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Jemez Pueblo Charter Schools Soaring to New Heights

Walatowa High Charter School at Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico is described by its Principal/Superintendent Arrow Wilkinson as “the world’s smallest school district.” Because of the experiential-learning school’s unique charter as its own local educational agency, his comment holds plenty of merit.

Jemez Pueblo is described as the Native community with the highest level of tribal language fluency in the U.S. According to a recent tribal survey nearly 75 percent of tribal members speak Towa—a majority of them live in the village known as Walatowa (meaning this is the place). The older generations are at 85 to 90 percent fluent, but the percentage drops among the younger generations.

The Towa language is passed down orally and is not written. Virtually all tribal elders and leaders believe this methodology is the best way to maintain the Jemez traditions and history into the future. They recognize that without the language and its fluent use much of the context of their stories about their past, their homelands, and their ancestors will be lost.

Annually, American Indian and Alaska Native high school graduation rates are the lowest of any racial or ethnic population in the U.S.—roughly 50 percent nationally according to a report called “Diplomas Count 2013” published by Education Week. Native dropout rates are nearly twice that of all students nationwide. Pueblo schools and students across New Mexico are not immune to any of these negative numbers.

Some of the lowest Standards Based Assessment (SBA) scores in the nation are recorded at Indian reservation schools. SBA is an annual state test that measures high school student achievement in reading, math and science. In New Mexico, the SBA also serves as the high school exit exam. Traditionally, communication in a Pueblo household is nearly all verbal and nonverbal, with very little reading.

Over a decade ago Jemez tribal leaders recognized this quandary and became proactive in improving their children’s academics without sacrificing their language and culture. A movement began in 1999 and Jemez tribal members were polled and asked, “What would you like the Pueblo to look like in 2010?”

Kathleen Phelan

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A Walatowa High senior presents his mandatory thesis to members of the Jemez Pueblo tribal community.

According to Kevin Shendo, First Lieutenant Governor for the Pueblo and former education director for Jemez for more than a decade, there was one big question that needed to be answered. “Initially, we wanted to know ‘what is our vision?’ A big part of that was education. We wanted to take ownership of the education of our children.”

Jemez leaders decided to create a charter school, a K-8 conversion-school from a mission school. It is called the San Diego Riverside Charter School. It was the first charter school approved under a new state law. “It was about conversion of the tribal school into a charter school to sustain us into the future, and still have language and culture-based education,” Shendo said.

Soon after, in the fall of 2003, Walatowa High Charter School began. It was the first charter school in New Mexico, and it has made strides as it celebrates its 10th anniversary. Last year, Walatowa ninth-graders’ SBA reading proficiency rate rose by nearly 45 percent and tenth-grade reading scores went up a whopping 64 percent. Math grades also went up almost 43 percent.

“We’re the only school in the whole state, with our demographics, whose tenth-grade reading scores went up. We have Native American kids and we also have (six) Spanish kids. We’re in a rural area,” said Wilkinson, who is enrolled with the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota, as well as being part Muscogee Creek from Oklahoma.

“Considering our socioeconomics, considering our high (tribal) oral language proficiency, it’s supposed to be harder. Nationally, reading scores generally go down for tenth-graders. I’m really proud of the fact that our past four valedictorians went to major research college institutions,” Wilkinson said. “A big reason for our success has been that we haven’t disconnected our school from the community.”

Last year Walatowa High graduated 18 of 19 students—that’s 95 percent. The school has a total of 69 students in grades 9-12 this year. As always, a large majority of the students (52) are from Jemez Pueblo, while eight are from neighboring Zia Pueblo. Wilkinson said he fully expects 17 of his 18 seniors in the 2014 class—94 percent—to graduate and continue on their educational paths.

“The main focus of the Towa language in the charter schools has been to reinforce Pueblo learning,” said Shendo, who believes Jemez is the only tribe in the nation with a K-12 charter school system. “The tribal council (recently) voted to convert our head start into a full (tribal language) immersion school. We’re building leaders who will take responsible leadership roles in the future. Language and culture are at the heart of that.”