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Culture Comes to the Kids at Puente de Hozhó Language Immersion School

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Walk into Puente de Hozhó, a K-5 language immersion school for urban Navajo kids whose first language is English, and you know immediately that something special is happening here.

At Puente de Hozhó, Navajo children are learning academic subjects—from math to reading to social studies—in the Navajo language using content that is specific to their Navajo culture. In Roberta Gorman’s grade 4-5 classroom, the children explore traditional Navajo science. They also learn Western science. Her fourth graders do well on Arizona’s standardized science testing, which is administered statewide to all children in that grade.

Established in 2001, Puente de Hozhó is part of the Flagstaff, Arizona public school system. In addition to its Navajo/English program, the trilingual magnet school offers a Spanish/English program for Hispanic children. The name of the school comes from the Spanish words puente de, which mean “bridge of,” and the Navajo word hozhó, which roughly translated means “beauty.” In English, the name means Bridge of Beauty, a concept illustrated by murals on the exterior of the building created by children and staff under the direction of Navajo artists Shonto Begay and Baje Whitethorne.

Tanya H. Lee

Navajo artist Shonto Begay helped children and staff create this mural for the entrance to Puente de Hozhó.

At the kindergarten level in the Navajo/English program, the children spend all of their time in a classroom where 90 percent of the instruction is in Navajo. Their teacher is Ilene Ryan, who is a fluent speaker and who holds both regular Arizona teaching credentials and a master’s in bilingual multi-cultural education. She teaches the standard kindergarten curriculum content in Navajo—the kids in her classroom are subject to the same Common Core standards as are all kindergarteners in Arizona.

During my visit, the kindergarteners were working on Navajo vocabulary. They learn to pronounce each word, its meaning, its spelling and how it is used in context. Each child has a journal. Ryan suggests a topic and the child writes one or two sentences in Navajo and draws an illustration. For reading, they learn sight words in Navajo just as they learn sight words in English during their English reading block.

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Irene Tsosie, the first-grade teacher, is a Navajo elder with a passion for teaching and the credentials to prove it. She was having the children line up according to the color of their pants—a process that involved a lot of talking and gesturing. Puente de Hozhó Principal Dawn Trubakoff explained that teachers use every means possible to give the children context to understand the Navajo words they are learning, instead of giving them the word in English.

Puente de Hozhó

Irene Tsosie’s first graders go through their morning routine.

Pam Hanson, also a certified Arizona elementary teacher, is the second- and third-grade Navajo teacher. Children at this level spend most of the day in their Navajo classroom and part in an English classroom. But in both, concepts are taught using culturally-based content. Third graders were at their desks learning—and using—vocabulary to describe the things you would find in a hogan in preparation for building dioramas. Several were using iPads to record their work. Trubakoff explains that the community—the Flagstaff Unified School District, that is—passed a bond to purchase iPads so that every teacher in the district would have enough for their students.

At grade 5, students at Puente de Hozhó are asked in their English-speaking classroom to write about a famous person (they chose mostly U.S. presidents) and in their Navajo-speaking classroom the teacher provides a list of Navajo leaders as the subjects of their reports. This is also the grade where they learn how government works and the principle of multi-culturalism extends to that topic. In their Navajo classroom, where they spend about half the day, students learn about the Navajo government, from tribal president to chapter head. In fact, their teacher, credentialed by the state as a regular classroom teacher (with a master’s) is president of the Navajo Nation’s Leupp Chapter just a few miles outside Flagstaff. She is the first woman to be elected to that position.

Students at Puente de Hozhó do struggle with their first standardized tests, which they take in second grade, said Trubakoff. But by third grade the gap is closing and after that the children’s test scores match those of students in high socio-economic schools and surpass those of students in schools similar to this one. At the same time, they are learning the language they need to communicate with their non-English speaking grandparents, creating a multi-generational benefit.

But describing academics, teaching strategies and outcomes does not begin to capture what this school is about. Its most impressive feature is the care shown by administrators, teachers and staff for the children, who eagerly approach Trubakoff in the course of my tour around the school with their accomplishments and receive not just acknowledgement but wildly enthusiastic praise. Children are greeted in the hallways with compliments and huge smiles. This school truly celebrates diversity and multi-culturalism and honors each child exactly as she or he is right now.

“No one here needs to be fixed,” explains Trubakoff, whose leadership creates a wonderfully positive and nurturing environment for young learners.