Until the past few decades, formal education for Native Americans tended to center on assimilation and acculturation to Christian Euro-American culture, often discarding local heritage and pastimes, and drawing the best and brightest away from their home reservations for good. Only as Native political organization has grown and public awareness has risen have changes to this model been made. But there is still a long way to go before all Native Americans have access to sensitive and high-quality education.
In New Mexico, Pueblo Indians have a median income lower than any other minority ethnic group, and an average unemployment rate of 40%. Native American students have historically been more likely to drop out of high school than the general population, and have scored lower on national standardized tests, especially in the fields of math, science, and technology.
To address these problems, in 1995 Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS) implemented a new Community Based Education Model (CBEM) for its instruction, especially in math and science. Like other Native American boarding schools, SFIS was established as a trade school by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to provide vocational training and domestic skills, but over the years has evolved into a state-accredited school providing a comprehensive American high school curriculum.
CBEM has its foundation in community involvement, focusing on studies in environmental science, math modeling, and other relevant technology. The Pueblo communities are involved in identifying the thematic issues for curriculum development, and are called upon to be teachers and mentors to the students as they conduct environmental baseline studies in the community.
In doing so, students use sophisticated tools like GPS hardware and clinometers, testing water and air quality, and accurately surveying the most important resources of their tribes, the physical world they inhabit. As students classify insects and measure water flow, they are not only learning basic scientific skills, but cultivating a lifelong interest in the natural world. Many of the participating students planned to finish school and pursue environmental science and related fields to help their communities; Pueblo environmental departments have hired over twenty graduates of the program.
In focusing on environmental issues in the community, CBEM mixes modern scientific knowledge with the indigenous Pueblo tradition of community education and stewardship of the natural world. While Pueblo leaders have had many reasons to distrust BIA educational practices in the past, the current program students and their community mentors speak in the Keres, Tewa, Tiwa, and Towa dialects to discuss complicated scientific and environmental issues, helping to preserve the language of the tribe for a new generation.