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APS Sees Cultural, Language Programs as Way to Help Indian Students

By Amy Miller
Journal Staff Writer
    Many small hands wave in the air when Shirley Gee asks her Navajo students if they speak their native language.
    Gee smiles, saying they are likely showing off for visitors. In reality, only a few students in her Navajo language classes at Painted Sky Elementary School speak Navajo fluently, although many know a few words.
    "Most (students) say they want to learn Navajo so they can talk with their grandparents," Gee said. "It makes them unique. It makes them feel special."
    But teaching Navajo does more than help students communicate with their elders, says Gee and other educators. It gives them a sense of belonging and confidence about learning other subjects and making better grades.
    The class "makes me feel good and want to learn more about Navajo culture," said 10-year-old Tracy Martinez. "It makes me want to read more."
    The problem, say educators, is that there are not enough classes like this for Native American students.
    To improve lagging test scores and low graduation rates, all of the nearly 6,000 Native American students in Albuquerque Public Schools need access to Native American cultural and language programs— from pre-school to graduation, said Nancy Martine-Alonzo, director of Indian education for APS.
    But money and resources from the state, federal government and private sources are limited. APS has a $1.5 million budget specifically for Native American education that pays for programs at only 20 schools and serves fewer than 600 students, she said.
    Money could be even tighter next year. APS stands to lose more than $200,000 if Congress approves the federal education budget.
    That will mean fewer extras, such as classroom supplies or field trips. A summer school program for Native American students may be canceled, Martine-Alonzo said.
    "Native American students (in APS) by far have the largest achievement gap," she said. "What has the district done differently to serve these students? That's the question we need to ask ourselves."
    It's not just a problem in Albuquerque. The state's Legislative Finance Committee issued a report on March 28 saying the state is not doing enough to improve the education of Native American children, despite a 2003 state law requiring schools to hire more Native American teachers and provide culturally relevant learning experiences.
    But state Education Secretary Veronica Garcia said that the report did not take into account other programs that work to narrow the achievement gap for all minority students.
   
Little money, big challenges
    Any budget cuts, however small, hurt students, Martine-Alonzo said. Albuquerque's Native American students come from 160 tribes and pueblos, and they struggle with many different social, financial and emotional needs.
    Those barriers to learning become all too evident when looking at graduation and dropout rates, as well as test scores, educators said.
    About one in three Native American students in the class of 2004 graduated in four years, the lowest graduation rate of any ethnic or racial group.
    They also earn some of the lowest scores on standardized tests. In 2004, 27 percent of ninth-grade Native American students tested proficient in math, while 64 percent of Anglo students and 63 percent of Asian students did.
    Many principals try to address the problem by paying for Native American programs and classes from their school budgets, grants or through other departments outside the Indian education division.
    Pat Woodard, principal at Painted Sky Elementary, gets money from the APS bilingual education department to pay for her Navajo language classes, and it's been well worth the effort, she said.
    She's seen Navajo students' reading scores jump dramatically. In the 2003-04 school year, 17 percent tested proficient in reading. The next year, 34 percent did.
    "I wouldn't say the class is the only reason," Woodard said. "But I do think it's played a big part."
    Finding qualified teachers certified by the tribe to teach the school's Navajo language classes is hard, said Holly Beiler, assistant principal at West Mesa High School. West Mesa— which has 189 Native American students, the third-highest population in APS— went without a teacher for three months last year.
   
'Fly like a new bird'
    Keith Franklin, a member of the APS Native American Task Force, has written a plan to reform Indian education by creating language and cultural programs for all Native American students, from kindergarten to high school.
    Until then, Franklin and others hope that a Native American charter school opening this fall is a step in the right direction.
    "It's going to fly like a new bird," Franklin said.
    There are about 55 such schools in 11 states, including two in New Mexico, said Mary Jiron Belgarde, an associate education professor at the University of New Mexico. Some are run by a single tribe, and others are in cities with students from many tribes.
    "Students perform better at these schools because they get the kind of attention they don't receive in a regular public school," Belgarde said.
    Classes at the APS Native American Community Academy will be small and will focus on history and cultural traditions, said director Kara Bobroff, who worked with educators and tribal leaders to develop the curriculum.
    So far, 92 middle school students have enrolled. Eventually, the academy will cover grades six to 12. Bobroff does not know if all enrolled are Native American, and that's all right, she said. Any student, regardless of race or ethnicity, benefits from a focused curriculum.
    While the school is open to any student from any background, Bobroff does wants the school to be a "community" for Native American families so parents feel comfortable taking part.