Navajo, feds sign agreement giving tribe greater control over schools

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell signs an agreement giving Navajo greater control over tribal schools with, from right, Navajo President Russell Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez and U.S. Education Secretary John King. (Photo by Claire Caulfield/Cronkite News)

A Navajo leader looks at the documents giving the tribe greater control over its schools. Federal officials Tuesday also announced grants for Indian education and rules for partnering with tribal schools. (Photo by Claire Caulfield/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Federal officials signed an agreement with Navajo leaders Tuesday giving the tribe the authority to implement a single set of standards, assessments and accountability measures for tribal schools that are scattered over three states.

Before the agreement between Navajo officials and the secretaries of Education and the Interior, the tribe’s 66 Bureau of Indian Education-funded schools were subject to regulation by Arizona, New Mexico, Utah or the BIE.

“You’re not dealing with the complexities of three different states and three different sets of rules as you take on how to instill a great education … that honors the rich culture and language of the Navajo Nation,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said at the signing ceremony.

Jewell said that has not always been the “case over the hundreds of years of education that was done to you, as opposed to with you.”

Navajo President Russell Begaye said the agreement will allow the Navajo Nation to set its own curricula, standards and assessments, which he said will be focused on the Navajo language and culture.

“We have been wanting to do this for quite a number of years because we have the capacity to become a state-level education system,” Begaye said.

The Navajo agreement was one of three announced by the U.S. Department of Education Tuesday, which also released $24.9 million for tribal education projects and spelled out rules for districts that oversee schools with a student body that is half or more Native American.

– Cronkite News video by Claire Caulfield

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which takes effect next school year, such school districts will be required to enter into formal partnerships with the Native American community to ensure the educational and cultural needs of tribal students are being met.

“A lot of these schools are in rural areas, which presents a lot of different challenges, but we look forward to working with all of the schools and communities within the state to see how we can help their students,” said Charles Tack, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education.

Indian Wells Elementary School in northern Arizona is 100 percent Navajo but is part of the Holbrook Unified School District, which Superintendent Robbie Koerperich said Tuesday has a plan for partnering with the Navajo.

“The main thing we would like to focus on in the Holbrook school district would be community partnerships to increase parental involvement, improve college and career readiness, develop cultural identities and continue to help kids graduate,” Koerperich said. “So we welcome this, because we’re all about collaboration and cooperation.”

Federal officials also announced Tuesday that Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona will receive a total of $388,991 to assist in professional development and support for their Native American students. Additionally, Gila River Indian Community and the Quechan Indian Tribe will receive more than $1 million to help Native youth become college- and career-ready.

Navajo leaders said all these moves will support tribal students and make amends for years when tribal language and culture was stifled and Native American students were not given quality educational opportunities.

“When I went to school we were prohibited from speaking our language and … they brought different types of punishment: squirting soap in your mouth, hitting your palm, standing against a wall for an hour or more, just simply because you used your language in the classroom,” Begaye said. “And our children will not have to go through that.”