A Tribe Transforms Its Schools: The Zuni Story

The public schools of Zuni, New Mexico provide a striking example of Essential School principles adapted to a particular community’s needs and vision. When he first launched his native Zuni tribe on school change ten years ago, superintendent Hayes Lewis broke with a larger district to carve out an autonomous K-12 district for this reservation of 9,200. In a series of bold moves including withdrawing from the state accreditation system, he and his curriculum director, Kirby Gchachu, a friend since childhood, asked the entire tribal community to help decide what they wanted for their children.

“We had the state’s highest dropout rate, its lowest achievement, poor attendance, and low parental involvement,” Lewis says. “The community asked for a high-quality academic program with learning opportunities in and out of the buildings; power over making decisions and solving our problems; and an emphasis on Zuni culture, history, and language throughout the curriculum.”

Today students at Zuni’s alternative Twin Buttes High School are preparing for an oral and written presentation answering a key question that faces their tribe: how to spend the Zuni Land Reclamation money the tribe has just received. In a cross-disciplinary unit that incorporates government and law, land use, economics, history, math and science, and research, writing, and speaking skills, they will reflect on questions that have real and immediate meaning to the entire community.

Both Twin Buttes and the larger Zuni High School schedule four long blocks into each school day, and teachers have grown accustomed to acting as generalists in several subject areas. The district is in a pilot assessment project with the state, developing new ways to document student performance. And Lewis speaks soberly of the need to keep up a steady evaluation of each new move to avoid stagnation in the process.

For the Zuni district, New Mexico’s Re:Learning effort came at just the right time, Lewis observes, and the process for joining it closely mirrored the traditional tribal methods of consensus decision-making. But the district must now act swiftly and boldly, he says. “The community is behind us, the board is behind us, and the administrators are in place,” he says. “Now is our time to act; it may be our only chance.”