Jemez Pueblo Charter Schools Soaring to New Heights
Walatowa High Charter School at Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico is described by its Principal/Superintendent Arrow Wilkinson as “the world’s smallest school district.” Because of the experiential-learning school’s unique charter as its own local educational agency, his comment holds plenty of merit.
Jemez Pueblo is described as the Native community with the highest level of tribal language fluency in the U.S. According to a recent tribal survey nearly 75 percent of tribal members speak Towa—a majority of them live in the village known as Walatowa (meaning this is the place). The older generations are at 85 to 90 percent fluent, but the percentage drops among the younger generations.
The Towa language is passed down orally and is not written. Virtually all tribal elders and leaders believe this methodology is the best way to maintain the Jemez traditions and history into the future. They recognize that without the language and its fluent use much of the context of their stories about their past, their homelands, and their ancestors will be lost.
Annually, American Indian and Alaska Native high school graduation rates are the lowest of any racial or ethnic population in the U.S.—roughly 50 percent nationally according to a report called “Diplomas Count 2013” published by Education Week. Native dropout rates are nearly twice that of all students nationwide. Pueblo schools and students across New Mexico are not immune to any of these negative numbers.
Some of the lowest Standards Based Assessment (SBA) scores in the nation are recorded at Indian reservation schools. SBA is an annual state test that measures high school student achievement in reading, math and science. In New Mexico, the SBA also serves as the high school exit exam. Traditionally, communication in a Pueblo household is nearly all verbal and nonverbal, with very little reading.
Over a decade ago Jemez tribal leaders recognized this quandary and became proactive in improving their children’s academics without sacrificing their language and culture. A movement began in 1999 and Jemez tribal members were polled and asked, “What would you like the Pueblo to look like in 2010?”
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