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Fifth grade teacher set to leave Lawrence schools bolstered Indigenous studies curriculum

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Discussions of potential school closings, cutting educator jobs, multi-age classrooms, a Montessori program and more have clouded the vision of the 2022-23 school year that many Lawrence Public Schools teachers had just a few months ago, leaving them with concerns about the consequences. 

Sherana Becenti (Diné), a fifth grade teacher at New York Elementary, is leaving the district because of this uncertainty.

“I could go on and on about things that Sherana has brought to our relationship and to our staff and to the students at New York,” said Melissa Turpin, another fifth grade teacher at New York Elementary who has worked with Becenti for years as her teaching partner.

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Becenti began working for Lawrence Public Schools in 2010 as a paraeducator at Schwegler Elementary and a tutor for the Native American Student Services program. In 2013, she left Schwegler and began working as a paraeducator at New York Elementary. In 2015, she became a Title I teacher at New York Elementary, and since 2016, she’s been a fifth grade teacher at New York.

Sherana Becenti

She’s going to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Oregon, which has a “great Native American program,” and “a cohort of Native Americans that I can lean on, a network that I can build off of,” she said. 

“I am feeling sad to be leaving, but I know that I’ve left my mark. I know that for sure,” she said. 

Becenti said that “morale is definitely low” right now, and that the year “has really been a roller coaster for my colleagues.”

“I mean, we start the year off excited because we’re all in person, and then they kind of mentioned (implementing a Montessori program) towards the end of the fall,” she said. “That uncertainty really kind of pushed everyone over the edge.” 

However, “This didn’t just happen within a year. This has been an ongoing problem for years now, but it really just pushed a lot of us over the edge,” she continued. 

Turpin also said that Becenti’s departure is one of many, as the Lawrence school district “is losing a lot of very talented educators.”

“This is my 28th year in the district, so I’ve seen a lot of really good people come and go,” she said. “I’m extremely happy for Sherana because she does need to move on and do bigger and better things … but it’s definitely a loss for USD 497, it’s a loss for the New York community, and it’s definitely a loss for me.”

But through her years with the district, Becenti’s work has not gone unnoticed. 

“I know definitely all children, but especially the Native kids in her class have really benefited from having someone that looks like they do in the teaching position that she’s in,” Turpin said. “I’ve learned a lot from her, as I know our staff and kids have too over the years.”

‘This is who I am’

When Becenti was growing up on the reservation, all of her teachers were white.

“I didn’t have the knowledge of who I was in history. It was basically taught from a white person’s point of view,” she said. “I just got really tired in high school of not being represented in any of the curriculum that we were learning, so I decided to go to Haskell and become a teacher.” 

When she was a first-year fifth grade teacher, she said the curriculum did not include accurate information about Indigenous people, and she recalls only having about two and a half pages of Indigenous people studies and histories in the curriculum. She said she and others “basically had to come up with our own curriculum for a few years before the district kind of caught on and started adding more resources to our social studies curriculum,” but she said the district has done a good job of listening to other perspectives. 

“I did go above and beyond what the district required me to teach about Indigenous peoples. I taught about the history going clear back to when the first people set foot on America, and then we learned about the progression of how colonization has affected Native Americans in the past and how colonization still affects Native Americans today,” she said.

Turpin said that, as an Indigenous teacher, Becenti brings a unique perspective that she thinks is really important.

“Her Native American perspective is something that we’re just really going to miss because we do not have enough teachers of color that can bring that perspective,” she said. “I can teach the same information, but when it’s coming from a white person, it’s different.”

At the beginning of the unit, Becenti asks her students what they know about Native Americans. They typically list “stereotypes that they think are correct” like living in teepees and wearing feathers all the time. 

Knowing that these misconceptions exist in her community is one of the biggest reasons why Becenti has stayed in Lawrence.

“I love Lawrence so much because of the diversity. Many tribal people come to Lawrence to go to school at Haskell, and then some of them end up staying, and then their kids are in our public school system, so I felt the need to stay in Lawrence and advocate for those students and families.”

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Of the Indigenous students Becenti has taught, many “don’t know what tribe they come from.”

“That’s a perfect example of what colonization has done to families even today,” she said. “So we make it a point to learn about where they come from, who they are, parts of their culture.”

With these lessons, students are able to see how their friends are still affected by colonization “because they don’t speak their language or, unfortunately, they don’t know where they’re from. But that’s because of colonization.” 

“It’s really good to have students have an aha moment of ‘OK, this is who I am. … I’m Indigenous, this is my tribe,’” she said. “It’s just really rewarding to see those students … own who they are and where they come from and just be proud for that one moment. That one moment they feel heard and represented in our school.” 

That alone is reward enough, Becenti said.

“I do this for them and the kids who don’t know where they come from. The kids who can’t advocate for themselves.”

