Professional Development and Technical Assistance for Magdalena Schools

CAL provided professional development and technical assistance focused on English language learners from the Alamo Navajo Reservation for the federally funded English Language Acquisition and Native American Achievement Project in Magdalena public schools.

About the project

In Magdalena, New Mexico, students have been improving their English and Navajo language skills. Through an innovative heritage language education program, students of Navajo heritage, who represent half of this rural public school district’s student body, receive instruction in English as a second language (ESL) and in Navajo language and culture during the regular school day. This educational model is known as bilingual heritage language revitalization. Research has shown that this dual language approach to teaching helps students meet academic standards and improve their language skills in two languages. The model benefits students cognitively and psychologically as they maintain the proud language and cultural traditions of their families while also learning to communicate in academic English, the language of U.S. business and higher education. An additional benefit in this community is the revitalization of the unique Alamo dialect of Navajo.

Results from the Magdalena program have shown that students have had remarkable improvement in a variety of academic tasks. Over the project period, 91.4% of Navajo students increased reading scores, 98.4% increased math scores, and 89.1% increased science scores on state-mandated tests. These improvements represent a closing of the achievement gap between Navajo and non-Navajo students. Other signs of academic improvement include an increase in the number of Navajo students enrolling in college and the number of scholarships those students receive, as well as more active involvement by both students and their parents in school activities. Keri James, the Magdalena district’s federal and state programs manager, says, “This grant offered programs to our Navajo students that had never been offered before. One of the most important benefits is that the Navajo community, parents, and students feel ownership of the language and culture programs, so they are more involved.”

Furthermore, this project has drawn attention to the Alamo dialect of Navajo, which is spoken by the community served by the Magdalena School District. Due to the physical separation of the Alamo reservation from the main Navajo reservation, the Alamo dialect has a number of unique features that are of interest to linguists. The project has also led to renewed interest by other community groups in their traditional languages. Keri James reports that, witnessing the results of the Navajo program, a number of parents of Latino heritage have expressed interest in having Spanish language classes for their children.

Ms. James began working for the Magdalena Municipal School District in 1999. She worked closely with the Navajo home-school liaison, Cecelia Apachito, to develop an after-school tutoring program where Navajo students receive one-on-one help.  Although James’ own educational background is in business and math, her experiences working with Navajo students inspired her to begin researching “best practices” to increase their academic achievement. Research studies repeatedly documented the success of Native American students in schools that recognized their linguistic and cultural backgrounds. In fact, a number of prominent researchers in the field of language education promote bilingual and bicultural education because of its proven success in hundreds of communities throughout the United States and Canada.

In 2003, James was awarded a 4-year, $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition, to fund the Magdalena Municipal School District’s bilingual heritage language revitalization program. The grant was part of the Native American in Schools Program, which provides funds to develop programs for limited English proficient students of Native American or Alaska Native heritage. It supports Native American language instruction as part of the program. James’ goal was straightforward: to improve students’ academic achievement through increased proficiency in both their home language (Navajo) and the primary language of U.S. education (English).

To successfully implement the program, James partnered with Dr. Betty Ansin Smallwood, an ESL specialist from CAL. Based on her 30 years of experience in ESL, Dr. Smallwood provided guidance on the project’s design and development. She also led several workshops on effective, research-based instructional strategies in language acquisition for both paraprofessionals and teachers in the district. Smallwood reports that she has been quite impressed with the program overall, and with James’ dedication. “Keri has a wonderful way of connecting with people,” said Dr. Smallwood, “She really brought it all together.”

Navajo curriculum and literacy assessments were developed with support from the Office of Diné Language, Culture, and Community Services in Window Rock, Arizona. The assessments were modeled on both New Mexico State standards and Navajo language and culture standards. Other people who contributed significantly to the project include the external evaluator for the grant, Richard Valentine; Barbara Morgan, the elementary Navajo bilingual teacher; Janet Jones, the secondary school Navajo teacher; and Gail Lujan, the head ESL teacher in the district. Leslie Clark, a secondary science teacher, and Lynn Heline, a secondary math teacher, also emerged as project leaders through their training and involvement.

The district has been supportive of the program over its 4 years and has been especially pleased to have met its goals to increase students’ academic and language assessment scores. James says, “Before the implementation of the Navajo programs, the results from our state-mandated assessments varied greatly from year to year. Some of our Navajo students would drop, some would increase, but we could never see a clear upward trend across the board. When we received our test scores after the second year of the grant, almost all of our Navajo students’ scores increased!”  With time, it is hoped this continuous growth will lead to the majority of Navajo students meeting annual yearly progress goals.

About the Project

Funder: Native American in Schools Program under: U.S. Department of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition, via subcontract from the Magdalena (NM) Municipal School Distric
August 2003 – December 2008