SANTA FE, N.M. — There’s “new narrative” that’s emerging about Native people, says Nancy Davis, who coordinates Native American Student Services for Santa Fe Public Schools.
“There are still people who think that Native Americans lived in the past and they all lived in teepees. But we’re alive and thriving, and existing in the contemporary world,” she said.
Davis hopes that new state funding recently made available to the Santa Fe schools, a Taos charter school and elsewhere around New Mexico will help Native students in overcoming the misconceptions that still exist.
SFPS is one of four school districts in New Mexico to receive funding through a state Public Education Department grant aimed at benefiting Native students in response to the landmark Yazzie-Martinez court case.
SFPS will receive one-quarter of the $800,000 PED awarded to school districts as part of its new Indigenous Education Initiative.
“At the heart of it are the students and creating better outcomes,” said Davis, who wrote the application that earned the school district $200,000 this year, with another $400,000 coming in the next two years provided it meets the grant requirements.
Davis said she hopes to use the bulk of the money to fund three new positions to assist the more than 400 Native American students attending public schools in Santa Fe. Funds will also support existing district-wide Native American Student Services (NASS) programs, as well as at Amy Biehl Community School and Santa Fe High School.
At Amy Biehl, artists and storytellers from the nearby Institute of American Indian Arts visit the school on Fridays to share aspects of their respective cultures.
Santa Fe High, with the highest number of enrolled Native American students, is aligning with Project Venture, an Albuquerque-based outfit that works to empower indigenous youth through outdoor adventure and service.
“The biggest thing we’re trying to do here is engage them in school more,” principal Cal Marano said of the approximately 50 Native students at SFHS. “For many years, they’ve often felt that they are not a part of the school community, for whatever reason. What we want to do is make sure we engage them.”
Davis, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa from North Dakota who has lived in Santa Fe for about 30 years, said much of the SFPS allocation will be directed toward that purpose by funding new staff positions, one to provide social and emotional support.
She said many Native American students feel isolated when, like her, they relocate to Santa Fe from somewhere else, or have suffered adverse childhood experiences. She said the new liaison will work with them to help improve their self-esteem and sense of self-worth so they can reach their fullest potential.
She also hopes to hire a college and career counselor to work with Native American students to prepare them for life after high school. That person will assist seniors with college applications and seeking scholarships.
“They’ll also be helping juniors get a road map to acquire the skills they need to get them where they want to go,” she said.
The third position will be a cultural resource specialist to support staff with culturally relevant strategies and teaching materials.
Some of the money will also be used to supplement existing NASS programs, such as tutoring; connecting with other community resources, such as Adelante and Communities in Schools; and field trips.
In a statement, SFPS Superintendent Veronica Garcia said that the grant will “make a significant difference in continuing to ensure that our Native American students have equitable opportunities to excel and achieve their post-secondary goals.”
According to the state Public Education Department, the grant addresses the needs of students identified as “at-risk” in the Yazzie-Martinez case, a consolidation of two separate lawsuits originally brought on behalf of parents and public schoolchildren in Santa Fe and elsewhere, and which resulted in a judge’s ruling that has led to more funding for public education. The suit claimed that the state wasn’t providing students with a sufficient education, as constitutionally mandated, especially among English-language learners, and Native American, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged or disabled students.
The purpose of the grant money is to “combine innovation, flexibility and technical assistance in order to meet community priorities for education, and to respond to the changing educational landscape and identified needs of Native students in New Mexico,” according to a news release.
“Cultural engagement is a vital part of education,” Kara Bobroff, a deputy secretary with PED, said. “We want all students in New Mexico to be college and career prepared, and a key component of that is having a strong sense of self identity.”
Alan Brauer, director of the charter schools division at PED, said in a phone interview that funding for subsequent years is dependent on annual legislative reappropriations, but the idea is for each recipient to develop a program to be fully implemented in three years.
The first two years are to be spent designing a school model based on priorities identified through an internal review and community feedback. The plan is to be implemented in the third year, prioritizing academic excellence and cultural relevance in education, with accountability measures and support structures to maintain sustainability.
In order to be eligible for reappropriation, grantees must submit mid-year and end-of-year reports detailing what progress has been made and describing future plans, Brauer said.
“We think this type of education is what the indigenous people should have, and we’re hoping to be able to expand it,” he said.
Nine school districts applied for the grant, but only four received funding this year. The districts were chosen based on the quality of their applications and need, Brauer said.
He cited the Cuba Independent School District as a good example of where there’s a need, and it was selected as the site for the announcement of the Indigenous Education Initiative grants just before November, Native American Heritage Month.
The district is receiving $250,000, part of which is to be used to increase collaboration with the local Navajo chapter. The funding is meant to “further empower Native American students” by working to improve their self-identity and well-being in order to achieve academic success, according to PED.
On Friday, the Cuba school district held a “Rock Your Mocs” day, where Native students were encouraged to wear moccasins and traditional attire. The event included a dedication of a new hogan overlooking the football field.
Bernalillo Public Schools received $200,000 to develop a culturally relevant curriculum at Santo Domingo elementary and middle schools, which are located on Kewa Pueblo.
PED awarded $150,000 to Vista Grande High School, a charter school in Taos, for “an educational model that is inclusive of the learning styles of Native American students, and of Native histories, perspectives, struggles and successes.”
School Director Isabelle St. Onge said that’s important, especially in communities situated so close to Native American tribes and pueblos, like Taos.
“Because I think that all students in the Taos community will benefit from a greater understanding of the Taos people and the red willow people, and once we understand the shared past, we can talk about things like racial healing, and being a more just society and a more equitable society,” she said.
Vista Grande High has an enrollment of about 100 students, more than a third of them Native American, mostly from Taos Pueblo. More than half are Hispanic.
St. Onge said the school has working to integrate the Native American perspective at the school for several years. It even employs an advisor on Tewa language and culture, “so we’re not being disrespectful of Taos Pueblo,” she said, and established an Indigenous Education Advisory Council.
“We never want to overstep our bounds,” she said.
The school has programs intended to appeal to Native students, like one in adobe making, which she said is a well-paying job in the Taos area where there are so many adobe homes and horno ovens.
“All of this kind of ties into the Indigenous Education Initiative, which is a result of the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit,” said St. Onge, adding that the lawsuit is the best thing that has happened for education in New Mexico during her 25-year career as an educator.
“Frankly, it’s about time this state tried to support the education of Native American students.”