BETHESDA, Md. -On May 12, representatives from schools awarded Safe Schools, Healthy Students grants across the nation gathered in Bethesda for a training designed to teach effective communication. Among the crowd were a handful of individuals from tribal lands who looked to this funding opportunity to create safe, healthy environments for learning for Native American students.
Dr. Mark Sorensen, director of STAR School near Leupp, the director of the Navajo Peacemaking and Safe Schools project there was one of them.
Sorensen has been a long-time supporter of the concepts of Peacemaking. Along with Navajo Peacemaking Project administrators Gloria Benally and Roger Begaye, Council Delegate Thomas Walker Jr., and others have brought traditional counseling and conflict resolution into five schools serving Navajo students.
Along with Peacemaking, Navajo Nation Law Enforcement Officers and counselors from the Navajo Treatment Center for Children and Families have joined in the effort to provide preventative services that will help students learn better communication and decision making skills, as well as assisting in the mental health of children and their families.
Sampson Cowboy and Capt. Steve Nelson of Law Enforcement, along with Gerald Watchman, acting director of NTCCF and their staff have been fully supportive of the program and have been equally instrumental in seeing the project through the Nation's approval process.
"What is unique about our program is that we are approaching safe schools proactively," Sorensen said. "We are also the only federally funded project that includes a traditional, indigenous approach to resolving conflicts. We are addressing behaviors through K'e, recognizing and building relationships before something big happens."
The concept of K'e, which can best be translated as "relationship" in English, is vital to traditional Navajo culture - and is something that has been brought forward into contemporary life a defining part of being Navajo.
The Project has passed the Navajo Nation's Department of Behavioral Health's Internal Review Board process upon receipt of letters of support from the school boards of STAR School, Borrego Pass Community School, Chilchinbeto Community School, Shonto Preparatory High School and Little Singer Community School.
"This is a four-year grant," Sorensen explained. "This first year has been spent in program development and in finalizing the necessary Memorandum of Understanding with the Nation. We have been able to provide training to the Core Management Team (which includes the principals of each school and representatives from the partners Law Enforcement, Peacemaking and NTCCF), and school staff.
"The project also features the Voices character building reading curriculum and the 40 Assets program, both important pillars in creating healthy students."
Students at STAR School - from kindergarten through the eighth grade - have been involved in the Voices curriculum for the past three years. As the students work through the reading program over the year - which includes five major themes - they move towards the culmination of what they have learned by writing Freedom and Democracy speeches. The best speech from each grade is selected, and the chosen students give their speeches to the community.
"These continue to blow me away," Sorensen said. "I feel privileged to witness these students talk so eloquently about community issues that concern them, like drunk driving and child abuse, and tell us what they plan to do to address the problem."
Sorensen went on to explain his amazement at the maturity and depth even the youngest children exhibit when making these speeches.
Begaye and Benally have been excited about the project from the first day they heard about it.
"We have been mandated to bring Peacemaking into the schools," Begaye expressed at the most recent meeting of stakeholders. "This project is an answer to our prayers."
Sorensen took this praise very seriously - though it was very flattering, there is also a great deal of responsibility in piloting this project.
"I feel like we just have to succeed," Sorensen said with a wry smile. "A lot of people have told me that they are very excited about this project. We can't let them down."