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Using technology to address Ariz. shortage of Native teachers

January 07, 2011

In Arizona there are more than 80,000 American Indian/Alaska Native children of school age – but only about 1,000 Native public school teachers. The School of Social Transformation’s Center for Indian Education has been working on many fronts to alter that imbalance, most recently with teacher preparation projects focused on the Navajo Nation, which reports nearly 63,000 students in Arizona’s elementary and secondary schools.

Toward that end, the center was awarded a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Indian Education last fall to fund its innovative distance-learning effort “The Arizona Four Corners Teacher Preparation Project.” The four-year project integrates distance-learning technology, summer teaching academies and on-site mentoring to present an opportunity to 16 American Indian/Alaska Native individuals in the Four Corners area to earn a bachelor’s degree and certification in elementary education – without leaving their home communities.

Using Polycom videoconferencing technologies, participants will attend ASU classrooms virtually, with each classroom able to see the other and interact in real time. The academic programming for the grant is carried out in partnership with ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

Center for Indian Education co-directors Bryan Brayboy and Teresa McCarty serve as principal investigator and co-principal investigator for the project, respectively. Both are faculty members in the culture, society and education research cluster of the School of Social Transformation, an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Brayboy is Borderlands Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and McCarty is the Alice Wiley Snell Professor of Education Policy Studies and a professor of applied linguistics.  

Project director Davina Spotted Elk, a citizen of the Navajo Nation who grew up in the Four Corners area, oversees the day-to-day activities of the grant. Spotted Elk has worked as a researcher with the Navajo Nation and served as an academic specialist and project director on federally funded grants.

In addition to addressing the shortage of Native teachers, the program will address the need to prepare them with a strong content area foundation, as recommended by recent research undertaken by the Navajo Nation. Participants will develop a specialized knowledge base to meet the cultural and academic needs of American Indian students.    

The project’s ultimate aims are to create culturally-relevant learning environments where Native American/Alaska Native elementary students in an underserved region of Arizona will have every opportunity to thrive and experience academic success before moving on to middle school.  

“Research shows that the critical difference in student academic outcomes, particularly for linguistic and cultural minority students, is the presence of highly qualified teachers,” Brayboy says. “Further, effective Native student learning is closely associated with curricula that incorporates students’ language and culture. Teachers who share the cultural and linguistic background of Navajo students in the Four Corners area offer a critical contribution to children’s schooling experiences.” 

The project draws on knowledge gained through the Center for Indian Education’s highly successful Indigenous Teacher Preparation Program, which has prepared 10 Native teachers to date with a 100 percent retention and graduation rate. One-third of the graduates have continued into master’s programs in Indian education. Two other of the center’s recently funded projects prepared 40 Native teachers for certification. These 50 educators are now making a difference in classrooms in their respective tribal communities or in schools with high American Indian enrollments.

“Access to a quality education is one of the basic human rights that faculty scholarship and outreach in the School of Social Transformation addresses,” says Mary Margaret Fonow, professor and director of the school. “This partnership between the Center for Indian Education and the Navajo Nation not only impacts access to degree programs at ASU, but helps build a more stable, highly qualified force of teachers able to give Native children in Arizona a quality education designed to meet their learning needs.”

For more information about the project, contact the Center for Indian Education, at 480-965-6292, or email