University of Northern Colorado researchers pave way for tribal sovereignty in schools | MyWindsorNow.com

University of Northern Colorado researchers pave way for tribal sovereignty in schools

Tyler Silvy
tsilvy@greeleytribune.com

More than a century of centralized, federal control over Native American schools is coming to an end in part thanks to the work of University of Northern Colorado researchers.

UNC history professor Michael Welsh, special education professor Harvey Rude and honored alumnus and Northern Arizona associate professor Joe Martin led a feasibility study at the request of the Bureau of Indian Education in 2014-15. And they were involved in piloting the project that this year officially transferred control of all bureau schools to the Navajo Nation, according to a UNC news release.

There are 183 government-controlled school facilities on tribal lands in the United States. Sixty-six of those, or nearly 40 percent, are Navajo Nation schools in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

The size and complexity of the Navajo Nation school system is what led the federal government to pilot school sovereignty for tribes there, with an eventual plan to potentially roll that out to other tribes and schools.

For the Navajo Nation schools, that means a regional board of education, local superintendents and boards of education and similar standards throughout — sort of like a state board of education.

The schools will still receive federal funding.

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For Welsh, the first challenge in approaching the feasibility study and the pilot project was history. The history was tinged with a lack of local control and a one-size-fits-all approach did not produce the best results.

Today, Navajo Nation schools serve 43,000 students, less than half of the number of children ages 6-18 who live on reservations in the same area.

It's possible the new system could attract some of those students who are currently attending neighboring districts or private schools, but Navajo schools will need an engaging curriculum.

Rude thinks they're onto something, and it starts with an emphasis on Navajo culture, something the federal government sterilized with boarding schools and native language bans decades ago.

"It's central to the success of tribal sovereignty," Rude said. "The most successful strategies involved a commitment to language, culture (etc.)."

Rude said Navajo Nation schools will have five unique standards or focuses:

» Navajo language.

» Navajo culture.

» Navajo history.

» Navajo government.

» And Ke Values, or relationship values.

"They're living in two worlds; they always have," Welsh said. "They'll have to find a path back to the past, and a path to the future."

Rude, Welsh, Martin and their team of researchers didn't so much force-feed the changes as they provided tools and methods for achieving Navajo Nation goals. After the feasibility study, they traveled the three-state area giving presentations. The researchers say it was important to take a careful approach.

"There is a caution about anybody coming in from the outside," Welsh said. "There is a bitterness about having been left behind…and we're not locals."

Rude says there is still push-back on the plan, as there is with any change. There were protests as recently as August, according to the Navajo Times. But he said he and fellow researchers worked hard to develop relationships and trust while accomplishing their goals.

Now, the Navajo Nation will move forward in taking control and responsibility for the education of their children. That means curriculum, administration, human resources, instruction — all major steps, Rude said.

"The work we did really set the stage for developing models for helping them identify how to make those systems work," Rude said.

— Tyler Silvy covers education for The Greeley Tribune. Reach him at tsilvy@greeleytribune.com. Connect with him at Facebook.com/TylerSilvy or @TylerSilvy on Twitter.

UNC work with Navajo Nation, a timeline

The following timeline of milestones in UNC involvement in Native American education was provided by the University of Northern Colorado and edited for space here.

» 1991 —The Navajo Nation invites UNC to join the Navajo Nation Teacher Education Consortium as a charter member to help implement a Ford Foundation minority teacher education grant.

» 1992-97 — Harvey Rude directs the Navajo Nation Department of Education’s “Today’s Students Tomorrow’s Teachers” pipeline program for aspiring educators from Navajo middle and high school students. The initiative is part of a $3 million Ford Foundation minority teacher education grant.

» 2005-12 — Michael Welsh directs the Presidential Academy in American History and Civics Education, as part of a $2.4 million U.S. Department of Education grant to offer professional development activities for up to 125 teachers from the Navajo Nation.

» 2005 — UNC’s Native American Innovative Leadership Project, directed by Linda Vogel, receives an Office of Indian Education grant to develop an interdisciplinary master’s degree program leading to principal and special education administrator licensure for Native American educators.