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New School, New Vision for Isleta Pueblo

Isleta Pueblo has taken over the Isleta Elementary School, which since its founding in the 1890s had been under the control of the federal government.

Isleta Pueblo has taken over the Isleta Elementary School, which since its founding in the 1890s had been under the control of the federal government. The difference in school morale and the children’s behavior, say school officials, is already evident. And it was certainly easy to see the day ICTMN visited—bubbly, friendly, well-behaved children, smiling teachers only too eager to show off their classrooms, and committed staff who took time to share their programs and plans for the future.

The transfer was official July 1. Just a few days before school started in August Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Assistant Secretary - Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, Bureau of Indian Education Director Charles Roessel and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M, joined Isleta Pueblo Gov. E. Paul Torres at the school to celebrate and turn over the keys. This is the first BIE-to-tribal school transition enabled by the Obama Administration’s Blueprint for Reform and the president’s Generation Indigenous (Gen-I) initiative, according to the Department of the Interior.

Photo courtesy Tami Heilemann/DOI

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell joins Isleta Pueblo Governor E. Paul Torres in an August 1 ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the transfer of the pueblo’s elementary school to full tribal control.

Torres explained that this is the school his grandmas and grandpas attended. It had once been an important gathering place for the community and provided a sense of continuity.

But the Isleta Pueblo Tribal Council, former Gov. Frank Lujan and now Gov. Torres have been thinking about taking over the school for a long time. Isleta Elementary has been losing kids to the surrounding communities of Los Lunas and Albuquerque. The school had nine principals in 10 years. In addition, explained Debbie Jojola, Isleta Pueblo, whose company, Rain Cloud Consulting, was hired to coordinate the transition, since Bureau of Indian Education teachers were paid on a federal scale, 90 percent of the school’s budget was going to teacher salaries, making it impossible to initiate new programs in technology, language and culture.

The pueblo applied to take over the school about a year ago and because their application was fast-tracked, Jojola and school personnel had a tremendous amount of work to do in a very short time to show BIE that the pueblo had the capacity and resources to operate the school. They produced binders of policies and procedures for BIE review, set up a board to oversee the school, coordinated with other governmental departments, responded to questions and kept the community informed about what was happening. “It was a long, arduous process,” said Jojola.

Final approval came in March and that’s when the real changes began. The school hired 25 new teachers, 10 of them Native American, many from Isleta, explained Eileen Montoya, Education Program Administrator. The support staff is also new, with the exception of just two bus drivers and two cooks.

Photo by Tanya H. Lee

Fourth graders Martina Garcia, Lorencita Lente and Nicole Garcia ready to begin lunch. That day’s delicious traditional menu included posole, a whole wheat roll, mixed vegetables, a fruit compote and milk.

Frank Fast Wolf, Lakota, is the new principal. “I’ve never been anywhere where community pulled together and pooled all of its resources like this. Every department in the tribe from parks and recreation to maintenance were here working on landscaping, roofing and carpets” to get ready for this school year.

There’s a compelling reason why everyone worked so hard. While 30 percent to 40 percent of tribal members are fluent in Tiwa, most of the speakers are over 50. “We are worried about losing the language,” said Paul Lujan, Isleta Pueblo, director of the Isleta Department of Education/Language Department. “In just 100 years, we’ve gone from 100 percent fluency to 30 or 40 percent.”

Teaching the children their language and helping them learn about their culture are top priorities at Isleta. Lujan said the pueblo has had a language program for about 10 years, but it was extremely difficult to initiate the program in the elementary school under the BIE. “The turnover of principals meant that every year we had to start negotiations over again.”

Photo by Tanya H. Lee

Kindergarteners work together at their tables. Hands-on activities are a big part of the curriculum.

The language program has been active in the school for about two and a half years, with David Lente, Isleta Pueblo, serving as language teacher for grades K-6. “We’re incubating the language program now, working up to integrating language/culture into all instruction at the school,” he said. Among the initiatives underway, explained Lujan, are the production of cartoons in Tiwa for the younger kids and working with a private contractor to develop a Tiwa language program to run on Apple devices, called Tiwa Talk.

There are plans to get more elders involved in language teaching, to integrate the arts into language instruction and to present more subject-matter instruction in Tiwa. “The kids want to learn language and culture,” said Lente. “They keep asking, ‘Why do we do this?’ and I tell them they must learn the language in order to understand.” While children are taught to transcribe the language phonetically, tradition does not allow Tiwa to be a written language, making the oral instruction in school all the more important.

“Language, culture, and tradition are the focus of our new school,” said Gov. Torres. “We need our future leaders to be strong in language and culture to keep our identity.”