There are more than 80,000 American Indian/Alaska Native children of school age in Arizona, but only about 1,000 Native public school teachers, according to an Arizona State University press release. Davina Spotted Elk, Navajo, is trying to address that shortage as project director for the Four Corners Teacher Preparation Project, and is looking for teachers-to-be who want to earn elementary education degrees from Arizona State University (ASU) without leaving their families on the Navajo Reservation.
The project is a partnership between ASU’s Center for Indian Education and the Department of Diné Education, in cooperation with Navajo Nation schools that looks to take advantage of distance learning using a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Indian Education.
Spotted Elk is currently looking to recruit up to 16 Navajo Nation residents who want to enter the teaching profession as specialists in meeting the cultural and academic needs of American Indian students. Those who have completed the equivalent of an associate’s degree are eligible to apply.
Participants will attend ASU classrooms virtually, from Kayenta Unified School District classrooms using video conferencing technologies. Each classroom will be able to see the other in real time.
“Until now, earning a teaching degree has meant, at the very least, having to leave one’s family and community on the reservation for long weekends in a big city,” Spotted Elk said in the news release. “This program brings ASU right into the Navajo community.”
The grant covers tuition and participants get a monthly stipend for living expenses, a book allowance, use of a laptop and printer, and weekly tutoring sessions. Participants will also be mentored throughout their first year teaching. In exchange, graduates must teach for at least two years in schools serving large American Indian populations.
“For those who might be just a few credits shy of earning the associate’s degree or meeting ASU admission requirements, there might be time for them to pick up the needed classes between now and the end of August, so I urge anyone interested to contact me,” Spotted Elk said.
She will oversee the day-to-day activities of the four-year project. She has worked as a researcher with the Navajo Nation and served as an academic specialist and project director on federally funded grants related to elementary, early childhood, and special education; and co-authored a research study on strong marriages among Navajo couples. According to www.kued.org, she worked as a research assistant on the KUED-TV documentary “We Shall Remain: Navajo,” and was a production assistant for the film “The Long Walk: Tears of the Navajo.”
The project’s ultimate aims, according to Bryan Brayboy, a Center for Indian Education co-director, are to create culturally-relevant learning environments where American Indian/Alaska Native elementary students will have the opportunity to thrive and experience academic success before moving on to middle school.
“Research shows that the critical difference in student academic outcomes, particularly for linguistic and cultural minority students, is the presence of highly qualified teachers,” he said in the news release. “Further, effective Native student learning is closely associated with curricula that incorporates students’ language and culture. Teachers who share the cultural and linguistic background of Navajo students in the Four Corners area offer a critical contribution to children’s schooling experiences.”
Spotted Elk, the mother of four children, thinks the program could appeal to others who might be drawn to education as she was—as a way to be an advocate for young Indian people.
“I was so shy when I was young,” she said in the ASU release, noting one missed opportunity to speak up that still brings a feeling of regret. “I was asked by a documentary filmmaker when I was 11 to talk about how relocation efforts related to the Navajo/Hopi land dispute were affecting my grandmother, Katherine Smith, and I chose not to share what I felt. I still resent that missed moment, but I turned that anger with myself into a commitment to advocacy. Graduates of the Four Corners Teacher Preparation Project will be prepared to serve as advocates in their Native communities—as teachers, role models and leaders.”