TOHATCHI, N.M. – Fifth grader Darius Yazzie’s after-school chores include hauling water for horses and feeding chickens, while his classmate, Shanika Begay, rides a bus 15 miles each way through the rolling hills of this impoverished corner of the Navajo Nation.
Some students travel a much greater distance, as far as 45 miles on dirt roads that become impassable in bad weather. Some of their homes lack electricity and running water. About 83 percent of Shanika’s and Darius’ classmates are poor, according to state data, with about 80 percent designated as English language learners.
While Tohatchi Elementary School is a new building this year, with walls decorated with Navajo language posters and student artwork, the demographics of poverty and language have added up in the past to some of the worst test scores in New Mexico.
But about four years ago, Shanika, Darius and other students noticed a change.
A bespectacled, mustachioed man with a buoyant character was there to greet them each morning. George Bickert, who as a first-year principal had to get a special waiver to take the job, immediately learned his students’ names. He gave them smiles, hugs and high fives. He led early morning basketball games, which Darius loved.
Like those games, Bickert turned academics into a challenge, one that he believed these students could win. And win they did.
Tohatchi boosted its math scores from 15 percent of the students being proficient in 2006 to nearly 78 percent this year. Reading scores rose from nearly 28 percent of the students being proficient to almost 71 percent this year, according to state data. Continue reading