A deteriorating building, the difficulty of recruiting and retaining teachers and the importance of maintaining a tribal identity while providing challenging classes were all issues U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell heard about Wednesday during a visit to Laguna Pueblo Elementary School.
Jewell said it was her “first opportunity to see an Indian school directly” since she was sworn in as Interior secretary last April.
Jewell was accompanied by a number of people with expertise in various education-related fields, who came together as part of the American Indian Education Study Group. They also attended a roundtable discussion with principals from other tribal schools. Assembled by Jewell and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the study group is charged with recommending improvements to Native American education.
The group is also looking at how new educational reforms and Common Core standards will affect tribal schools. “Indian education is not like a regular public school system because it covers the entire country. So how do we deliver what’s right for students and do it in a way that provides academic rigor, but also supports the unique interests of each tribe?” Jewell asked.
During the tour, the group learned about problems with the school building. They also visited classrooms and talked to students.
“That was my biggest delight – seeing kids learning in the classroom in an enthusiastic way,” Jewell said. “You may have challenges with the heating and cooling system and cracks in the wall, but you wouldn’t tell that from the kids in the classroom, who are doing so well.”
Jewell noted that tribal schools are often rural, remote and poor. That makes it difficult to recruit teachers, who are put off by long daily commutes, a lack of school resources and teacher incentives, and a community unemployment rate that is often “higher than the general population,” she said.
Laguna Elementary Principal Kay Morris, said the school building dates from about 1965 and is in disrepair, although it is clean and well-maintained. The cement block construction “is not properly insulated.” Seasonal temperature extremes sometimes require entire classrooms to relocate, which “takes away from instructional time.”
Study group member Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, said the federal government is slowly changing its top-down delivery of Indian education.
“The Bureau of Indian Education funds about 186 schools nationwide, and in the past those were all run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education,” said Washburn, the former dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law. “Nowadays, more than 120 of those schools (including Laguna Elementary) are actually run by the tribes through contracts with the federal government. … We have to put tribes in the driver’s seat in all these schools, and in more of the subject area matters, because they have the best solutions.”