Plan to revamp tribal education advances in Senate
WASHINGTON — Hopi Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa would like to see more money for special-needs students in tribal schools and federal aid for Native language programs.
A Hualapai councilwoman hopes to find a way to entice teachers to stay in tribal schools, and Cocopah officials would just like a more efficient way to set up charter schools for their children.
Their hopes ride on a sweeping reform bill for American Indian schools being considered in the Senate.
The Native Culture, Language and Access for Success in Schools Act could address at least some of the complex long-standing issues that Arizona tribal leaders say plague their schools, supporters say.
The 182-page Native CLASS Act passed the Senate Indian Affairs Committee by unanimous consent Thursday afternoon and is headed to the full Senate. It proposes a broad array of remedies for everything from language programs to prison education and incentives to teach on reservations.
“In many regions of our country, Native students suffer from the lowest graduation rates and poorest academic performance,” Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and the sponsor of the bill, said Thursday. “This comprehensive bill outlines a new vision of education built on Native priorities.”
For Arizona tribes, those priorities run the gamut of issues that leaders say tribal schools have been facing for years.
Hopi tribe leaders said they want to eliminate hurdles that stand between the tribal schools and funding.
“In the end, we generally do not receive the funds we need to operate,” Hopi Department of Education Director Noreen Sakiespewa said.
She said funding can fall glaringly short for Native children who are special-needs students. Even some of the more-common special needs, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, can tax an underfunded system because teachers take their attention away from other students to attend to them, she said.
Shingoitewa, who has worked in state and tribal school districts for 27 years, said federal, state and tribal school administrators are often not on the same page.
He said that the tribe is also hopeful that Akaka’s bill can improve Hopi cultural and language education in their schools. The bill would open ways to acquire language grants and let tribes certify tribal elders as teachers for those courses.
After many years of federal schools promoting English-only on reservations, Shingoitewa said the government has recognized the importance of Native languages and hopes the Hopi language can bloom among the tribe’s youth.
“It’s been a long uphill struggle to get the recognition that teaching a Native language is like other languages – Spanish Portuguese, French,” Shingoitewa said.
But even with enough money, it is hard to keep good teachers in tribal schools, officials said.
Keeping long-term teachers at the Hualapai’s nine-grade elementary school has been difficult, said Candida Hunter, a tribal councilwoman. When well-qualified teachers do arrive through grant programs, they typically leave as soon as the grant expires.
“They come and it’s just a job, they’re not invested,” she said. “Some will say ‘I’m just here for the duration of the grant.’”
Hunter was pleased to hear the bill had provisions to open Native juvenile correctional facilities to education grants. She works with programs to help juvenile offenders get education so they can return to high school or get a GED upon release.
The Hualapai are lucky to have a corrections officer who is certified to teach, she said, but the program is limited with only tribal funds to back it.
Near the border, Cocopah officials said they hoped the legislation would help the tribe establish a charter school without having to go through the Yuma School District. Taking the school district out of the process makes approval almost immediate, when it could take well more than a year otherwise.
Cocopah Education Department grants administrator Keith Bandy said he has worked to create non-tribal charter schools in California, a process that took 18 to 24 months to receive approval. He would expect the process to take significantly less time under the Native CLASS Act.
Right now, most Cocopah children attend nearby state-funded schools or are home-schooled. The Cocopah Education Department supplements that with things like tutors, summer programs and assistance for supplies.
“With this (bill), it’s not a big deal,” said Bandy, who read the bill shortly before responding. “You just submit it (a charter school application) to the state, and – bang – you’re in.”
A companion bill has been introduced in the House where it is awaiting a committee hearing.