Thousands of Native Students Go to Albuquerque Schools. Most Will Never Have a Native Teacher
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Brook Chavez, a high school junior from Albuquerque, didn’t have a Native American teacher until last year when she took a Navajo language and culture class. At 16 years old, she finally had the opportunity to learn more about her culture and connect with other Diné youth. It was a transformative experience for her as she finally felt understood by her teacher, David Scott, who is also Diné. Chavez discovered more about her clans and stories, and she cherished the moment when she and her classmates participated in the Native American Winter Stories event organized by Albuquerque Public Schools (APS).
However, Chavez wishes she hadn’t waited so long to have a Native American teacher. It is widely agreed upon by advocates and education officials that having a representative teacher workforce is crucial for better student outcomes. Same-race teachers can serve as advocates and role models for students.
Unfortunately, many Native American children attending schools in Albuquerque are unlikely to have the same experience as Chavez. The district data reveals that while almost 10% of APS students have tribal affiliations, only 1.2% of teachers employed by the district last year were Native American. Recognizing the importance of increasing racial diversity among teachers, the state Public Education Department made it a priority in their draft plan released in May, in response to the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico court ruling of 2018. This ruling highlighted the state’s failure to provide an adequate education to Native children and other marginalized student groups.
Albuquerque district officials are making efforts to hire more Native American teachers, and this school year, they have launched a state-funded pilot program. However, there are challenges to overcome, including rising living costs in the city and a limited number of potential educators.
Representative Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, has been sponsoring legislation aimed at improving education for Native children. He expressed concern that many Native American students may never have a Native American teacher throughout their entire school career due to the lack of support and opportunities for Native Americans after high school.
Albuquerque, as New Mexico’s largest city, is home to a significant Native American population and one of the largest school districts in the country, with 73,346 students. Many of these students belong to Native American tribes. However, the reported data from parents enrolling their children in Albuquerque Public Schools shows a discrepancy. While 5.2% of students were recorded as Native American, 9.8% of students were reported to have tribal affiliations by their parents. Philip Farson, senior director of the district’s Indian Education Department, explains that this difference is due to students being multiracial and often being recorded as a race other than Native American, despite their tribal affiliations.
The student census reveals that there are students from over 100 tribal nations and communities, with the Navajo Nation accounting for the majority at around 57% of Native students. There are also significant populations from Laguna and Zuni Pueblos, as well as a large number of students from tribes outside the U.S., mainly from Mexico and Canada.
In the previous school year, the district employed 65 Native American teachers, while 7,192 students reported tribal affiliations. This means that for every Native teacher, there were approximately 110 Native children. Although there has been a slight improvement over the past decade, the gap remains significant. In the 2011-2012 school year, for every Native teacher, there were 117 Native children.
The struggle to have enough teachers who share the same race or ethnicity as their students is not limited to Native American students. There is also a significant disparity between the number of Hispanic teachers and students in the district. While 28% of teachers identify as Hispanic, the student population is two-thirds Hispanic.
Undoubtedly, the lack of racial diversity between teachers and students is a prevalent issue both at the state and national levels, as highlighted by Lente.
According to the state education department, during the previous school year in New Mexico, Native American students accounted for 10% of the public school population, while only 3% of teachers were Native American. On the other hand, white students made up 23% of the overall student body, while 59% of teachers were white.
Nationally, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in the 2017-2018 school year revealed that approximately 79% of public school teachers identified as non-Hispanic white, while only 47% of students were white.
The significance of representation cannot be understated. Education officials, advocates, and students unanimously agree that closing the diversity gaps is crucial for enhancing students’ overall experiences and improving their academic achievements. This viewpoint is supported by extensive research.
For instance, a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2018 found that Black students who had at least one Black teacher by third grade were 13% more likely to graduate high school and 19% more likely to enroll in college.
Teachers’ race, as well as their gender, is believed to play a role in students’ educational outcomes. Same-race teachers may present material in a more culturally relevant manner, according to researchers cited in The New York Times. Additionally, teachers who understand the backgrounds of their students can serve as advocates. Dr. Glenabah Martinez, a professor at the University of New Mexico, emphasized the importance of Native American teachers who can comprehend and support students’ participation in tribal ceremonies, which may require periodic absences.
Martinez also highlighted the significance of Native American administrators in school districts who can shape culturally relevant curriculum and policies.
For students like Chavez, having a Native American teacher made a profound difference. Chavez, who faced derogatory remarks in elementary school, still encounters a less-than-inclusive climate at her high school, where only 4.7% of students have tribal affiliations. Teachers often turn to her for input during lessons regarding Native American cultures or history, regardless of her connection to the Navajo Nation.
Chavez expressed that Scott’s class provided a respite from this environment. She developed close relationships with her peers, despite no longer sharing a class. Scott, who shared his own experiences of cultural misconceptions and stereotypes with his students, encouraged them to stand their ground and educate others instead of being ashamed of their backgrounds.
Chavez only had the opportunity to have Scott as her teacher because she made the effort to enroll in a Navajo language course, which required her to travel to another campus twice a week. Scott is one of six Navajo language teachers employed by APS.
As of late August, approximately 200 Diné students are currently enrolled in language classes, as indicated by Monica Armenta, the spokesperson for the district. Additionally, the district employs two Zuni language teachers who are responsible for teaching language classes to around 40 Zuni students.
Chavez has a strong desire to continue learning the Navajo language, but unfortunately, there are no higher-level classes available for her to take this year. She expresses concerns about never achieving fluency. One of the reasons she chose to enroll in Scott’s class was because it represented a means of "keeping the culture alive." Chavez explains that her grandmother, who attended a boarding school during her childhood, is the last member of their family who is fluent in Navajo. Chavez’s sister and cousins do not have an interest in learning the language.
