Indigenous educators ask lawmakers to support culturally sustaining programs

Language programs more than meet the requirements of Yazzie-Martinez, educator says

By: - October 7, 2021 5:05 am

The Roundhouse in Santa Fe. (Getty Images)

Buzzwords surrounding education reform in New Mexico can have different meanings. Culturally relevant education is a term that will mean something different for each community. 

Tracey Cordero, the director at the Keres Children’s Learning Center in Cochiti Pueblo, has a direct answer that could fit within many different places.

“It is nothing more than telling the truth, and the truth is that Indigenous people were the first architects. They were the first biologists and botanists, astronomers and astrologers and authors, and scientists, and the list goes on and on and on,” Cordero said. “It’s honoring the wisdom, the brilliance of our people, of all of our elders who were here before us. The children that are yet to come deserve to know the truth. And that’s what culturally relevant learning does. It tells the truth for all of us.”

Culturally relevant education and language programs are principles in education reform set by the landmark court decision in the Yazzie-Martinez case. The 2018 judgment said New Mexico fails to provide adequate education for many students in the state, and a path to form equity must come in the development of lessons like those being taught at the Keres Children’s Learning Center.

Cordero told lawmakers from the Legislative Education Study Committee on Monday that the learning center’s model is not only relevant but pushing forward what is beyond the minimum standard set by the Yazzie-Martinez mandate.

“The harm that this country has caused our tribal nations were well beyond culturally relevant. It is absolutely time to do culturally sustaining learning and teaching,” Cordero said. “Not just relevance anymore, sustaining.”

She argues Keres Children’s Learning Center is a model that must be supported by the state to create widespread language and cultural programs in early childhood education.

Our model requires that the definition of success and achievement is according to us, according to our people, according to our knowledge holders and councilmen and tribal leadership.

– Tracy Cordero, director of the Keres Children's Learning Center

She describes the language revitalization programs at the Keres Children’s Learning Center as a model promoting the concept of sustaining culture, because it’s rooted in community leadership and teaching the cultural traditional values of Cochiti Pueblo. 

Keres is the traditional language spoken by several Pueblo nations in the middle Rio Grande Valley. The Pueblos of Zia, Kewa, San Felipe and Santa Ana have their traditional languages rooted in the Keres. There are some local and familial dialect differences between the different Pueblos, but they are all distinguishable. 

Keres Children’s Learning Center has dual-language classrooms where English is also part of the curriculum and immersive classrooms where only Keres is spoken to children as young as 3.

“Our Keres speakers, they are active participants in our community, that means every day, they show up and are dedicated to our way of life,” Cordero said. 

The school is Montessori-based, and educators must be trained with that background. This means the school is focused on hands-on instruction done at a pace to cater to a young child’s needs. It also allows for collaborative lessons, where students are taught to problem solve with the help of others. It blends the community models from Cochiti Pueblo while meeting the standards by the state of New Mexico promoting equity, language access and culture.

“Most importantly, is that our model requires that the definition of success and achievement is according to us, according to our people, according to our knowledge holders and councilmen and tribal leadership,” she said. “And so, what it means to be successful, it’s not just 4.0 (GPA), it’s not just perfect attendance and good grades.”

This model continues forward with priorities on the child’s education and heritage. 

Cordero made it clear that students must learn the distinction to understand the two concepts can work together without compromising their Western education success or their cultural obligations as citizens of the Pueblo. 

“When we do culturally relevant, culturally sustaining learning pedagogy, our students can be both,” she said. “They can be strong Cochiti citizens and fluent, and participants in our way of life and be great at math, and have a PhD, and be a scientist. We don’t have to choose one or the other anymore.”

Students can be enrolled starting when they are 2-and-half-years-old and graduate from the program at 12-years-old.

Missing out on federal and state funding 

Ensuring students can maintain these practices into public or private schools where they will not have a Keres language class, which does not exist in any other school, or instruction that emphasizes traditional culture and history is another component for the learning center. Cordero said she wants families and students to remain successful as they embark into the larger school communities. 

“(Families) already choose our way of life,” she said. “They already make this a priority for themselves. But what they don’t have as an option is the public education system that allows students to continue to nurture their fluency.” 

Cordero asked lawmakers to provide support for programs that could not only build their model in other tribal communities, but allow for their efforts to continue with students as they enter middle and high school. They also seek a change in standards set by the Early Childhood Education and Care Department that would allow tribes to access state funding. Programs like the Keres Children’s Learning Center that create their own criteria and standards are missing out on money because they don’t 100% align with the requirements to receive state or federal dollars. 

“Because the system that exists currently doesn’t make space for culturally relevant learning for culturally sustaining pedagogy, the way we deserve to have it. We had to do it ourselves,” she said. “And so, all day, every day we are writing grants and begging for money and justifying why we deserve money to do things differently than what’s been given to us in terms of education.”


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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.