Friday, December 8, 2017

Rough Rock Demonstration School

Rough Rock Demonstration School:

There were many success stories-some large and many small-that came out of the Indian War on Poverty. One of these involved education on the Navajo Reservation. Traditionally, Indian education on reservations had been controlled by non-Indians who had insisted that they knew what was best for Indian children. Ignoring any possibility that parents and tribal parents might have an interest in educating Indian children, these non-Indian educators, usually BIA employees, designed programs with the goal of making Indian children into monolingual English-speaking Christians trained to be laborers.

Since the formation of the Navajo Reservation in the nineteenth century, there had been basically three kinds of schools. First, there were the schools run by the BIA which the Navajo call “Wa’a’shin-doon bi ‘olt’a,” or “Washington’s school.” Then there were the public schools which the Navajo call “Bilaga’ana Yazzie bi ‘olt’a” or “little whiteman’s school.” Finally, there were the mission schools which the Navajo call “Eeneishoodi bi ‘olt’a” or the school of “those who drag their clothes,” a name stemming from the first Catholic priests in long robes who came to the reservation.

What Navajo parents wanted was a school which would give their children an education which both respected and integrated Navajo culture while preparing them for the modern world. With funding from the War on Poverty, the Navajo organized the Rough Rock Demonstration School. This was to be a three year demonstration project. The school was run by the Navajo and became the first wholly Indian-controlled school in the twentieth century.

The Rough Rock Demonstration school is called “Dine’ bi ‘olt’a,” or the “Navaho’s school.” These words express the Navajo pride in the school and this was the only school on the reservation given this designation. It was not that the Navajo people were consulted about this school, but more importantly they were directly and actively involved in its operation.

The educational philosophy that guided the school was based on the idea that the creation of successful programs lies with the community, not education professionals. Policies were established by an elected seven-member, all Navajo school board. Thus the policies and programs were the result of action initiated by the Navajo people. Control of school policy, including handling the budget, was placed in the hands of the Navajo parents, most of whom were without formal education. School board meetings, which often lasted all day, were attended by many community members.

The school taught English as a second language rather than requiring students to know English in order to learn. What would later be known as bilingual/bicultural education began at Rough Rock two years prior to the passage of the Bilingual Education Act which enabled other schools to establish similar programs.

Unlike the earlier BIA schools, both reading and writing in Navajo were taught to all students. Furthermore, the students were encouraged to use the Navajo language in the dormitories, the playground, the dining hall, and in the classroom.

Non-Indian staff members received in-service training to familiarize them with Navajo culture. The school also began programs to teach pottery and basket weaving.

Because the Navajo Nation is large and rural the school operated in part as a boarding school. Unlike the old BIA and mission boarding schools, however, parents from the community worked in the dormitories on a rotating basis. The parents acted as foster parents and as counselors for the students. Community elders visited the dormitories to tell stories and teach the youngsters about Navajo traditions, legends, and history.

In the old boarding schools, students were not allowed to go home during the school year. At Rough Rock, the students were encouraged to go home for weekend visits as often as possible. Transportation was provided to those who needed it. The basic policy of the school was that the children belonged to the parents and not the school.

The Rough Rock Demonstration School clearly demonstrated what is possible when Indian people, with limited or no formal education, were given an opportunity to direct and control their own education system. Rough Rock demonstrated that Indians were ready to exercise leadership in affairs affecting them if they were given the chance.

National Council on Indian Opportunity