The more time we spend at the local public K-8 school, the more we realize what a challenge these Navajo kids face when they reach adulthood. For so many, they have limited contact or knowledge of the world outside this remote corner of New Mexico.

Less than 20% of the students at this little school are “proficient” by state testing standards. There are zillions of reasons for this, not least a lack of stable, encouraging home environment. But there are cultural reasons as well. Let me give you an example from the younger grades:


lack of experience

One of the teachers was surprised that her young students incorrectly answered a question on the state test about boats. Just like planes are in the air and cars are on the roads, boats are in the water, right? Umm, no…her students had circled “roads” for where boats are found. Roads? Really??

So the teacher asked her students why so many of them circled that answer. With disdain, since the teacher should have known the obvious, her students pointed out to her that throughout the summer they see boats being towed by big pick-up trucks along the highway that cuts through this corner of Navajoland! Since most of them have never seen a lake and have rarely seen water flowing in the “washes” around here, I guess they can be forgiven for not knowing the proper location of boats!

Gradually, these students gain mainstream cultural knowledge, through books, curricula and television. Eventually, they will learn that boats indeed belong on the water. But a new problem comes up: they have little life experience to give them the discernment to properly sort out which stories they read are “true” and which are “fiction.”


lack of discernment

A few months ago, Randy was shocked when some of his math students started talking about the alien spaceport to be found in a mountain nearby. He started to laugh about the movie they must have seen…but the students were adamant it was true. They had seen (blurry) video of the spaceport on a cable-TV documentary, after all.

And why do only 15% (1 in 7) students from this school finish high school? Again, there are many reasons, including a lack of preparation and a lack of motivation. But there is also a lack of mentors and role models for these students from within their own families and their own culture. Unlike some areas of Navajoland, the majority of adults in this forgotten corner have never finished high school. Most of them hold no regular jobs, relying on outside aid and day labor to survive. It can be hard to convince middle school students that they should continue something that seems to have no relevance to their eventual adult lives!


lack of role models

Like some other blog entries I have written, this is an area that has no clear-cut answers or solutions. We (and many other concerned individuals and groups) are wrestling with how to bridge the cultural and economic divide; sorting through possible solutions to this disconnect. All of us, including Navajo parents and grandparents, are concerned about the life-choices these students will eventually make. Unfortunately, there have been few success stories so far. All of us will keep searching for answers…