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Despite Arizona's Ethnic Studies Ban, Students Can Still Enroll in Native Programs

With an ethnic studies ban now in place in Arizona’s public and charter schools, many Native Americans in the state who live off-reservation are wondering where they can send their children to get a good education, one that gives them a sense of who they are and their part in America’s past, present and future.

The ban specifically prohibits classes that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government or resentment toward a race or class of people, along with those designed for students of a specific ethnic group or to advocate ethnic solidarity. Since it went into effect on January 1, 2011, Debora Norris, Navajo, director of the Arizona Department of Education’s (ADE) Office of Indian Education, has received a lot of calls, letters and e-mails from concerned Native parents. In fact, there was so much of an outcry that her office had to issue a statement, reminding the public that the statute exempts classes for Native students that are required to comply with federal law or courses that cover the history of an ethnic group—as long as the classes are open to all students and do not incite a rebellion against the federal government or hatred toward races or classes of people.

When asked if American Indian parents should be worried, Norris did not give a yes-or-no answer. Instead, she says, “I hope people understand there is not supposed to be a connection between this bill and Indian education history courses. There is also an incredible amount of support in state law for Native American history.” These laws and institutions, she notes, include the Arizona Indian Education Act of 2006, which, among other things, established the Indian Education Office within the ADE, and an Indian Education Advisory Council; and a law that requires school boards to “incorporate instruction on Native American history into appropriate existing curricula”; and a policy adopted by the ADE in 1986 requiring Indian content in instruction in every school district. Norris conceded that she does not know how many Arizona schools are in compliance with those laws.

About 65,000 out of more than 1 million students enrolled in Arizona public schools are Native. There are more than 2,200 public schools spread across 225 districts, and, Norris added, more than 100 of these schools are all-Indian, or campuses located on tribal lands, administered by boards totally (or near totally) made up of Native members elected by their tribal communities. “In general, the reservation-based districts are the districts where you will see the best examples of Native American content,” she says. “They have more of a presence of tribal leadership and elders in the classroom—there is just more content available.” It is safe to assume that these schools have not had to make any changes to comply with the new law.

What about off-reservation schools? A large number of Indian students attend schools in urban districts, such as Flagstaff Unified, Maricopa Unified and Phoenix Unified. Many of them have Indian education programs, mostly funded by federal dollars (Title VII Indian Education Formula Grant and Johnson O’Malley), and offer culturally relevant courses and activities for Native students. We checked with a couple to see how the ban has affected their Native programs.

Flagstaff Unified School District appears to have gotten through the ban unscathed. Out of a student population of around 9,700 students spread across 19 elementary, middle and high schools, 2,700 are Native American, mainly Navajo. The district has an Indian Education Support Program (IESP) and offers culturally relevant courses. The IESP, which receives Johnson O’Malley and Indian Education Formula Grant funding, has Native American staff members in each of the schools to provide academic assistance to students. They also monitor students’ progress and work with parents on issues related to attendance and academic performance. “Native American academic advisors not only provide that connection to the home and family, but also serve as that connection between [the student] and the school and the teachers,” says Elaine Kasch, Navajo, the program’s supervisor.

The IESP has an honors program, giving recognition to Native students in grades four to 12 for achieving high grade point averages, and does a lot to keep students on the path to college. In partnership with Northern Arizona University’s (NAU) Applied Indigenous Studies department, it has a Shadowing Day, when high school students follow university students around for a day to give them a feel for what it is like to be in college. And it created the Dream Catchers project for its Indian middle school students. Joining with NAU’s College of Health and Human Services, the program takes students to college for the day to learn about careers in health.

Kasch says the IESP organizes events for the whole family, and it usually includes cultural activities. Family Fun Nights, for example, are held three times a year, during which they do traditional arts and crafts and tell Coyote stories. “Since they are off the reservation, they don’t have that connection on a daily basis. So, we try to bring that into the program during the course of the year,” she says.

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The district’s Native American academic offerings start at the K-5 Puente de Hózhó Trilingual Public Magnet School. Here, core classes are taught in English, Navajo and Spanish. Students can continue learning Navajo in the two middle schools and two high schools. Loren Hudson, Navajo, teaches Navajo I, II and III and Diné history and government at Flagstaff High School. In the language classes, students, predominantly Navajo, not only learn to speak and write in Diné Bizaad, but they are also introduced to Navajo culture. The Diné History & Government class covers treaties, the Navajo Nation’s constitution and legal system along with important historical events and personalities, such as the Mexican-Indian Wars, the Long Walk and the Navajo Code Talkers.

Overall, Hudson works with about 150 students each school day. In the Navajo language classes, which have been part of the school’s modern language program for about 12 years, there are never any spare seats. While the curriculum, which has not changed in any of Hudson’s courses since the law went into effect, can easily explain the classes’ popularity, the teacher—raised on the Navajo reservation by his grandparents in a traditional way—and his passion for passing on what he learned are definite pluses.

Hudson says that the students who take his classes leave high school knowing who they are. “Personally, I try to instill a sense of respect, pride and honor for where they come from, who they are and how the teaching empowers them. That is really kind of my focus.”

Flagstaff is fortunate with the programs and courses that it can provide. “There are other off-reservation schools that would like to [offer them]. There is a great demand for language classes. But one of the biggest challenges is trying to get teachers,” Kasch says.

In Arizona, there are only between 700 and 800 Native teachers working in public schools, Norris says. There is a shortage in Arizona just as there is across the country, with just 0.5 percent of 3.9 million teachers being American Indian/Alaska Native, according to 2007–2008 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

Mesa Public Schools, the state’s largest district, deserves high marks for its Native American academic program. With Theresa Natoni Price, Navajo/Hopi, president of the Arizona Indian Education Association, onboard as director of its Native American Education Program (NAEP), how can it get a low grade? The NAEP, funded by federal and state grants and funds from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, serves a little more than 3,000 American Indian students, roughly five percent of the district’s total student population (64,352 in the 2011–2012 school year). The program offers tutoring, has a parent committee that meets monthly to share information and organizes monthly cultural activities for students and their families and an annual pow wow.

The district’s course catalogs are not loaded with American Indian classes, but there are three. Westwood High School offers Native American literature; Dobson High School has a Native American studies course; and all of the high schools have a multicultural literature course, which can include indigenous works. Students pursuing a Navajo Nation Chief Manuelito Scholarship can take required Navajo culture, language and government classes at Mesa Community College.

Mesa’s Native American courses were not affected by the new law. For Price, the bigger issues are teachers and funding to do more. “It is just so hard to find qualified teachers that have a Native focus. They really try to do as much as they can with the limited funds that they do receive.”