Building up Indigenous education

Becenti said that when she started working for Lawrence Public Schools, the district had begun doing equity work, which was exciting for her.

“Me being an Indigenous teacher, in Lawrence … being one of the very few, I did see a need to advocate for Indigenous students and families and their curriculum,” she said.

Becenti said she “became very empowered by the equity work” the district was doing, and began working closely with Jennifer Attocknie, the former Native American Student Services (NASS) Coordinator. 

“During the summers, we worked on bringing Indigenous perspectives to the classroom and curriculum. We worked with a group of other Lawrence Public Schools teachers in the summer to gather resources and write lesson plans for teachers to use in our district to provide an Indigenous perspective,” she said. 

Now, the NASS Library is “full of Indigenous curriculum and resources for teachers to use.”

Through her work with NASS, she became involved in the Kansas Association for Native American Education (KANAE) — an organization that advocates for Native American students and families across Kansas, and was “created to address the need for growth and greater visibility of Indigenous people, nations and perspectives in and across the educational environment in the state of Kansas,” she said. 

“I’m very happy to be a part of that. We actually started that up a few years ago because the organization existed, but it kind of just died out, so I was kind of part of the group who revived that organization,” she said. “We’re going on, I believe, six years now, and catching more momentum and more people are joining.”

Though she is leaving, Becenti hopes that other teachers who do equity work will continue to build on what she has done.

“Unfortunately, it seems like the equity work that started when I started, which was about nine years ago, has kind of dwindled down, and that’s really sad, because … a lot of people want to do the work,” Becenti said. “They want to be inclusive, but it seems like the district as a whole isn’t really focusing on that right now. But my hopes are that all the work that we’ve done will continue to carry on with others.”

‘The workload, the uncertainty’

After being in the district for so long, Becenti said she didn’t make her decision lightly, but she decided before winter break that now would be a good time to see what other things she can do because of the “uncertainty of where the district was headed.”

Superintendent Anthony Lewis said in December that the district was “exploring the possibility” of Montessori education at New York Elementary to increase enrollment. The school board approved the district’s recommendation during its April 25 meeting, though the new program will only include 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds and kindergarteners for the upcoming school year.

Becenti said the intensive training needed in order to “do Montessori right” was a concern for many teachers.

“I have friends who, because of that, have actually left the profession mid-year, and just literally applied for a job that didn’t have to do with teaching,” she continued.

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Turpin said the district’s staff retention is becoming concerning for her. Teachers in the district need to be paid better, she said, and “wages and working conditions need to be at the best that they can be to continue to retain high-quality teachers.”

“People have to have a job. They’re not going to sit around and wait to see if their position is cut — they’re gonna go get a job. And I know that’s what happened,” she said. “That becomes very concerning, and I do think our Board of Education realizes that.” 

School board members have expressed some concerns in previous meetings. For instance, during a work session on March 22, before about $6.4 million in budget cuts were finalized, school board member Kelly Jones said she was worried about retention and asked if the district could give her numbers of how many positions would be cut. Chief Academic Officer Patrick Kelly said in response that he shared that concern, and “Anytime we have these discussions, we’re going to lose staff.” 

The personnel report from the board’s most recent meeting agenda shows roughly 30 certified staff members’ resignations, including Becenti’s, effective May 26.

Becenti said she’s heard from friends who are teachers in other districts that Lawrence is not the only one suffering. The Olathe school district was planning to make $20 million in cuts for the 2022-2023 school year, for example.

“It’s just the workload, the uncertainty and the quick change and … I feel like we didn’t really have a say in what the district decided. It was ‘We’re thinking about Montessori,’ then all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘OK, we’re doing it,’” she said.

Good memories

Though Becenti is leaving the district, she said she knows that she’s “left a positive mark, especially with students who have come through fifth grade at New York Elementary.” 

Contributed Photo Sherana Becenti received the Barbara Hodgson Dream To Achieve Award in 2018, for her work at New York Elementary.
Contributed Photo Sherana Becenti received the Barbara Hodgson Dream To Achieve Award in 2018, for her work at New York Elementary.

Becenti was recognized with the Barbara Hodgson Dream To Achieve Award in 2018, which is “presented to a New York teacher who is recognized by his or her peers to possess great skill in the art of teaching and demonstrates the virtues the New York staff strives to instill in their students,” according to the Lawrence Schools Foundation website.

She was surprised by the honor, and she said it’s a good memory from her time at Lawrence Public Schools, though many other good memories are from former students and their families.

“When I see them in town, they come up to me and always just greet me and say, ‘Thank you for teaching me,’” she said. “And it’s always like, ‘Thank you for teaching me about the true history of Native Americans. We were unaware. Thank you for giving us your perspective on Native Americans in history.’”

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Emma Bascom (she/her), reporter, can be reached at ebascom (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here.

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