It is easy to get lost in the vast lands of the Navajo Nation, with its mountains, rough terrain, endless desert and long stretches of highway. A quick turn can take a visitor into Utah, New Mexico, Arizona or Colorado.
But in this stretch of land, known as the Four Corners, it is not only the visitors who get lost. This is a place where untold numbers of Navajo students have gone missing from educational systems — their numbers unaccounted for by schools, their attendance records lost to parents and teachers alike.
Hundreds have fallen off the grid since the start of the pandemic, pulled out of schools by parents who feel angry and unsupported. Many have transferred to other districts, sometimes crossing state lines to do so. Others switched over to homeschooling or dropped out of school altogether. The one constant is that the children are considered missing or unaccounted for.
One of those students, Xavier Begaye, lived with his mother in Red Mesa, Arizona, a census-designated place in the Four Corners, and was attending T’iis Nazbas Community School when the pandemic hit. The current school year has been a dreadful one for the 12-year-old boy, who entered seventh grade in September.
Earlier in the year, his father died of COVID-19 complications. Xavier began to struggle with his schoolwork. He spent his days home alone, trying to navigate school while his mother, suddenly a single parent, worked as a security guard in a nearby border town.
T’iis Nazbas Community School issued him a wireless hotspot and a computer, but living in a remote area of the Navajo Reservation made internet access difficult. Each day, he was given his assignments over the phone and was required to call the school and read answers from his homework back to his teacher. The hotspot didn’t work well, and Xavier found it difficult to keep up. He fell into a depression. At times, instead of doing his homework, he cried to his mother and clung to an old shirt of his dad’s.
“It was hard. I didn’t want to go to school,” he said. “While I was doing homework, I cried.”
His mother, Lucinda Merritt, said she called the school, which is operated by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) and located in Teec Nos Pos, about 20 miles from their home. Counseling was offered for a few weeks, until suddenly, all contact — including homework assignments — came to a halt.
“I was trying,” Merritt said. “But even the counselor stopped calling.” So she took matters into her own hands and transferred Xavier to a school in Utah, 10 miles farther from their home in a different direction. He has since transferred again, this time to a public school off of the reservation in Farmington, New Mexico.
Merritt never notified the school authorities in Arizona. And they never asked.
Many children go missing
The pandemic has exposed an utter lack of accountability within the Navajo Nation’s sprawling school system, leaving parents and educators asking what happened. How can Navajo children like Xavier be considered lost in the very place they call home?
In New Mexico, a total of 2,010 students are officially unaccounted for, according to state Public Education Department records. At least 353 of them are American Indian and Alaskan Native schoolchildren, by PED estimates.
In fact, the numbers are likely far higher. In the Central Consolidated School District, a large district that operates on and off the Navajo Nation, a total of 47 students have been reported unaccounted for by PED. But those figures don’t include the missing Navajo and other Native students enrolled in schools overseen by the BIE.
It is impossible to estimate how many of those children have actually gone missing, since the BIE has ignored repeated requests for data. But educators believe the number is significant.
“I know of probably 10 families in the Shiprock area who have basically just kind of given up,” said Richard Edwards, former executive director of Shiprock Associated Schools Inc. (SASI), which is part of the BIE system.
Edwards was especially critical of SASI, which he said had been inundated with millions of dollars in state and federal relief funds to provide resources for the social, mental and emotional health and well-being of students. Most of it, he said, has gone unused.
“SASI got millions, we got millions, in the CARES Act and the American Rescue [Plan] money, and I would say that the majority of that money, the greater portion of that money, has remained unspent,” he said. “So those resources are there. And I think anybody who tells you those resources aren’t there is not being truthful.”
‘Not sending my kids back’
Daniella Allen is certain that one of her three children is among the unaccounted for in the Shiprock Associated Schools system. Early in the pandemic, she transferred her son, Aden, and middle daughter, Alba, to Atsá Biyáázh Community School in Shiprock. She wanted to keep the kids closer to their home in Shiprock but within weeks decided it may not have been the best decision.
On hearing that SASI lacked certified teachers, she began sitting in on virtual classes, where she often observed a teaching assistant leading the class.
“I started questioning things. I called the school and asked what the certification was like for teachers. I was informed that they did not have [certified] teachers,” Allen said. “I said, ‘OK, I’m not sending my kids back.’”
She transferred her daughter to the Central Consolidated School District and her son to a charter school in Shiprock. But when she requested her son’s records, she said the school refused to release them. Her 5-year-old son had misplaced a $100 hotspot — a device about the size of a smartphone — and until the family replaced it, his kindergarten records would remain unavailable, she said she was told.
Shiprock Associated Schools Inc. Executive Director Eudore Camata refused to comment on the specifics, citing privacy concerns. “The school is following and encourages its stakeholders to follow the process contained in the school’s policy in addressing their concerns,” he said.
Schools still failing
Stories like these are almost commonplace on the Navajo Nation, where the school system is rooted in decades of inequity. In 2018, a landmark education lawsuit confirmed that, in the words of the plaintiffs, “there now exists an entire generation of children in this state who do not possess the basic capabilities to meaningfully function in modern society.”
Wilhelmina Yazzie was one of those plaintiffs, and despite the success of the lawsuit against New Mexico, she believes that little has changed. “It’s still the same,” she said, “ever since incorporation of the boarding school era to now.
“A lot of our families, they live out in the rural areas, they don’t have reliable transportation, the roads are so awful that during bad weather they’re not able to get out,” she said. “And then of course with the internet and [poor] cell phone service, there’s no way to communicate with the schools.”
Yazzie holds school administrators and superintendents responsible for New Mexico’s missing students.
Daniel Benavidez bristles at the suggestion. As superintendent of Central Consolidated School District, Benavidez oversees one of the largest populations of Navajo students in the country. Throughout the pandemic, he’s observed students move in and out of the school system — and he said schools simply do not have the resources to track the untold numbers of missing children.
“The problem is homeschooling. Or not sending their kids to school at all,” Benavidez said. “Parents think that they don’t have to register their kids in a district when they’re homeschooled — they just pull them out and just say they’re homeschooled.”
But, he said, school administrators don’t actually know if parents are following through in educating their kids at home. And there aren’t enough resources to find out what’s happening. “A lot of districts don’t have the personnel to go find out where they’re at. Parents aren’t homeschooling their kids, they’re just letting them do their own thing.”
But Edwards, who retired in June, isn’t convinced that parents are the ones generally at fault.
“I think it’s a failure at the local level,” Edwards said. “We missed an opportunity to reenvision education for our Native students and I don’t know that we’re ever going to catch up.”