Letters to the President <br>
When asked, these students said that they really didn’t understand that the writing assignment McCabe gave them in the summer school class approximately half a year ago would make them published authors.
Basically, McCabe asked them to envision a visit from the next president of the United States. They were to imagine that he offered to give their school one thing and describe what they would ask for.
Attakai said that he would like to see better sports equipment, a request he expanded on in his letter to the president.
Thompson said that more teachers would be helpful while Riggs mentioned having a school nurse on campus.
“When people get sick, they are sent home, or have to travel to a doctor.”
This, she said, takes time away from school.
McCabe added that when a child is ill, or is injured, the nearest hospital—in Winslow—is about an hour away.
“I would like more computers. In my classroom, we have only one that works with the internet. This is used by 30-plus students. In the past I had to take students 70 miles one way to Flagstaff to do research, either at the public library or at Northern Arizona University,” McCabe said.
She said that one of her students had gone to STAR School, a nearby off-reservation charter school with approximately 80 percent Navajo students, and had told her class how each student had their own laptop computer to use there.
“She said that they were able to take them home to work on their homework assignments. This arrangement would be a great benefit to our students, and we don’t have that many. I would ask the president for laptop computers for my students, so that they could all do their writing assignments at home, and then print them out when they come in to the class,” McCabe said.
Currently, the students wait in line to do their writing, research and printing.
Another letter in the book from Lisa Delpit— executive director at Florida International University’s Center for Urban Education and Innovation—states that, “Schools exist as islands, not as integral parts of the communities they serve.”
Where that might be true in some of the schools that serve low-income students and children of color, this assessment could not be further from the truth at Little Singer.
“Little Singer School was not built by the Navajo Nation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs or by a public school system—it was originally instituted by the community of Bird Springs, and the fact that the junior high is a charter school is just another way the community saw of keeping community control of its school,” Sorensen said.
McCabe said that her dream for the school is that it will be a “little oasis” in Bird Springs.
“I’m seeing that here,” she said. “Not only just in the plants we’ve established here at the school, but in the students as well. That’s part of the vision of Hatathlii Yazhi.”
Hatathlii Yazhi, or Little Singer, was a respected medicine man from Birdsprings—a community approximately 70 miles northeast of Flagstaff. He questioned the appropriateness of sending Navajo children to boarding schools to receive an education. Without the children, Hatathlii Yazhi said, the community was strangely silent, and he urged Birdsprings to build a school to bring the young voices back home.
The children have come home, but there are still shortcomings that make their education more difficult. These include long rides on dirt roads that become a sea of mud with precipitation, older buses that break down, a tiny outdated library and buildings begging for repair.
Still, Attakai, Thompson and Riggs all said that they preferred Little Singer to larger, more modern schools in bordertown communities such as Winslow.
“Because it is smaller, we can learn better things. Bigger schools make it tougher. Here, the school gives us second chances to straighten up and do better,” Attakai said.
“I like it here,” Thompson added. “Over there [in Winslow], there are a lot of kids. Here, there is a lot of one-on-one teaching.”
In the prologue to the book, entitled “Where Do We Start to Sweep,” Bill Cosby compares our current national public education system as “the junkiest room he’s ever seen.”
This room, he writes, was not messed up by the students of our schools, but by generations of grown people he calls “litterers”—including school board members, principals, teachers, taxpayers and more. Considering the state of affairs in public education, Cosby expresses his wonderment that schools are doing as well as they do.
“Of course, I’m assuming that the President of the United States probably never went to a poor and neglected public school—where books are missing pages, walls have peeling paint, children have nothing to draw or write with, and where there is no library for reading a story or doing homework,” Cosby writes. “These are the junkiest rooms: the poorest public schools where every year there are more cutbacks; where there’s less money all the time.”
Added to the mess, Cosby said, are new directives, budget-stretches for more tests, more requirements and unfounded programs, which create even more gaps in education. It is unfortunately, he says, all about money.
According to editor Carl Glickman, this collection of letters from across the nation is meant to identify candidates “willing to stand up and fight for an education that gives all our children choices of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ It is also, he continues, “a wake up call to citizens, educators, parents, government, business leaders, and to all of our presidential candidates.”
Glickman points out that “if there was not a custodial need for schools to take care of young people for six-and-a-half hours a day, 180 to 220 days a year, so that parents can go to work, we might no longer need physical places called schools.” Everything could quite efficiently be taken care of on-line, Glickman suggests.
But Little Singer Community School is far more than a daycare center. On the day the students were interviewed, parents came and went, visiting with their children and relatives. A respected elder gave a presentation to a classroom, and a mobile star lab allowed children to step into their traditional cosmology.
Children enjoyed a large, nutritious lunch then ran out to a modern playground. As their happy voices rang out across the high desert of northern Arizona, the vision of Hatathlii Yazhi came to mind.