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"Teachers could see a connection between what they had learned and what they were doing."
Ganado Intermediate School sits in an isolated valley on the Navajo Reservation, 30 miles west of Window Rock, Arizona. Clustered around the school are several teacher residences and two of the other three schools that make up the remote Ganado district. Almost 100 percent of the students are Navajo. Diné is their native language, and 68 percent of Ganado Intermediate School's third, fourth, and fifth graders are classified as Limited-English Proficient. For years, the Ganado students consistently scored in the lowest quartile on the state-mandated, norm-referenced tests.
Concerned for their students and energized by a new principal, the staff decided to take action. One teacher explains, "As a Navajo teacher, you feel very motivated. You know where your students are at, and you know where they need to go to have a good head start."
When Susan Stropko became principal, she had already been in the Ganado district for several years, all of them focused on supporting the district's teachers to participate in the state's professional development Career Ladder program. She was a true believer in professional development and she was knowledgeable about it. But in her initial months as principal, some other concerns came first. As she explains: "Teachers had me working hard on correcting things there were problems in the lunch room, no soap in the bathrooms.... But by Christmas their list was getting shorter and shorter, so that by February, we were ready to say, What's the next step in getting this school to be the best in the state?'"
Led by the principal, teachers created a vision and a five-year plan for the school, to which they tied their own personal learning goals.
Many teachers left when they realized how determined their colleagues were to create real change. The teachers who stayed and those who chose to come to Ganado Intermediate found that while many resources, such as ESL classes and other university courses, were already available on site through Career Ladder, many more were needed if they were to address the goals they were setting for their students' learning.
Among the learning opportunities brought in to address teacher-identified needs were CLIP (Collaborative Literature Intervention Project), Northern Arizona Writing Project, a Spencer Foundation project on teacher inquiry, Foundations of Learning (Navajo culture and philosophy of education), and Integrated Thematic Instruction.
The district was generous in providing on-site, free coursework and giving teachers credit for it on the pay scale. The principal both nudged and encouraged teachers and teaching assistants to participate in these learning opportunities. And the staff appreciated these resources. "I've never been in a district with so many professional development opportunities," more than one teacher notes.
Nonetheless, teachers recognized that just taking courses was not enough. They wanted time together, to talk about what they were learning and to see how it was playing out with their students. So the school schedule was reconfigured with "allied" subjects like art and physical education grouped for each grade. This gave grade-level teams a solid block of time to meet every week to focus on student learning to assess their students' work and progress and to determine what they, as teachers, needed to do or learn to become more effective with their kids.
The result, as the principal reports, was that "I could ask teachers what they were doing with a particular child and they could trace back to what had influenced them and see a connection between what they had learned and what they were doing."
In addition to grade-level meetings, Ganado Intermediate staff met every other week as a whole group teachers, administrators, part-time teacher helpers, and teaching assistants. Teachers had decided that rather than send representatives to a school management team, they would all meet and make decisions about their school together. The principal often brought student scores to the group, to help focus decisions about what to do next.
The sense of the whole school as a learning community reinforced a goal held by the Navajo Nation as well as the school. That goal was to increase the number of Navajo teachers by supporting the teacher helpers and teaching assistants all members of the local Navajo community to take courses that would lead to a teaching credential. Currently 40 percent of the faculty is Navajo, and several new teachers have come out of this support system. The principal who has now replaced Stropko is Navajo, as well.
Negotiating cultural differences has been part of the learning at the school. One non-Navajo teacher notes, "We've had to learn about ourselves, our different learning styles, and our different ways of handling things basic differences like whether interrupting is supportive or rude, whether long conversational pauses are seen as time to think." A Navajo teacher adds, "We have to understand our Native American students, and especially we have to understand their code switching and not label them deficient or limited."
When teachers talk together about students, they have learned to appreciate that their Navajo and Anglo perspectives may be different but that their goals for the students are the same. "Teamwork" comes up a lot when teachers describe the highlights of their Ganado experience.
When Ganado Intermediate received a National Award for Model Professional Development, the effectiveness of their teamwork was recognized. "That was major," says Lucinda Swedburg, a former Ganado teacher who is the new principal. "We proudly display it, on everything. I just wish the words said, For Student Achievement,' because that's why we did it in this building."
Number of Students
English Language Learners
Measures of Success
increased number of
P.O. Box 1757
Ganado, AZ 86505
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