Lashawna Tso, New Mexico’s new assistant secretary for Indian education, relishes walking into a classroom and greeting youngsters in her native tongue. “I’m extremely proud of my culture and heritage. I love being Navajo and sharing it with the world so they can understand and appreciate the first people of this country,” she says. “And I love when these little faces are super excited to yell back at me.”
That simple but enthusiastic hello from a handful of grade schoolers is what keeps Tso motivated as she works on behalf of the state’s 38,000 Native American students as the governor’s educational liaison to New Mexico’s 23 tribal governments and federal agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE).
While graduation rates are on the rise in the Land of Enchantment—76.9 percent in 2020—fewer Native Americans finish high school than their White counterparts. Native American students also perform two to three grade levels below their White peers in reading and math, according to the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators.
COVID has only deepened those disparities.
Spikes in absenteeism and mental health issues and the challenges of rural living—including a dearth of internet access and even electricity in some tribal communities—have left many Native American students even further behind. And weak Wi-Fi signals aren’t the only connections lost during a pandemic that has claimed the lives of American Indians and Alaskan Natives at almost twice the rate of Whites.
“Many of our students live in multigenerational households and many of them lost elders to COVID,” Tso says. “That’s a loss of family, a loss of language and culture, and a loss of the gatekeepers of our traditions.”
Like many of the students she serves, who commute an hour or more to school by bus, Tso grew up in Smoke Signal, Arizona, where the closest neighbor was a half-mile away. She was studying to become a speech pathologist when back-to-back summers at AU’s former Washington Internships for Native Students program sounded a new calling.
“It was my first time being on the East Coast, and my first time meeting so many like-minded Native students who were eager to pursue higher education and give back to their communities.”
That’s exactly what she’s doing in her new post: working to close the achievement gap and the digital divide and advocating for inclusion and curriculum that preserves and celebrates Native culture and languages.
“I am in a unique place to make change. I am the product of public schools, the product of BIE schools. There are not a lot of people who look like me in leadership positions,” Tso says. “I am what my ancestors prayed for.”