Tribal and government officials held a ceremony to mark the start of the first school year after control of Isleta Elementary was transferred from the federal government to the tribe in March.
On hand was Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell, who said in an interview after a ribbon-cutting ceremony that other tribal governments, including several in New Mexico, are also in the process of taking control of their schools.
Isleta Elementary had been under the control of the federal government since the 1890s. The federal government will continue to provide funding for the school, but the pueblo’s tribal government will have control over the grant school’s faculty, staff and curriculum.
“This is a great day for Isleta Pueblo and, frankly, a great day across Indian Country,” Jewell said. “This pueblo is saying, ‘We think we can do a better job than the federal government of taking care of our kids.’ And we agree with them. For the first time, there will be great accountability because the people of Isleta Pueblo will hold people in the school accountable for doing a great job by their kids.”
There are about 41,000 students in 183 schools overseen by the Bureau of Indian Education across the country; some of those schools are still controlled by the federal government.
Jewell said several other tribal governments in New Mexico are starting the process of transitioning to take control of their schools.
“There’s a number of them that are interested in this and some are further along on the continuum than others,” she said.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., and Isleta government and community leaders were among those who attended the event on Saturday, which featured school tours, food, Native ceremonies and prayers, and several speakers. The pueblo is located about 15 miles south of Albuquerque along the Rio Grande.
Isleta Gov. E. Paul Torres said hopefully the change in control will lead to an increase in enrollment. He said many local students have left for surrounding schools in recent years because Isleta Elementary has struggled with high turnover among the school’s teachers and leaders, and low test scores.
“It’s going to be hard convincing the parents to bring their kids back to Isleta Elementary, but that’s what we have to do,” he said.
Officials at the ribbon-cutting ceremony said giving the tribal government control of the curriculum will help them better create lessons for teaching native language and culture. Native languages across the country are at risk of being lost as younger generations grow up without those lessons in tribal schools.
“The Tiwa culture and language is going to be a part of the daily activities,” said Frank Fast Wolf, the new principal at Isleta Elementary. “It’s going to be meshed with what we do during the day.”