Ariz. schools chief promotes culture

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, Feb. 23, 2012

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(Times photo - Cindy Yurth)

Members of a song and dance troupe from Many Farms Elementary School gather around Arizona Superintendent of Schools John Huppenthal for a photo Tuesday after a town hall meeting in the Wildcat Den. Huppenthal is the first Arizona superintendent to visit the Navajo Nation in nearly 30 years.

The first Arizona state superintendent of schools to visit the Navajo Nation in 29 years pledged to fight for impact aid and help public schools on tribal lands teach Native language and culture.

John Huppenthal assured the 40 or so teachers, parents and community members who came to his town hall meeting at the Wildcat Den that Native language and culture classes will not go the way of Tucson Unified School District's Mexican-American studies program, which Huppenthal banned last year saying it violated Arizona law by "promoting racial resentment."

"We don't anticipate any fallout to other cultural studies programs," Huppenthal told anxious parent Matthew Yazzie.

Yazzie's daughter is part of the cultural song and dance troupe at Many Farms Elementary School that performed for Huppenthal and his entourage at Tuesday evening's meeting.

"The challenges associated with that (Mexican-American Studies) program are isolated to that program, that school district and that environment," he said.

Indeed, Huppenthal noted, he has no problem with the Tucson district's other two ethnic-based curricula - African-American studies and Asian studies.

Besides, Debora Norris (Diné/Tohono O'odham) reminded him, Native American cultural studies are exempt from the statute. Norris is the state's director of Indian education.

During a visit to Chinle High School the following morning, a student asked Huppenthal why he had chosen to visit Navajo Nation schools (his four-day tour took him to Ganado, Piñon, Many Farms, Kayenta and Tuba City in addition to Chinle).

"Because," explained the superintendent, "I'm only as successful as all of you sitting in this classroom."

Huppenthal, a former Arizona state senator for Chandler who is starting his second year as superintendent, said he hoped to visit as many Arizona school districts as possible during his tenure, starting with the ones that face the most challenges.

The state's highest education official also outlined his plans for the Department of Education, which include transforming the structure from the top down to "a culture of service."

"We're not here to run the schools," he told the audience. "We're here to support the people who are running the schools."

Other upcoming projects include seeking a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act in favor of a letter-grade system for schools, implementing a $25 million "Race to the Top" grant over the next five years, and honing the teacher evaluation system to "make sure it is positive and affirming" rather than "threatening."

Asked how the state could help tribes teach their culture and language, Huppenthal said the department is already revising requirements for teachers of tribal languages and culture.

"We're already taking steps to cut down on the regulations that make it difficult to bring in Native speakers to teach language," he told the crowd.

Huppenthal has also instituted an advisory panel on Native American education.

Navajo Nation Superintendent of Education Andrew Tah said the nation is already working with the state of New Mexico to draft certification standards for Navajo language and culture teachers, and he offered to do the same in Arizona.

Dave Goldtooth, interim assistant superintendent for Red Mesa Unified School District, told Huppenthal that luring teachers who have the exacting credentials required by No Child Left Behind to his remote district is tough even in subjects besides language and culture.

Huppenthal replied that if the state can get free of No Child Left Behind, it could look at a more realistic way of certifying teachers.

"I'd like to move toward looking at the effective teachers rather than 'highly qualified' teachers," he said. "We're not finding much correlation between effective teachers and 'qualification.'"

Several educators and administrators expressed concern for the continuing lean times Arizona schools are facing, with Chinle Unified School District Superintendent Jesus de la Garza lamenting that Gov. Jan Brewer's proposed budget, which includes no increase for schools from last year's, is "the same as a cut."

Federal impact aid (payments made in lieu of taxes to districts that include federal trust lands) is also in jeopardy, with President Barack Obama proposing a 29 percent cut to those monies. De la Garza said about 40 percent of his district's budget comes from impact aid.

Huppenthal said he couldn't do much about the state budget other than hope for an upturn in the economy, but he did promise de la Garza he would write a letter to the Obama administration in support of impact aid, outlining its importance to Arizona.

"Not only the cuts but the way the cuts are implemented is terribly punitive to the state of Arizona," Huppenthal opined.

"You just made my year," responded de la Garza.

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