Carol Cloer will focus on experiences with Navajo students, families

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FARMINGTON — Having spent most of her life as a teacher or an education administrator, Carol Cloer paid closer attention than most people in late July when a state judge ruled that the state of New Mexico has provided inadequate funding for public schools, thereby violating the rights of at-risk students.

Over the years, Cloer — who started her career as a teacher in Montezuma Creek, Utah, before going on to serve as the assistant superintendent of the Bloomfield School District and director of New Mexico Highlands University's Farmington campus — has seen educational opportunities for poor students, a great many of them Navajo, improve in the state.

But she said last month's court ruling illustrates, once again, that the state is simply not doing enough for its neediest children.

"I don't have all the answers," Cloer said. "But we can do better. We can all do better."

The importance of providing an adequate education to all those students is one of the themes of a presentation Cloer will deliver Wednesday night in Aztec during a meeting of the San Juan County Historical Society. Cloer's address is entitled "The Gem in Our Own Backyard: The Navajo Reservation," and much of her lecture will deal with her experiences as an educator in dealing and interacting with Navajo students and their families over the years.

Cloer, now retired, recalled her introduction to teaching Navajo students in that modest Utah schoolhouse in 1967 as a bit of a shock. It had been only a few years earlier, she said, that the U.S. government began to take its pledge to provide an education to Navajo children seriously, and that had come almost a century after the government had made that promise in its 1868 treaty with the Navajo Nation.

Up to that point, she said, Native children customarily were sent to far-away residential schools where much of their cultural identity was erased. Those who remained at home typically saw their educational needs simply ignored by the government. That only began to change in the 1960s with the large-scale construction of schools in Native communities, according to Cloer.

By the time Cloer began teaching in the predominately Navajo community of Montezuma Creek in 1967, things had hardly improved. She noted many of the Native students she encountered in her fifth-grade class were only then beginning to develop a basic understanding of speaking English.

Cloer said that was not surprising, given the fact that they had little, if any, exposure to it while growing up. But that put them at a serious academic disadvantage compared to their Anglo counterparts, who traditionally had a solid grasp of that skill by the time they entered first grade, Cloer said, simply because they had been exposed to English every day.

Cloer quickly realized the government's failure to live up to its end of the bargain had resulted in a serious deficit in educational opportunities for Navajo children, and that injustice would become an issue she would spend much of her career trying to address. In fact, Cloer became so immersed in the subject that she wound up devoting her thesis to it while pursuing her master's degree.

Her quest for a more thorough understanding of the challenges her students faced didn't stop there. Cloer made a habit of over the years of visiting chapter houses and attending Navajo social events to deliver presentations on the importance of education, encouraging parents to enroll their children in school and support their academic endeavors.

She also made a serious effort study Navajo culture, beliefs and societal structures.

"To teach these students, I needed to understand what they thought, what their beliefs were … ," she said. "Sometimes I think they taught me more than I taught them."

Cloer maintained those outreach efforts years later when she and her family moved to Bloomfield, where they also started a hay and feed business. The resulting interactions she had with Navajo ranchers also allowed her to continue to develop her understanding of and appreciation for Native culture, allowing her to better serve those students.

Eventually, she said, those efforts began to bear fruit. It was when she became a principal and her high school graduated its first Navajo valedictorian that Cloer said she felt like she was starting to see substantial progress.

Last month's court ruling demonstrated to Cloer that the state still has a long way to go in meeting the needs of all its public school students. But she maintains all children deserve the same opportunities and access.

"The Navajo students have a special place in my heart because I understand some of the trials and tribulations they have to overcome to even get an education," she said.

Cloer doesn't claim to have become an expert on Navajo culture, explaining that her grasp of the language extends only to a few phrases. She acknowledged that has limited her ability to reach her Navajo students.

"You're never going to be inside a culture unless you speak and learn a language," she said. "But I think I had a real sensitivity to it."

She said the efforts she made to understand and communicate with her students and their families paid dividends for her, as well.

"My life is so much fuller, so much brighter, so much better because of the interactions I've had with them through the years," she said.

Cloer's presentation will take place at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Aztec Senior Center, 101 Park Ave. in Aztec. The public is invited, and admission is free. Call 202-538-2102 for more information.

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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