It Takes a Tribe

A tiny Indian community struggles to educate its young

'Hman 'shawa is different from other schools.

Here, there is no teachers' lounge.

Nor are there lunchroom attendants, playground monitors, or weekly early release days so teachers can have time to plan their lessons and attend meetings.

Amy Torres was hired by the tribe two years ago to coordinate the community's broad educational efforts.
Erik Guzowski
Amy Torres was hired by the tribe two years ago to coordinate the community's broad educational efforts.
Cherokee Davis, 4, gets a hug from her mother Yvonne as she examines the awards she received at her graduation from prekindergarten.
Erik Guzowski
Cherokee Davis, 4, gets a hug from her mother Yvonne as she examines the awards she received at her graduation from prekindergarten.

Officials believe every moment a child is in school presents an opportunity for learning. And whatever problems a child faces at home — alcoholism, drug abuse, lassitude — that child will be nurtured before, during and after the traditional school day by a cadre of committed teachers.

Students report to their classes at 7:40 a.m. each day. Twenty minutes later, they head to the cafeteria for breakfast.

Each teacher and aide stays with their classes not only during instructional hours, but also during breakfast, lunch and recess. They carefully coordinate their rest-room breaks, so one can hurry to the unisex rest room in the office while the other one stays with the class. One of the teachers also rides the bus as it delivers the children back to their houses.

"We are with the children all the time," explains kindergarten teacher Vada Gates. "We don't take breaks."

She is not complaining.

Educators aren't afraid that the children will get into trouble without their watchful eyes. It's just that they don't want to waste a minute of valuable teaching time.

With the tribe's history of educational deficiencies, the number of kids from troubled homes, and the cultural obstacles that await the children off the reservation, officials believe, every moment counts in these early years.

Unlike in public schools where only the poorest students qualify for federally funded meals, here everyone eats two meals a day, no questions asked.

Rather than encouraging families to provide nutritious breakfasts to help their children start their day ready to learn, the school simply feeds everybody.

At breakfast and lunch, students are taught to wait until everyone at their table is served. Then they say a prayer:

"We give thanks for the world so fair. For the sun and the rain and friends who care. Amen."

Sitting right next to their teachers, the boys and girls are constantly learning. Grown-ups stress manners, nutritional value of food, proper use of utensils.

There are basic survival skills being taught: Eat well, be ready to learn, get along with others, be gracious and be grateful.

Outside on the playground — where there are no bells or whistles — teachers also continue to watch over and instruct the children.

Four nights a week, all students are assigned homework. For the 3-year-olds, it might be listening to a story and giving a summary in class. Or it might be to play a traditional Yavapai game with a parent or elder such as "nohowe," a game that involves hiding a stone under a pile of dirt and guessing where it is.

Anyone is welcome to stay after school in staffed homework rooms to get homework help. Some students just want to get their work done before they get home. Some need extra help. And some come from dysfunctional families where no one is available to help them in their homes.

'Hman 'shawa has a 5 to 1 student-teacher ratio. Every class has a certified teacher and an aide for a dozen or fewer students. Pupils are provided everything they need for school without any wish lists sent home to parents, annual fund-raising efforts, or teachers dipping into their own pockets.

The school supply room is amply stocked and the teachers say they can easily get approval for any extra things they need for instruction.

Does all this really make a difference?

"It makes a tremendous difference," says Gates, who has taught Fort McDowell children for two decades.

Outside school, Gates says, improved conditions have made "the whole environment more conducive to learning." Twenty years ago, many homes didn't have running water or hot water, so just making meals and bathing were huge tasks. That left little time for homework or learning, Gates says.

Today, kids can study in comfort, with air conditioning, new furniture and computers, and modern plumbing standard features in their homes.

Parents are helping their children more. They are used to leaving the reservation and shopping at nice stores and they are springing for things that were once "luxuries," Gates says, like educational workbooks, computer games and colorful writing tools for their kids.

Families are even taking vacations — unheard of before gaming money.

"It has really opened new horizons for expanded learning," Gates says.

Amy Torres, who is not a tribal member, had to earn the trust of the community when she arrived two years ago. She is not only monitoring the children, she must be in constant contact with the families, keeping them informed, making suggestions, breaking bad news or bringing great news. She urges students, families and school administrators from outside the reservation to call her if they ever have a question, problem or concern.

It is clear she has succeeded. Tribal members and the staff have warmed to her and frequently contact her about a child, a problem, a program.

Alerted by parents about trouble with their child at a public school, she will make some quick phone calls to that school's officials, then set up a quick meeting with a parent and child to discuss things. Recently, she intervened when an off-reservation school suspended a troubled student for an angry outburst. Did it occur to officials there to seek the reason for the problem rather than just kicking the kid out? she asked.

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