Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes
This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.
PHOENIX (AP) -- Navajo Nation leaders have taken an initial step toward taking over control of their classrooms from the state, saying they'd be better off to run schools on their territory.
Schools on the reservation are currently overseen by the Arizona, Utah and New Mexico Departments of Education as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Parochial schools are under the purview of the Diocese of Gallup in New Mexico.
But in July, Navajo Nation legislators exercised sovereign powers to change their education code, creating an 11-member board and a superintendent of schools to be in place by 2017.
"It would be a department equal to or better than the three where our children attend schools," said Leland Leonard, director of Navajo Nation's Division of Dine Education.
"The current academic approach is a borrowed concept from BIA and the state," Leonard said. "We want to close the achievement gap by building our own standards."
Navajo leaders say creating their own department of education and instituting their own testing and learning standards would be better suited for Navajo students. That could mean Navajo students would not need to take state-mandated tests, such as Arizona's AIMS test, to receive a high school diploma or even glance at the national standardized test.
However, Navajo leaders say they're not interested in assuming financial control of the state's $140 million budget for the schools, which educates 21,000 students.
State officials seem open to the concept if transferring control of schools to Native American governments but say it's a difficult prospect.
The Navajo Nation has eight large public schools, many located in urban residential areas like Tuba City, Kayenta and Chinle.
Tom Horne, superintendent of Arizona Public Instruction, said he agreed to be "open-minded" about the Navajo Nation's plan and had met with tribal leaders in June. However, district employees, governing school board members and parents from Navajo district school are already inquiring about how realistic the Navajo Nation plan is, Horne said.
Percy Deal, a member of the board of supervisors in Navajo County, is ecstatic about the tribe's philosophy to exert sovereignty. What troubles him is the elimination of Arizona standards and the high-stakes tests like AIMS and TerraNova.
"That is to say, we have our own standards and we only learn about our little world and we don't want our students to compete on the national level. That is wrong." Deal said. "Our children's world, their future, is not within the Navajo Nation. It is outside the reservation. So they have to compete nationally."
National test scores at reservation public schools fall below the 50th national percentile mark in language arts, math and reading. Navajo students improved on AIMS 2005, a test which was made easier to take than in previous years.
"I'm still responsible for the academic performance of the schools. If they (Navajo Nation) want to take over that responsibility, they have to convince Congress to pass a law transferring that responsibility from me to them," Horne told The Arizona Republic.
Leonard, former chief executive officer of the Phoenix Indian Center, believes Navajo-crafted curriculum, standards and testing would benefit Navajo children.
For example, he said school districts could require that the Navajo language be taught as part of the curriculum.
Horne said the state does not object to the teaching of Navajo language and culture with one exception -- students must still become proficient at English.
"Once they are proficient in English," Horne said, "then teaching Navajo and culture is a positive thing."
Cyndi Thompson, a parent at Chinle Unified School District, said many parents are unaware of the tribe's plan to consolidate all schools under its own department of education.
She said she's satisfied with her children's schools but admits she overhears the community repeat, "Nihina'nitin baa'diil diih," or "our oral Navajo philosophy and instruction is fading."
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)