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Helping Apache junior high students succeed

SAN CARLOS, Ariz. – “Mrs. Titla this is how I’m going to sign my name when I become president,” said the San Carlos Junior High student smiling. In an essay just two weeks earlier he wrote that he planned on running for chairman, governor and president.

Yes, he is dreaming big, and why not? As his substitute teacher, I witnessed his work ethic. The student is a member of the student council, and has the ability to become anything he chooses, as do all the students at this school.

San Carlos Junior High is on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in southeastern Arizona, about 120 miles east of Phoenix.

Recently, a student asked what subject I was teaching that day. “Language Arts,” I replied. “Yes,” he said as he pumped his fist gleefully. That’s a far cry from when I first started substitute teaching at the school.

When I started out with these 13- and 14-year-olds, I didn’t know what to expect. Until then I had only taught kindergarteners. The warnings came from former junior high teachers and others, “They’re wild. They’re naughty. Their hormones are going haywire. You’re jumping from the frying pan into the fire!”

Mentally, I prepared myself by drawing from my experiences as a student (yes, we all were at one time) and as a parent. After all, two of my sons went through this phase and my third son is currently in this age group. He even attended San Carlos Junior High last year earning the nickname “Shush” which means “bear” in Apache.

After observing students’ behaviors on my first day, I surmised these seventh and eighth grade kids were similar to kindergarteners, only bigger. Later, I realized many were testing “the new sub” even though I sternly laid down the rules.

Once I became a regular sub, students realized I wasn’t going to be pushed around. Most accepted my strict standards and high expectations. An indicator I wasn’t such a popular sub is when one student arrived in class and upon seeing me said “Oh my God” in exasperation.

With a lack of substitute teachers in the school district, I kept busy filling in for teachers on a weekly basis teaching everything from Apache culture to math.

Administrators and parents are not so proud of the school’s “failing” status, although the eighth grade recently met the Adequate Yearly Progress requirement as federally mandated. Members of the state Department of Education are assisting administrators and teachers so the school can improve its overall standing and become a “performing” school.

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Before anyone places judgment, I want to point out that nearby off-reservation schools are also “failing.” Also, two of the four schools serving K-12 on the reservation are doing well and are at the “performing” level.

Some may wonder how schools are deemed “failing.” In a nutshell, students are not scoring high enough on the AIMS or TerrNova tests to meet standards to receive an overall passing grade. The junior high has not been at the performing level since 2004 – 2005.

Among the challenges is a high turnover rate among teachers. It’s not an uncommon problem in rural areas, let alone reservation schools. There are some excellent teachers in our school district who are working hard to help students improve test scores. A new superintendent is working with principals to align curriculums, reconfigure grade levels and implement a successful behavior adjustment program to improve learning and increase standardized test scores. What I’m most excited about is the plan to make the Apache language part of the daily instruction beginning in 2010.

Students are also being asked to step up. Homework, nearly non-existent in some classrooms, is now becoming the norm. One student recently questioned why there is added work. I explained they are far behind their peers in the rest of the state but that it didn’t have to be that way. I believe most students are up to the challenge.

During this phase of their life, it’s not unusual to see some students flex their wings in positive and negative ways. Some become rebellious.

In my effort to help students respond better to me as an authoritative figure, I decided to announce I knew many of their parents, grandparents and family members. I instantly knew the parents of some of the boys because they are named after their fathers, some of whom were my former classmates. A select few know I am related to them. Once they knew I knew their families, many changed their attitudes.

In two-and-a-half months, I’ve only had to send a handful of the 300 students to the dean due to disruptions and disrespectfulness. On one occasion I sent a student to detention and called her parents.

For the most part, all students understand school is a place of learning and when challenged mentally, they respond. Recently I filled in for the Language Arts teacher. Knowing my journalism background, the teacher asked if I would fill in for three days while he attended a training workshop. He left lesson plans involving two folktales. I inadvertently combined two lesson plans in one day, which amounted to quite a bit of reading and class work. Not surprisingly, the students performed well. I managed to keep them on task and assisted them with schoolwork for the entire class period. Keeping them busy allowed no time for mischief. A majority of the students complied and finished their work. Those who chose not to keep up were asked to stay a few minutes after class where I worked with them one-on-one. To my surprise, they knew the answers, but for whatever reason chose not to write them down during class time.

During my first two weeks at the school, a few students questioned why I was actually “teaching” them a subject. They expected me to babysit (for lack of a better word). I’m not sure if other substitute teachers carry out lesson plans, but I am one who does. One student protested saying “but you’re just a sub!” I smiled and responded by saying I am a substitute “teacher,” which means I am certified and qualified to fill in and carry out a lesson plan. I also make sure students know I am there to help them, which surprised one student, who asked why I was helping him. I said because I want to make sure you’re learning and can pass this class.

Drawing from my recollections of junior high and living through it again with my three sons, I can honestly say these students are no different than their peers attending other schools. Their backgrounds may be a little different culturally and economically, but what I’ve stressed to students is – it doesn’t matter what background you come from, you can succeed in school.