Native American Education: One (Mostly) Successful Story

Each Wednesday we feature an article from Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit

Ben Gibson’s Capital Commentary articles these past months regarding Native American education have been instructive and, may I say, sadly familiar. Ben spent two years of his life immersed in one of the greatest educational challenges of our time. Native education around the country, even continent, remains a grim story. We hear talk about failing inner city schools—just add “inner city and reservation schools” and you get the picture.

The story of Rehoboth Christian School in Gallup, New Mexico offers some hope. Rehoboth was started in 1903 by the Christian Reformed Church to serve Navajo and Zuni children. Rehoboth was one of a number of mission schools (three others were started by the Methodists in Farmington, NM, the Presbyterians in Ganado, AZ, the Roman Catholics in St. Michaels, AZ) that did most of the early education for Navajo people, and their graduates were often the early leaders of the Navajo Nation.

To be sure, these were not perfect schools, and more than a few serious errors of judgment were made through the decades. There were years when students were disciplined for speaking their Native language, and there were some painful experiences in the boarding schools. Many of these mistakes were rooted not so much in a mean spirit, but rather in a sheer lack of respect for Native culture, language, and religion. The white folks reflected the dominant culture and they were often determined to acculturate the Natives.

When Rehoboth celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2003, we included a “Day of Reflection” which ended with a time of “Confession and Reconciliation.” It was a powerful, sometimes tearful experience. Upon the advice of one of our elder statesmen, Edward T. Begay, we published summary proceedings with full-page ads in two local newspapers, including the Navajo Times.

In spite of these errors of the past, Rehoboth did a lot right through the decades, including the delivery of quality education for hundreds of Native young people. A Rehoboth education came in the context of accountability, discipline, and a culture of success. Several eighth grade graduates were part of the WWII Navajo Code Talker experience. When a high school started in 1948, many graduates went on to earn college degrees as well as have successful military careers. In the early 2000s, the Speaker of the Council, the Supreme Court Chief Justice, the Attorney General and several highly placed Navajo Nation Division leaders were all Rehoboth graduates.

With the advent of Red Power in the early 1970s, Rehoboth parents wanted a stronger voice in the governance of the school. Given authority from Christian Reformed Home Missions, a local school board with a Native majority took over the day-to-day operations, and with that came greater responsibility for the financial affairs of the school. Tuition now covers 38% of annual operating costs, which is remarkable given the average income of our parents. The transition to local control has been highly successful.

Financially, substantial support comes from Christian supporters around the nation, most with CRC roots. While the actual financial support from the denomination has ended, the entire campus has been deeded to the Rehoboth School Board. This carries significant meaning—how many Native people own their school with no government strings attached?

Today, Rehoboth has a student body of over 500 students. All families pay at least partial tuition, some full tuition, though more than half the students qualify for free and reduced lunch. It is likely one of the most diverse Christian schools in the nation, with 2/3 of the student body being Native, and the rest a mixture of Hispanic, Caucasian, Ethiopian, Filipino, and more. The percentage of Native teachers is also steadily increasing. Rehoboth graduates between forty and fifty students each year. Over 90 percent go on to college or the military, also remarkable given that half of all Native students are still not graduating from high school. Over a dozen of our students have earned a Gates Millennium Scholarship and many others a Daniels Scholarship.

What has led to the ongoing success of this school? One, we didn't quit; for 112 years, we have been trying to learn and do it better. Second, our parents are involved. We get 100 percent participation in K-8 parent/teacher conferences, and 70 percent in the high school. Third, we have had a relatively stable staff with enormous dedication, some serving for an entire career. Fourth, there is a sense of parental ownership with parents taking responsibility for their children’s education, creating a school culture that is markedly different from that in the neighboring schools. We have also never wavered from our mission of being a Christian school, or compromised our Christian heritage and Biblical roots. Many students come from families that are third and fourth generation Christians.

However, the injustice in the funding of American education produces a bitter irony: Rehoboth Christian School, which recently was named one of the fifty best Christian schools in the United States, which is arguably the best school in the nation serving Native students, which has a waiting list and would triple in size if equitable public funding was offered to all students wanting to attend, which offers quality education in an entire region of failing schools, is systematically overlooked by the educational establishment. Because of its Christian identity, Rehoboth has struggled to secure grants from tribal officials or foundations supporting Native causes, and it does not receive federal or state funding. Justice in (Native) education continues to be “a long road to freedom.”

- Ron Polinder is retired Superintendent of Rehoboth Christian School and a former board member of the Center for Public Justice. Photo via