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Kathy Hoffman
Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction

Just a few weeks before COVID-19 entered the national lexicon, I walked alongside San Carlos Unified School District Superintendent Deborah Dennison and other tribal leaders as we toured classrooms located on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, just one of Arizona’s 22 sovereign tribal nations.

Together, we visited young students participating in an Apache-language immersion class. We ate a delicious traditional meal prepared and cooked by San Carlos Apache high school students in their culinary arts class, a popular career and technical education course for students. We enjoyed listening to Apache song and drum music performed by students empowered to start their own club, allowing them to express their culture and Indigenous identities through music.

Nearly eight weeks later, the first case of COVID-19 was identified in Arizona. From there, everything changed for our students, particularly those living and attending school in our tribal nations. Immediately, our existing partnerships with tribal nations became critical to our approach in guiding programs to support schools and their communities through and beyond the tragedies of COVID-19.

Together, we tackled immediate issues like the digital divide that impacted urban and rural-remote communities and students. Using federal recovery dollars, the Arizona Department of Education is expanding rural broadband through the Final Mile Project, which brings high-speed internet access to rural students, including those on tribal lands, by extending the existing broadband capacity at schools and libraries to student’s homes.

The Arizona Department of Education also purchased monthly recurring services for 200 hotspots for students across the state through a partnership with Kajeet. And we are committed to helping educators navigate their technological skills by providing free professional development through Arizona State University’s Virtual Teacher Institute.

With the support of our Indian Education Advisory Council (IEAC) and post-secondary partners, we doubled our efforts to support the recruitment and retention of Indigenous educators. Taking advantage of the financial opportunity provided by federal recovery dollars, the department has funded Indigenous educator preparation programs at Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, and the University of Arizona.

These programs are designed to strengthen the pipeline of Indigenous teachers who can serve in Indigenous communities and create vibrant, culturally relevant classroom cultures for Indigenous students.

I’ve had the privilege of visiting with students in the University of Arizona’s Indigenous Teacher Education Program. Their co-director and Indian Education Advisory Council member, Dr. Jeremy Garcia, is a member of the Hopi-Tewa Tribes of Arizona and the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo of New Mexico.

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Garcia has been on the frontlines of Arizona’s efforts to recruit and train Indigenous educators. Along with co-director Dr. Valerie Shirley of the Navajo Nation, the Indigenous Teacher Education Program’s collective vision and dedication center on Indigenous cultures, histories, Indigenous knowledge systems and values, and ensuring that they are better equipped to teach Native students.

None of the department’s work during this pandemic would have been possible without the tireless dedication of our own Office of Indian Education. And while this office has always been deemed integral to Indigenous student success, despite multiple budget requests, Arizona’s Office of Indian Education has never received dedicated state funding.

In a state that spans across the homelands of 22 federally recognized tribes, that includes the largest Indigenous sovereign nation, the Navajo Nation, this inaction was never acceptable, which is why I directed $1 million of our federal recovery dollars to provide immediate funding to the Office of Indian Education.

With this funding, we’ve quadrupled the size of the office. With a deputy associate superintendent and four new specialists, the reinvigorated Office of Indian Education elevates Indigenous issues throughout the department and works to strengthen our relationships with Arizona’s sovereign tribal nations. Their work, knowledge, and connections have been critical and further reinforced our budget request to continue funding the Office of Indian Education through state funds once federal recovery funds expire.

As COVID-19 continues to alter our trajectory as a state, I’m encouraged by the work already being done by our Indigenous partners and the strategic initiatives from our newly funded Office of Indian Education.

This Native American Heritage Month, I encourage other state representatives and community leaders to examine how they can strengthen their relationship with our 22 sovereign tribal nations.

These relationships will be critical to building an Arizona that serves all students and families beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

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