Connecting Culture to the Classroom for Achievement

By Amy Buffenbarger

Diversity in the San Carlos Unified School District in Arizona isn’t amongst the students, it’s between the students and their teachers. The district is located on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, one of the poorest American Indian communities in the United States. One hundred percent of the students are American Indian. However, educators and administrators working in the district come from all over: neighboring communities, states, the Midwest and East Coast.

That’s why dozens of teachers, education support professionals, paraprofessionals and administrators working in San Carlos gave up their sunny weekend to participate in the National Education Association’s Culture, Abilities, Resilience, and Effort (C.A.R.E.) training, hosted by the Arizona Education Association.

NEA developed the C.A.R.E. Guide to help educators reflect on the causes of student achievement gaps and explore ways to improve academic success by using innovative, research-based instructional strategies. By focusing on the themes of cultural, economic and language differences; unrecognized and undeveloped abilities; the power of resilience; and the importance of effort and motivation, the C.A.R.E. Guide advances the idea that if educators view these qualities of students as strengths, rather than deficits, they can be successful in closing achievement gaps.

Patsy Hays, an alternative learning and 21st century learning coordinator for 7th and 8th grades, says “We need to work hard to get our parents involved and we need to work hard to get ourselves out there in the community.”

“Closing student achievement gaps is one of the most pressing challenges facing public education, and a critical component in transforming our priority schools,” said Denise Alston, C.A.R.E. presenter and NEA staff with NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign. “Trainings like this, where NEA leads open discussions around the C.A.R.E themes, offer educators a forum to dig deep into the challenges in their schools. By working with each other and sharing ideas, these educators come up with concrete steps they can take in their schools to improve achievement.”

San Carlos Unified’s test scores on Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) are significantly below averages for other districts in the state. The dropout rate is seven percentage points higher than the state average. Unemployment rates are high for families. However, things are looking up for San Carlos Unified with an influx of grants and the dedication of the educators.

The district’s two schools, Rice Elementary and San Carlos High School, have implemented the transformation model after receiving more than $3 million from a School Improvement Grant. In addition, through a partnership with Arizona State University, the district will gain resources from a Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) award and from a Teacher Quality Partnership grant.

At the C.A.R.E. training, participants discussed ways to become more involved in the community, how to increase parental involvement and how to do more to incorporate Native American culture into the classroom.

Durena Thompson was a teacher in the San Carlos Unified school district for 14 years, an administrator for 2 years and is now an intern assistant-principal at Rice Elementary school. She explained that there needs to be a better balance between academic subjects and learning about their culture and traditions. A language barrier exists with students not speaking in academic terms.

To help solve that problem, Thompson shared with the group how her school has hired four Apache language teachers to teach students how to speak Apache. In addition, the school has developed partnerships with various tribal departments and created a program where grandparents volunteer in the district’s schools. “We’re trying to build the community into the school,” Thompson said.

The interviews below offer first-hand accounts of what is happening to transform the schools in the San Carlos Unified School District:

Mike Weaver, Organizational Consultant for the Arizona Education Association, shares information about the district and the union’s role in transformation.

Jordan Johnson is an English teacher at San Carlos High School. In the clip below, she talks about school improvement and the progress she’s seeing her students make.

District leaders, educators and the union in the San Carlos Unified School District are working together to implement big changes. Laura Kent, the professional development coordinator/teacher recruiter for the district, talks about their new resources and goals.