JEMEZ, N.M. - About 95 percent of the enrolled students in the Walatowa High Charter School speak Towa, an ancient Anasazi language that shaped the Rio Grande River region for thousands of years. The school, however, hasn't been around very long, as its formation was locked in conflict between the tribe and a nearby public school district.
In spite of a demonstration that the Jemez Pueblo could successfully operate its own charter elementary school system, resistance from the local school district barred tribal efforts to expand to a secondary school.
''Jemez Valley School District voted against approval of our charter high school proposal in the fall of 2001,'' noted Kevin Shendo, education director of the Jemez Pueblo, whose passion for innovation fuels a growing reputation as a cutting-edge leader.
New Mexico law requires local school districts to approve charter school applications and, in this case, the district objected. Approval by the public school would have meant the loss of students and a shift of state and federal revenue from the local public school to the new tribal charter school.
Jemez Pueblo appealed the school board rejection of its charter application to the State Board of Education. Led by Pueblo Gov. Raymond Gachupin, Jemez leaders and elders delivered an hour of emotional testimony that argued the need for tribal self-determination through education and nationhood through the transmission of Pueblo heritage and culture.
The experience was empowering for Jemez and solidified its commitment to educating its own children, using the vehicle of charter school education.
The American charter school movement is a growing educational phenomenon that started in Minnesota in 1992. Charter schools offer grass-roots communities the opportunity to form and operate college preparatory K - 12 programs. Despite opposition from powerful public school teachers' unions, more and more states have signed on to the alternative education concept. In 15 years, state-authorized legislation led to the opening of 4,000 charter schools that serve 1 million children. Ten percent of New Mexico charter school enrollment is American Indian. But tribal charter schools appear to be recent entrants in the growing field, possibly because they are public schools and enrollment is open to children of all races and creed.
''In January 2002, the [New Mexico] State Board of Education voted against the local school district and approved our charter high school,'' stated Gachupin, in his opening address before the National Charter School Conference held recently in Albuquerque.
''Our responsibility,'' Shendo said, ''is to make education meaningful ... to relate it to our ancestral sites which are in the mountains above us.''
Prehistoric Jemez villages, once known as Anasazi settlements, were constructed high among the steep cliffs and valleys of Jemez Mountain, a huge volcanic complex. Jemez still feels the breath of its ancestors.
First opened in 2003, Walatowa enrolls 64 Jemez students in a college preparatory curriculum geared to academic rigor and community integrated learning. Housed in gray modular structures, the school is nestled on a hill above aged adobe pueblo homes, where brilliant red cliffs are toned by hanging village wood smoke.
The school theme, ''Think globally, create locally,'' signals an exciting feature of the high school curriculum - a study abroad program that motivates Jemez students to prepare themselves academically for a pre-collegiate capstone experience in a foreign nation like India, Tibet, Germany or Australia.
The international travel program offers all high school students the opportunity to undertake comparative cultural research.
Brittney Baca, a National Merit Scholar who will attend the University of Arizona, credits the study abroad program as the great stimulus in her life. She named seven children in a Calcutta orphanage with whom she became quite attached. Baca's and other Jemez students' daily journal entries detailed their duties with disabled children in the orphanage, including feeding and massaging the kids, changing diapers, playing with them, and finally putting them to bed.
''Leaving them was hard at the very end,'' stated Baca, as she described their personalities, and added, ''I know I'll never forget them.''
Walatowa students are required to prepare an eight-page comparative paper, according to Brian Appell, English and Spanish teacher. The travel is merit-based and criteria are currently being adjusted.
''Our kids come back changed,'' he reflected, ''and they appreciate what we have here.''
International comparative research is just one of the ways American Indian charter schools create innovative approaches to learning and, as usual, the Jemez tribal charter schools are in the forefront.