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Cultural Understanding Key Factor in CCSD Search

July 17, 2008

By Alysa Landry, The Daily Times, Farmington, N.M.

Jul. 17–SHIPROCK — Cultural sensitivity and a focus on academics rank high on the list of characteristics parents and staff from Central Consolidated School District want to see in the next superintendent.

About 20 people, including district staff, parents and school board members, gathered Wednesday at the Shiprock Board Room to brainstorm about issues and solutions in the search for a leader.

“We need someone who can demonstrate cultural competency,” said Larry Emerson, who sits on the Indian Education Advisory Council. “There’s a lot to Navajo culture. There are people who study Navajo philosophy their whole lives and never get it.”

Sensitivity to Navajo culture must extend into every aspect of the superintendent’s job, Emerson said. A successful candidate does not need to be Navajo, he said, but a leader must be willing to learn.

The district, which serves 7,000 students in 11 elementary schools, three middle schools and four high schools, boasts a 90-percent Navajo student population.

“I would like to see the candidate attend chapter house meetings and demonstrate an understanding of the culture,” Emerson said. “The candidate needs to know the history of Navajo policy and Indian Education.”

An understanding of tribal laws and Navajo history would enable a superintendent to help bridge gaps in education, Emerson said. The Navajo Nation is the country’s largest American Indian reservation and comprises land in three states, a situation that can lead to confusion when students cross state boundaries.

“Navajo children are being pulled three ways by standards and assessments in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah,” he said. “The effect is that there is no centralized set of standards that is fair to the children and reflects systemic change. From the Navajo Nation point of view, we’re still participating in that tug-of-war where the child ends up mis-assessed.”

Another hot topic Wednesday was the district’s special education programs. Students whose first language is Navajo often are placed in special education classes instead of remedial English, said Rose Lee, records clerk for the district’s special education program.

“This whole district needs training in special education,” she said. “Training has been put on the back burner, and it has never happened.”

Another of the district’s challenges is standardized tests issued by state or federal education offices that don’t address Navajo language or culture, said Rena Nez, bilingual teacher at Shiprock High School.

“There is no overlap in Navajo language and AYP,” she said, referring to the federal No Child Left Behind Act standards. “We need a superintendent who can see this.”

No topic was off-limits in the discussion, which was lead by Roberto Carmona, executive search consultant for the Chicago-based firm David Gomez & Associates.

Forum participants looked at a range of characteristics, from gender of applicants to leadership skills.

“If you don’t address things on the front end, you’ll end up hiring someone who doesn’t work and wishing you’d brought it up,” Carmona said, “Every search is unique and every community’s needs are unique.”

The district hired the search firm last month to lead an aggressive nationwide search designed to fill the position by Sept. 30. Wednesday’s forum was the first of three taking place across the 3,000 square-mile district.

“The forum was very productive and very dynamic,” said Scott Nicolay, who sits on the district’s active superintendent search task force. “We got a lot of valuable information from the community.”

The firm’s goal is to identify 12 candidates before Aug. 22 who meet minimum requirements and refer them to the school board. The board will conduct interviews and make the final decision, Carmona said.

Carmona is hosting additional forums from 6 to 8 p.m tonight at Newcomb Elementary School and Friday in the Kirtland Board Room.

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