Lavern Wagner, Indigenous coordinator for the Cuba School District and Ryan Stewart, New Mexico’s education secretary, talk together in a hogan classroom built last year. (Cuba Independent School District)

Tapping into tradition in New Mexico

The Cuba Independent School District, which serves families from the Navajo Nation, is weaving in culturally relevant education programs during the COVID-19 outbreak 

October 21, 2020

By Shaun Griswold, New Mexico In Depth

The residents of Warm Springs reservations aren’t the only tribal families dealing with the challenges of educating their children during a pandemic. The article below is adapted from a longer piece published in late August by New Mexico In Depth, one of several publications participating in this collaborative look at how COVID-19 impacts rural schools.

New Mexico is one of a handful of states in which more than 25% of students lack internet access at home. But the digital divide is worse for the state’s tribal communities.
According to a recent presentation given to the New Mexico Legislature, more than 40% of people living on tribal lands lack broadband access, with the deficit jumping to 68% for those living in rural areas.
“The Digital Divide is now the Digital Chasm,” the presentation’s authors wrote, emphasizing the direness of the situation with bold letters.
Prompted by a lawsuit and 2018 court ruling, New Mexico is improving access to technology, especially in rural districts. But, as in Oregon, there are still significant gaps as the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing students, their parents, teachers, school administrators and policymakers to adjust to a new world of learning.

Pulling together

The Cuba Independent School District in northwestern New Mexico, which draws students from the Navajo Nation. Students started the year remotely, building upon lessons learned during it’s the district’s summer enrichment program, which provided a model for non-internet-based education.

Participating K-12 students, mostly from Navajo communities, received a box with several books and materials to weave a Navajo rug and grow a “Three Sisters” garden of corn, beans and squash. The four-week program focused on culturally relevant skills, that helped students develop hand-eye-coordination, everyday motor skills and increased attention spans.
“This summer program was a challenge from the start but eventually it got to the point where we had to go back to when we were younger and had no technology,” elementary teacher Chastity Gordo said, “teaching students to go back to how living used to be back in the days when not everything was about technology, how our elders did their gardening and planting to provide food.”

The thinking behind such projects is steeped in culturally relevant education theory. By weaving a Navajo rug, the thinking goes, the students not only learn about their tribe’s culture and history, but also math — the rugs’ designs require a certain aptitude for geometry.

Those lessons will inform how the school district works remotely in the coming year, with the schools using project-based instruction boxes that incorporate multiple components–like math and reading–into specific lessons. 

This piece is part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID. It includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.