Tuesday, January 29, 2013

ACT Scores Soar at St. Michael Indian School

(Reader to Reader’s Navajo Nation Outreach Coordinator, Ophelia Hu, reports from St. Michaels, Arizona.)

The new semester has just begun, and here in the Navajo Nation, we’re putting juniors to work studying for their ACTs. Why don’t we join them in a multiple-choice exercise?

- Which of the following represents an ACT victory for this year’s seniors at St. Michael Indian School?

A. An increase in average score from last year by 5.63 points
B. A 64% increase from last year in the proportion of seniors who took the test
C. Collectively scoring above the state and national average for the first time in three years (From 25.92% below the national average to .10% above the national average in one year!)
D. An increase in the mode (most commonly earned) score by 9 points from last year
E. All of the above

In reality, this should be an open-ended essay question, because there are many more right answers. (But the answer is E. All of the above.)

These are just numbers, and they fail to capture the totality of influencing factors, but these numbers still make me proud. Moreover, they describe the innate, not inculcated, abilities of these and countless students like them in the Navajo Nation. Too often, educators, policy-makers, and others write off academic success as an ethnic or socioeconomic prescription. And other times, they tell underserved communities that no barriers exist to their achievement, yet without the tools necessary for success that other schools have, students face daunting challenges. Then, students often believe these lies about themselves. Of course, these students’ results are the reward of their hard work, but I hope that these numbers also show the great reserves of intelligence, potential, and desire in all young people, and how even a modest investment of time and resources can awaken great abilities.

But not all of our efforts can be summarized quantitatively. How do I quantify the love for reading kindled by a long-awaited book that Reader to Reader recently donated? And the boy who returned it after reading for a day because he bought his own copy and wanted someone else to be able to check out this one? Or the gladness of librarians who receive the books Reader to Reader sends? And how do I quantify the confidence and skills gained by students working with their Reader to Reader mentors? Or the boon in our writing workshops, and how they vest student and adult writers with voices?

At our first women's writing workshop the other night, one woman wrote a deeply personal recollection and read it aloud for the first time, prompting tears and similar stories from many others. The whole event was therapeutic and trust-building for us all.

Other women spanned topics from love letters to ourselves to stories about how pets inspire us, recollections of youth, introductions of culture, etc. Every piece projected incredible beauty and hope. Our writing almost immediately cemented us strangers together in love and trust. And this was just our first meeting. Never underestimate the power of the written craft!

The blog that links student writing workshops to the women’s writing workshop should be fully functional by next week, so stay tuned for its release. Right now, we’re devising ways for our growing base of interested long-distance contacts to be involved.

To me, there is something powerful about equipping a community to tell its own stories when it has long been told that outsiders would tell its stories. And while Native Americans are often depicted as a people of the past, their words belong on a globally accessible, constantly updated platform. I hope that the blog can serve this purpose in some small way.

We’re also continuing programs at Navajo Pine and Window Rock High Schools, including college and skill-building workshops, and with the Navajo Nation’s First Lady to organize educational fairs. Soon, College Knowledge will be underway with our partnership with Dartmouth College’s Native American Program. We may also begin a network of writers’ workshops across the Navajo Nation to link writers together and broadcast their work.

This is just a slice of our activities, here. Check back soon for a link to the writers’ blog and more updates. Thank you for reading!


Funding for the Navajo Outreach Coordinator position comes in part from the Hiatt Family, the Fordham Street Foundation, John & Elizabeth Armstrong, and Lynn & Jean Miller.

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