The Santo Domingo Pueblo flag stands at the end of a table. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
As students, parents, teachers and other tribal members at Santo Domingo and Cochiti Pueblos question whether or not their children will have a school to go to at the Pueblos next year, a Bernalillo Public Schools board member said officials haven’t decided to change anything — yet.
With a goal to improve education on tribal land, the school board could still push for a change in the future.
John Gurule is a Bernalillo Public Schools board member representing Santo Domingo Pueblo and Peña Blanca. He said the education, like the variety of courses offered, at the Santo Domingo and Cochiti schools isn’t equitable.
Considering the need to address educational deficiencies the 2019 Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit found, Gurule said these inequities need to be addressed. So the district is open to options on how to better the education system, he said, and nothing is off the table.
Then rumors started spreading that the Santo Domingo and Cochiti Pueblo middle schools would be shutting down next year.
Gurule said a school district employee wrongly told the Cochiti Pueblo governor’s office and tribal leadership the middle school was going to be shut down next year.
Parents and other tribal members have been posting on social media about an expected closure of the Cochiti school and the Santo Domingo school for middle school students. They’ve expressed concern the school district made a decision to send their children elsewhere so suddenly without any outreach.
But the district hasn’t made any decisions, Gurule said. He said the district only told local officials that education is a problem, but didn’t clarify that the schools wouldn’t be shut down and people wouldn’t be losing their jobs.
“It may mean that we have to look at options,” he said.
He said people started catastrophizing and rumors started flying. Everyone knows each other, he said, and news travels fast.
He said the school district clarified what’s going on with tribal officials but information didn’t make it down to teachers and parents. The governor’s offices at Cochiti and Santo Domingo Pueblos never responded to interview requests from Source NM.
“We failed to communicate at all levels,” Gurule said.
Gary Tenorio, Sr. is a retired tribal administrator. Tenorio, Sr. (Kewa) has grandkids going to schools at both Santo Domingo and Cochiti Pueblos. He’s worried about what the school district wants to change, potentially sending students off tribal land to go to middle school somewhere like the Village of Bernalillo.
He’s still skeptical this isn’t set in stone for next year already. He said the school board operates in a very political manner.
“If you don’t make people aware of it, they’re going to go ahead and do it anyway,” he said.
What would happen if schools close or merge
Gurule said shutting down the middle schools could still be an option for the future, or Santo Domingo and Cochiti middle schools could be combined. It’s all still up in the air, he said.
If the schools merged, Gurule said the district would have to find funding to fit all students into one facility.
He said a need for more funding overall is a significant issue contributing to the educational deficiencies.
“One of the charges that we’re trying to navigate is how best to address inequity within the limitations of so many formulaic calculations,” he said.
If the district decided to shut down or combine the schools after all, Gurule said the teachers would follow the students. So if students end up attending middle school in Bernalillo, the teachers would have jobs there as well, though Gurule said they could be teaching different subjects.
That would ensure classrooms aren’t overcrowded and tribal members still have Native teachers, he said.
That’s if teachers commit to those jobs, which could mean a longer commute. Tenorio, Sr. said he’s worried the educators will choose to leave with what’s happening at the Santo Domingo schools.
He said he wants to see teachers incentivized to stay on the Pueblo.
“We’ve already lost a lot of good teachers,” he said.
Tenorio, Sr. said he’s also worried about students being forced to leave tribal land to learn.
“We do want to have our kids transitioning into the real world, but at the same time, at their pace,” he said. “We don’t want something to give them cultural shock.”
Transportation is still an unsolved issue. Gurule said there are not enough bus drivers, and that’s “outside of our control.”
It could be difficult for families to afford or find the time for a longer commute on their own.
“When you have a six-person household that shares two cars and three people have to get to work and you can’t afford fuel, your options are: put your kid on the public school bus and they get what they get; don’t throw a fit. Or you make sacrifices that really are not reasonable,” Gurule said.
Trying it out last year
The school district tried out a pilot program with Santo Domingo Pueblo last year where parents could enroll their children in any school in the district, Gurule said, and the district paid for transportation. He said 52 families signed up to send their kids to schools outside the Pueblo.
Another worry is the additional hours a long bus drive would add to students’ days. It’s something lawmakers, specifically those representing rural and tribal communities, have voiced concern for in the past.
Gurule said the current school schedule, with its early start times, doesn’t align with child development. Tenorio, Sr. said he’s concerned about the early start times too.
“It’s already a hardship,” Tenorio, Sr. said.
Gurule said he’d like to see a later start date if kids are traveling to Bernalillo for school.
Gurule said the community should have a say in what could change. Officials are aiming to address misinformation and show parents how the school system works at upcoming community meetings, he said.
District officials are holding community meetings on Nov. 9 at the Cochiti school and on Nov. 15 at the Santo Domingo school to talk about what’s going on. Both start at 6 p.m.
Not everyone will be happy with whatever decision officials decide to make, Gurule said, whether it’s leaving things alone, combining the Pueblo schools or shutting them down.
“My personal opinion is that the current model of delivery of education up there is not achieving equitability. So it cannot continue,” he said. “What that looks like, though, I don’t think that’s for me to decide.”
He said the community needs to think about what the definition of equitable education means, even if it’s uncomfortable. Some people haven’t had options, like which school to send your kid to, due to systemic racism, he said.
“We’re asking questions that generationally, folks maybe haven’t sat with,” he said.
He said he’s not even sure who has the power to authorize major changes like the ones on the table and hasn’t yet talked to attorneys about it. The school board is limited to overseeing the superintendent and other specific tasks, like day-to-day school operations, he said.
He’d like a decision on how to address the education deficiencies to be made before the next school year starts, he said, even if it wouldn’t immediately go into effect. He doesn’t want officials to delay addressing educational issues, he said.
“My son is only in first grade one time, and that is not his responsibility to wait for the adults to solve adult problems,” Gurule said.
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