, why some American Indians live on their ancestral homelands and others don't, and what paved the way for casinos on Indian land.

Chissoe says those things aren't being taught through the traditional public school system, so he and his wife enrolled Josiah in an American Indian charter school.The Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque, which opened this month, is one of 18 charter schools nationwide that cater to urban Indians and other students curious about Indian culture. About 100
sixth- and seventh-graders are enrolled in the school.

The lessons at the charter school meet state standards while giving a top priority to the culture and traditions of the students as well as their health, said Principal Kara Bobroff.

"I want him (Josiah) to understand as an urban Indian, he's not a brand X,"
Chissoe said. "There are other urban Indians who have the same questions about their identity and what their history is."

American Indian students often lag behind other minority groups when it comes to test scores. Tribal officials say their best hope for educating them is to establish schools that identify with their needs.

"What tends to go into the founding of a school like this is an interest and determination to reach students of Native American ancestry by motivating them about their past and motivating them about their future," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, which tracks charter schools. The Washington, D.C.-based group lists a total of 52 American Indian charter schools in the country. Arizona has the most with 20, followed by Hawaii with 11 and California with five.

The new school is one of three in New Mexico. Jemez Pueblo officials have opened two charter schools on tribal land: San Diego Riverside and Walatowa High School.

"A lot of it was taking ownership over our young people," said Kevin Shendo, director of tribal education at Jemez Pueblo. "We know our children best. We know how to educate them best. Unless you have real control over the curriculum and how it's taught and delivered, you can't effectively reform education within your community."

Juanita Toledo, 20, grew up in Jemez Pueblo, where 85 percent of the residents speak the native Towa language. Toledo was a senior in the Jemez Valley Public School system, but when she learned Walatowa would open, she switched to the charter school and spent another three years there before graduating in May.

Toledo said she wanted the extra attention of the smaller school and the cultural connections with tribal elders and other students.

"Our culture is really important, and it can be integrated into the public school curriculum," she said.

Officials at the Native American Community Academy have tapped teaching talent at the University of New Mexico to instruct the students. Lessons include studying geometry using designs found in American Indian pottery, rugs or contemporary art. Students also are expected to read a non-fiction or autobiographical account of how their particular tribe or community was affected by events such as the Pueblo Revolt or the Long Walk.

In physical-education classes, students study American Indian social dances, identify the origin of the dance and are expected to re-create them in a presentation.

To fill a language void in the Albuquerque Public Schools district, Bobroff said the academy will offer Navajo.

Chissoe, who has worked with Indian youth, said he has noticed that the cultural aspects that define students aren't nurtured in traditional public schools.

"I'm excited about a public learning environment that will be culturally sensitive to those Native students," he said.