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Cultural learning exception

State’s ethnic studies ban exempts Native American programs

Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill into law earlier this year to ban an Hispanic studies program in one school district while simultaneously crafting an exemption for culture-based classes for other minority populations.

The law bans classes characterized as racially divisive, those that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, and those designed solely for students of specific ethnicities.

Glendale Republican Rep. Steve Montenegro, the legislation’s chief sponsor, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne crafted the law to specifically target the Raza Studies program in the Tucson Unified School District, which Horne has characterized as encouraging “ethnic chauvinism.”

Horne also included an exemption in the ethnic studies ban for classes focusing on Native American culture such as Hoop of Learning, which specifically helps Native American high school students prepare to be successful in college through cultural teaching methods.

Horne says he included the exemption “because federal law says we can’t interfere with those types of cultural programs.” When asked if he would have banned Native American cultural studies programs if the law allowed, he says. “I have enough real problems to deal with, without struggling with hypothetical ones.”

Montenegro says if there was no federal law, Native American studies in K-12 schools would be OK as long as the curriculum doesn’t violate any of the provisions of the law, including the classes being open to all students.

Bo Colbert, director of the Hoop of Learning Program and a Muscogee Creek whose Ph.D. studies centered on Native American student retention in higher education, says students’ classroom performance is actually enhanced when students learn about themselves.

“The Hoop of Learning gives Native kids a chance to gain a foothold in college and learn how to face more challenges in academic life,” he says. “Any kind of college-related program increases chances of graduation from college. (American Indian history and culture classes) validate who you are; you need to know what your history is so you can move forward in life.”

Colbert also points out that Native studies classes are open to all students.

Tucson Unified School District governing board member Mark Stegeman says programs would likely pass muster even if they were subject to the new law. “I haven’t heard anyone from either side say that Native American studies would violate the statute,” he says.

The exemption also appears to conform to state education policy. In the 2002 update of its American Indian education policy, the Arizona State Board of Education “strongly recommends that local educational agencies (LEAs) integrate Arizona American Indian languages, cultures, and histories into all areas of the curriculum to foster appreciation and understanding for all students.”

Michael Welsh, who manages the Middle Ground Project, a partnership with 25 school districts in the Navajo Nation which coordinates a five-year grant program from the U.S. Department of Education to train teachers in Navajo and United States history, isn’t so sure the exemptions in the bill will protect Native studies programs for the 14 school districts in Arizona with a majority of Native American students.

Welsh, of the University of Northern Colorado, contends that federal law does not mandate any Native education programs, except for those offered in schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The majority of American Indian children in Arizona attend state public schools.

Welsh says he applied national educational standards to the new legislation and found it fell short.

“The legislation does not say you can teach Native studies without fear,” he says. “For example, Rough Rock Community School (a BIA grant-funded school located in Chinle on the Navajo reservation) can teach ethnic studies (with no fear of falling into non-compliance with the law); nearby, though, Many Farms School (which is in the Chinle Unified School District, a state district) can’t be sure that their program will be in compliance.”

Welsh says the law creates new curriculum requirements that teachers and school districts must adhere to in crafting lesson plans for the new school year. He says the law wasn’t vetted by the Department of Education and the State Board of Education. “Why were the state’s own set of rules regarding curriculum development not applied?” he says. “What’s the point of standards if they’re not applied?”

Ted Hibbeler, founder of the Hoop of Learning Program and former director of Native American education for the Phoenix Union High School District, says the ethnic studies ban is based on fear.

“The attitude toward ethnic studies is wrong,” says Hibbeler, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe who’s lived in Arizona for more than 20 years. “The law demonstrates paranoia regarding the truth about what comes out about how the United States was formed and how it oppresses people.”

Hibbeler and his American Indian Parents’ Advisory Board founded the Hoop of Learning Program in 1995 with assistance from other Native education professionals to help counteract the dismal Native college success rate. The program, which serves about 120 students today, was designed to teach American Indian history using Native academics. The program’s logo — a medicine wheel — reinforces Native cultural values. “Learning is circular,” says Hibbeler. “We learn all through life.”

Jacqueline “Jackson” Harris, who serves as Hoop of Learning coordinator at Mesa Community College and is enrolled in the Gila River Indian Community and also has Navajo, Hopi and Tohono O’odham roots, grew up in a New Mexico orphanage where her Native heritage was dismissed and disregarded.

She says she sees a lack of self-esteem in her students that she experienced growing up. “My kids are scared to death with the fear that has been instilled in our families because their skin is brown,” she says.

Harris says Hoop of Learning not only prepares students for academic success, but helps them connect with cultural aspects of their lives.

“The program is primarily building a culture of education, but there’s the other side, too,” she says. “The kids are imagining that they’re pulling from the knowledge of centuries (of their tribal ancestors).”

While program supporters such as Harris paint a very positive picture of classes like Hoop of Learning, the program — even with specific protections — could still be challenged.

“Kayenta School District, which is

99 percent Navajo, has a Navajo language and culture program,” says Welsh, the Navajo program coordinator. “I could write to Tom Horne and ask, ‘What are you going to do about that program?’”

Welsh says overall, the new legislation offers an opportunity for both Arizona and federal policymakers.

“This may give us all a chance to engage in a discussion about how much government we should have in our lives in general and what should be taught about America’s past in our schools in particular,” says Welsh. “It’s a great irony that these discussions are springing through Native American schools.”

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