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Albuquerque Public Schools Letting Tribal Leaders Into Conversation to Help Native Students

Albuquerque Public Schools has had an Indian Education Department since 1974, but just this February brought tribal leaders into the conversation.

Albuquerque Public Schools opened their own Indian Education Department in 1974. Since that time, despite the myriad of problems faced by Indian schoolchildren throughout the APS system, New Mexico’s largest school district had never reached out to tribal leaders across the state to participate in consultation to address the problems—until now.

APS held its initial Indian Education meeting in late February, inviting all Pueblo tribal leaders and the presidents of the Navajo Nation, Jicarilla Apache Nation and the Mescalero Apache Tribe to meet in Albuquerque to discuss the education of Native American students within the APS system. Another meeting has been scheduled for April 28 in which all tribal leaders will again be invited to meet with students and APS officials.

Throughout the four decades that the Indian Education Department has been operating, Native students have lagged behind other students in graduation rates. In 2014, the graduation rate in APS for Native students was 50 percent, compared to 63 percent for other students. Statistics show that Indian students had the highest habitual truancy rates at 22 percent in 2014, as well as lower than average scores in math and reading efficiency.

“This (consultation) is the beginning of a long awaited journey to engage our tribal leaders from across the state, so that we may join together to improve the education of our Native American students,” said Dr. Daisy Thompson, APS Director of Indian Education, a citizen of the Navajo Nation.

“After nine years with APS I was able to convince them that we needed to have a meeting with tribal leaders and talk about Indian Education in the APS system. I had been asking district leaders all along, each year,” said Dr. Thompson, who is of the Red Streak into the Water Clan and born for the Salt Clan. “We needed to have conversations with tribal leaders and school district officials for us to provide a more quality education for our Native students.”

These initial meetings have been set up to help boost the students’ self-esteem by looking for ways that both tribal leaders and the APS could embrace the different tribal cultures within the district. According to Thompson, who did her doctoral research in indigenous cultural values, Indian students with a strong sense of cultural pride show higher academic performance than students without it.

In the February meeting, the group of tribal leaders and APS officials heard from students like Janai Campos, a senior at Albuquerque High School and a citizen of the Pueblo of Isleta, “My culture is part of who I am, and cannot be ignored. It has helped me to get to where I am, not only as a student, but as a person. It will be part of me forever.”

The meeting was put on by the APS Indian Education Department and the new Office of Equity and Engagement. APS is the 35th largest school district in the U.S. There are approximately 6,400 Native students in the APS system from 117 tribes and three Aboriginal Nations from Canada. American Indian and Alaska Native students make up over 5 percent of APS students.

“We are a multi-tribal school district. There are many languages and cultures represented in APS,” said Thompson, who received her Doctor of Philosophy degree in Special Education from the University of New Mexico, her Master of Education Degree in Special Education from Northern Arizona University, and her bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Arizona State University.

“The district has had an Indian Education Department for 41 years, and for 41 years the district has failed to bring tribal leaders to the table to engage them in the education of our Native American students,” said Joseph Escobedo, Chief Equity and Management Officer for the office that was created in January. “This meeting was important to engage the tribal leaders for the first time.”

According to Thompson, who has been identified as an education scholar in special education and educational leadership nationally and internationally, more than 90 percent of Native American students across the nation attend public schools. Less than 10 percent attend Bureau of Indian Education schools.

“Our students who attend public school, especially in urban areas such as Albuquerque, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Denver—it is those students who are often left out and forgotten by their tribal leaders when it comes to scholarships and benefits,” Thompson said. “Tribal leaders need to talk to these students who have moved away from their tribal communities and not take the stance that ‘you need to come back and learn your tribal language and you need to come back and relearn your culture.’”

“The leaders of the Pueblo of Acoma came and met with their students at West Mesa High School and gave them a pep talk,” Escobedo said. “For many of those students they had never connected with leaders of the Acoma Nation, so it was powerful. For some of those students I would venture to say it was even life changing because they now have the connection between their education, their environment living in this urban setting, and the historical and cultural roots they come from.”