Alamo Navajo educates with real-world examples

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The new school year for the students of the Alamo Navajo Community School has already begun.

Eric Heinz - El Defensor Chieftain: Alamo Navajo Community School students returned from their six-week summer break July 28.

Some of the new additions to the school include a new science teacher, a middle school language arts teacher and a new high school social studies teacher.

The school is under tribal control, which allows for a community to own its own school. Any student who wishes to go to the school can do so. It is not part of the New Mexico Public Education Department, and it is not graded like other schools throughout the state.

“I think it’s important that we keep that message within the building: Get your education, and then you have a lot of choices,” Superintendent Tamarah Pfieffer said.

In her third year as Alamo Navajo Schools Board, Inc. superintendent, Pfieffer said the school has zeroed in on students’ information retention and increasing the notion of educational ambition.

The school has about 345 students from kindergarten to high school seniors, which leaves class rooms small and interpersonal, about 12 to 25 per class.

ANCS runs on an extended program, Pfieffer said. The students have only six weeks of summer break before they returned July 28.

“The school board decided two years ago that because of the academic achievement gap that students have during the summer and loss of retention in mathematics and reading that it was important students had some time off but got right back into the school system,” Pfieffer said. “Because it’s a community-controlled school, the board wanted to see that gap close and, over the last four years, we have been able to close that gap with that initiative.”

Pfieffer said it’s also a factor to keep exceptional teachers on staff for a period of time. Some of the experiences and backgrounds of the new teachers, she said, will assist in inspiring students to excel in their education.

“The teachers are coming in with a lot of experience,” Pfieffer said, as she described the vocational diversity of the new educators. “Stephen Castleberry (high school social studies teacher) just came back from China to be a teacher here after teaching social studies and language arts. David Schlesenger, the high school science teacher, just returned from Tanzania working in the Peace Corps. Annmarie Edwards (middle school language arts teacher) just came back from Jamaica.”

Additionally, Pfieffer said Jorge Arellano, the new middle school science teacher, was traveling through New Mexico to Texas and decided that this was somewhere he wanted to apply. Olivia Vicente will be the new transitional kindergarten teacher for 4-year-olds about to begin elementary school.

“We’re bringing a wealth of experience to the students of Alamo,” Pfieffer said.

ANCS is utilizing expeditionary learning for the fourth consecutive year. The firsthand education model is meant to show students various aspects of education through real-world examples.

“Expeditionary learning is an inquiry-based program where students get hands-on experiences to learn about (for example) mathematics through actual hands-on experience,” she said. “Some of them are internships like at the (Very Large Array) or going out to airports to learn about flight.”

Some of the tangible learning is put together throughout the school in the form of kiosks, where students can interact with the different three-dimensional work other students create.

“If they’re learning about gardens, their kiosks might be filled with miniature gardens that they can actual touch and see what different types of mango seeds there are or different types of corn or whatever,” she said.

A short-term goal in student progress through expeditionary learning, Pfieffer said, is to see every student doing their daily best by being actively involved in the various projects, and keeping consistent with this routine will only help.

“We’d like to see a lot of our master teachers continue with their education and build stronger teachers for the community,” Pfieffer said. “We want to grow our own instructional staff so that if we have turnover … we’ll have a community member who is certified and credentialed to take that position.”

Pfieffer said the ANSBI is a major proponent of recruiting more familiar, local teachers. In order to do that, she said she hopes many of the students who graduate go to college and return to the community to share their prosperous knowledge.

“I think we’re seeing a huge group of exciting young people who are seeking their educational experiences beyond Alamo so they can return and become leaders in the Alamo community,” Pfieffer said. “I could see some of those students coming back and taking a position of maybe first-grade teacher or emergency room clinician.”

In order to keep the students accountable, teachers are able to make home visits to ensure the student will attend class, Pfieffer said.

“The other strength we bring is that the teachers work more hours than any teacher I’ve ever known in any school district,” she added.

ANCS Principal Regina Lane, in her third year, said students also study their cultural aspects that they don’t want to lose. One such project was to build a sweat lodge last year.

“We learn the history of it, who used them” Lane said. “(Our journalism class) is doing stories on the history of the area. Some of these things don’t always happen in a semester; they can take a year or sometimes two.”

Weaving, painting, jewelry and more also is integrated in preserving the culture of the area.

“We want to pull it back into our school so that the art is not lost,” Lane said.

She said more projects will continue this year, as well as science fairs and more.

To keep students behaving, Lane said the school is a little different in the way it corrects their conduct, which is with “positive behavior intervention support.”

“Instead of reprimanding, we notice what they’re doing right,” Lane said. “It’s not punitive the way we do discipline. What happens is students earn (merits) for that good behavior. Sometimes it’s game-based, sometimes it’s travel, but when they all do good things, they get rewarded. It’s all meant to be positive. It’s a little different from all the ‘no’ and ‘stop.’”