Albuquerque Public Schools is grappling with how to respond to critics who say the district disrespects and ignores Native American culture and history.
A public meeting APS held last week underscored a disconnect between what the district is promising and the systemic changes that many people want to see.
The meeting last Thursday night was prompted by an incident nearly three months ago, when several Cibola High School students say their teacher used a racial slur and cut a Native American student’s hair.
APS Associate Superintendent Dr. Madelyn Serna-Marmol described how the district is trying to do better. For one thing, she said, APS is working with the state’s Public Education Department.
"They’re working on an indigenous curriculum that has been vetted by all the tribes in New Mexico, and they’ve worked with UNM professors," said Serna-Marmol, "and they’re actually gonna train our social studies teachers at the end of May."
Serna-Marmol passed out multicolored post-it notes and asked people to write their ideas about indigenous curriculum and cultural competency training.
Then, people shared comments, critique and personal stories for a couple of hours.
Rebecca Riley is a parent of APS students and head of Tribal Home Visiting at Native American Professional Parent Resources. She said the idea of cultural competency implies a level of expertise.
"And I wouldn’t expect anybody in this room to claim that they’re an expert in culture," she said.
Riley is from the Pueblo of Acoma and said APS needs to shift the language they use. "My suggestion up there was to use more words around cultural relevancy, cultural humility trainings or cultural diversity training, and these are things that are already in existence."
At one point, the audience shouted down a woman who said she was concerned about white students’ lives being ruined by accusations of racism. She pointed to viral videos of white teenagers interacting with a older Native American man on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. earlier this month. That incident has became a flashpoint for conflict around race and identity politics across the country.
Native American parents spoke of their kids being teased with stereotypes and boys getting flak for growing their hair long. Many people stressed that what happened at Cibola High School was a continuation of centuries-old subjugation of indigenous people in New Mexico.
"You have all these post-it notes, but as far as I know, APS, you’ll be trying to incorporate that into the current system, and all these acts have happened under the status quo," said Verland Coker, a Native American student and aspiring educator. "What we’re actually saying, through all these complaints and incidences, is that the status quo is wrong and there needs to be radical change within the APS school system."
"I feel a little frustrated at this meeting," said Emily Castillo, a Ph.D. student in Sociology at UNM, "because I feel like the community has come forward in so many instances to offer viable solutions, and APS has time and again turned their back on them."
Castillo is part of what she called a “fragile partnership” between APS and community members. They spent the last two years, she said, providing the district with detailed recommendations about ethnic studies.
"The takeaway I got was that ethnic studies was good for brown folks," said Castillo, "but that we couldn’t mandate that curriculum for all people."
McKenzie Johnson is a Cibola High School junior. She’s the student who spoke out in the fall about how her English teacher called her a racial slur.
"Respect us. Give us a learning environment that’s not hostile, or I feel like I’m small. Because we aren’t," said Johnson. "We’re still here, we’re still resilient."
Johnson said she’s disappointed that her principal at Cibola has not apologized or spoken publicly about what happened. Earlier in the night, Principal Pamela Meyer spoke briefly about anti-bullying assemblies the school’s held recently, but she left the meeting nearly an hour before it ended and refused to comment.
Afterward, KUNM asked APS Superintendent Raquel Reedy for her response.
"The fact is that the district has apologized," said Reedy. "I apologized to all the hundreds of people, and from the bottom of my heart, because it was a very unfortunate thing that happened to these children."
Reedy said she believes that good will come from these meetings. APS has another one planned this spring.
“These kinds of meetings, [it] is an opportunity for people to express themselves, and to share information, ideas, to tell us their stories, and we are listening."
But listening won’t be enough. The state is under court order to fix public education in New Mexico, and it remains to be seen how APS will bring indigenous education in from the margins.
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