Focusing on Culture to Level the Playing Field for Native Students
A medicine man once told Mark Sorensen that true education can heal.
That counsel rang true for Sorensen, principal and co-founder of STAR Charter School, a small school near Flagstaff, Arizona, that serves a 98-percent Navajo student population. Sorensen has spent 37 years working in Indian education, and the medicine man’s advice echoed Sorensen’s philosophies in and out of the classroom.
“I’d like to see our education system heal rather than punish,” he said. “When we listen to wise people and make education better, that’s what really matters.”
Sorensen likes curriculum that integrates academic standards, real-world skills and community service. Students at STAR, which stands for Service To All Relations, are challenged to participate in projects that teach math and English basics while moving them out of the classroom and into the community.
The 130 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade engage in projects like farming, recycling and producing videos that document Native traditions or current events.
At STAR, the first solar-powered charter school in the U.S., teachers no longer focus on scores and punishments. Instead, they concentrate on what Sorensen calls “authentic assessment.”
“Our thinking is that if we can introduce projects that have to do with food or energy or recycling, that’s an indication of a deeper philosophy and students are empowered to do service,” he said. “It helps the community, families and the school. We’re trying to teach them that it’s a privilege to be able to respond to community needs.”
That’s why Sorensen is embracing the Common Core State Standards, curricula that focus on skills that are relevant in the real world while preparing students for college and careers. Forty-five states have adopted Common Core State Standards, including all three of the states that contain parts of the Navajo Nation—Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. The standards, unveiled in 2010, were designed to allow schools to develop more in-depth and specific curricula.
From a Native perspective, these standards can help level the playing field, said RiShawn Biddle, communications director for the National Indian Education Association.
“We have far too many of our students who are not graduating,” he said. “They don’t complete high school and don’t go to college. Knowledge is power and an education is key to being successful in the knowledge-based economy of today.”
According to the NIEA, 69 percent of Native freshmen will graduate from high school within four years. Nationally, the rate is 78 percent and 83 percent for Anglo students. While other minority groups are closing the achievement gaps, it stays constant for Natives, the NIEA reports.
All 34 tribally controlled schools on the Navajo Nation are adopting Common Core State Standards, said Kalvin White, program manager for the Office of Diné Science, Math and Technology.
For areas like the sprawling, 27,000-square-mile Navajo reservation, the new standards mean consistency for students, White said.
“This will benefit the Navajo Nation because we are in three states, and all three states will be aligned to the same content,” he said. “We will no longer be dealing with three different standards in three different states.”
Common Core State Standards can also boost the presence of traditional values and languages in classrooms—and in Native communities, Biddle said. Teachers can incorporate Native knowledge through nonfiction reading or projects like those at STAR, meeting students’ academic and cultural needs.
“In addition to having academic knowledge, they need to understand their culture,” Biddle said. “When our students are highly educated, they can be future leaders and defenders of culture that our tribes need.”
In 2012, only 33 percent of STAR students passed the Arizona standardized test in math and 44 percent passed in reading. Statewide, the average was 65 percent in math and 79 percent in reading.
The nine teachers in this school that prides itself on small class sizes and an emphasis on Native tradition are hoping the switch to Common Core State Standards helps improve performance.
“What I’d love to see here is more authentic testing of Native students,” Sorensen said. “I would like to see them demonstrate what they know while they’re doing something for their communities.”