During the early 1800s, the federal government initiated the practice of removing Native children from their families and sending them to schools with the intention of eradicating their cultures. An investigative report released in May by the U.S. Department of the Interior reveals that widespread abuse occurred within these schools, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of children. Ongoing investigations suggest that these numbers may escalate to the tens of thousands. Chavez shares that her grandmother was hesitant to teach Navajo to her children due to her personal experiences at the boarding school. Although she now speaks about it, she still expresses apprehension, being deeply traumatized by the boarding school experience.
Albuquerque district officials acknowledge the significance of hiring more Native teachers. However, they face the challenge of a limited pool of available candidates. APS’s Indian Education Department director, Farson, explains that the district could establish a requirement for 5% of positions to be filled by Native American educators, but this would be hindered by the scarcity of such educators. Another issue lies in retaining Native teachers, particularly for leadership positions, due to non-competitive pay rates.
Some of the Native teachers employed by the district share similar sentiments to Farson, citing a lack of affordable housing within the city. Scott, who began teaching Navajo in Albuquerque the previous year, highlights the high rental costs that teachers struggle to cover with their salaries. He resorted to commuting from Naschitti, which is north of Gallup, throughout the entire school year. This resulted in a daily round trip of more than five hours. On occasion, he had to sleep in his vehicle due to the distance.
Mildred Chiquito, who teaches Navajo at Atrisco Heritage Academy High School, resides in Torreon with her elderly parents and teenage daughter. Torreon is around 85 miles northwest of the school. Chiquito expresses her desire for teacher housing in Albuquerque to alleviate the financial burden of paying for utilities and other expenses in the city. She mentions that some teachers are single parents who struggle to make ends meet. Chiquito reveals that if she had access to teacher housing, she would bring her parents to stay with her in Albuquerque for three days a week, returning to the reservation for the remaining days.
According to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies’ State of the Nation’s Housing report for 2022, the Albuquerque area has experienced double-digit rent increases. In other parts of the country, certain school districts have requested parents to temporarily accommodate teachers, and there have been instances where districts have constructed apartment complexes on school grounds for teachers and staff.
Chiquito acknowledges the worth of the commute due to her passion for her work and her commitment to giving back to the school. Over a decade ago, she obtained a certification that allows experts in a specific tribe’s language and culture to teach in K-12 schools, even without a college degree. In March, the Legislature passed a bill that ensures equal pay for Native language teachers like Chiquito.
Recruiting Native teachers is challenging due to the urban-rural divide.
"We must acknowledge the importance of having educators who are dedicated to their own Native communities, as they genuinely care about the community and often work in remote areas that may not be close to commercial centers and 24-hour coffee shops," Martinez expressed. "While we need teachers in all locations, both rural and urban, we are making a concerted effort to recruit Native teachers to teach in their own communities so that they don’t have to relocate to Albuquerque."
Currently, there is no specific pipeline that focuses on Native students.
Earlier this year, APS received a $200,000 grant from the state education department’s Indigenous Education Initiative. This grant aims to place an experienced teacher who has worked with Native students, along with a coordinator, at Mission Avenue STEM Magnet School for a period of three years. Around 20% of the students at this school are Native.
"This initiative seeks to closely examine not only how students are represented in the school’s curriculum, but also the composition of the school’s staff," Farson explained. He further mentioned that by the end of the program, the school is expected to have a staff that accurately reflects the diversity of its student body. Farson expressed his hope that this process will shed light on the real challenges and issues faced by the district as a whole, and not just by one school.
The district has recently hired a teacher who is scheduled to start later this month. However, the coordinator position still remains unfilled.
Based on Farson’s experience with similar grant-funded programs, he mentioned that the first year can be challenging, but eventually, the district manages to fill the vacant positions.
Instead of solely relying on recruitment efforts across the state, Farson believes that the long-term solution lies in nurturing local talent.
"Over time, we need to focus on cultivating the interests of the 7,000 Native students in APS, so that they become motivated to pursue careers in education and remain in the district," said Farson.
There are several programs aimed at pipeline development, according to state and district education officials. However, none of them specifically target Native individuals, and most of them are not geared towards high school students.
One such program is the district’s teacher residency program, which pairs individuals pursuing an education degree with an experienced co-teacher at a high-need school for a period of 15 months. After completing the state-funded program, residents commit to teaching within the district for an additional three years. This program is run in partnership with UNM and the Albuquerque Teachers Federation.
Additionally, there is a specific residency program for special education in collaboration with Central New Mexico Community College.
According to Valerie Hoose, the executive director of labor relations and staffing for the district, the majority of residents from both programs, approximately 120 people, are still teaching in the district.
The district also participates in the state education department’s two-year Educator Fellows program, designed for educational assistants who aspire to become certified educators. Fellows gain practical experience, mentorship, and receive a stipend.
"We hope to address the bottleneck that often occurs in the teacher pipeline, where many graduates do not remain in the field," said Layla Dehaiman, director of the educator quality and ethics division.
While the program requires participants to be over 18 years old, Dehaiman mentioned that department staff have been reaching out to high school seniors and have successfully recruited several recent graduates.
Dehaiman also noted that the department has been organizing a Native American teacher working group over the past year. This group focuses on identifying barriers to licensure and developing long-term recruitment strategies.
Hoose acknowledged that generating interest in the teaching profession among young people is challenging, especially when there is tough competition for potential workers. Hoose suggested that offering widely available internship programs for high school students could be a beneficial tool in this regard.
One promising future teacher might be Chavez.
Chavez expressed her desire to become a nurturing educator, which she yearned for during her own childhood. She emphasized the fact that numerous Native children are being overlooked and neglected in the current educational system.
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