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In the past, education has been a thorny topic between government officials and some American Indian leaders who recalled the days of forced assimilation at boarding schools.

But on Friday, the two groups joined forces, signing an agreement aimed at improving education for Navajo students statewide.

Leaders of Utah schools and the Navajo Nation signed a memorandum of understanding that will give the Navajo Nation access to achievement data for Navajo students throughout the state. Navajo leaders hope that by seeing that data, they and educators will learn what works and doesn't work when it comes to educating Navajo children.

"We will commit to one another to help promote the best education we can offer to our children," said Rex Lee Jim, Navajo Nation vice president.

The vast majority of Navajo children in Utah attend public schools, with some attending a school run by the Bureau of Indian Education in Aneth.

Utah public schools educate about 3,790 Navajo students, said Chuck Foster, American Indian education specialist at the state Office of Education. Achievement data for those students are still being collected, Foster said, but a gap has long existed between American Indian students as a whole and some other groups.

Previously, federal law barred the state from sharing such achievement data with the Nation, because it wasn't considered a state education agency. But recent changes to that federal student privacy law, known as FERPA, now allow that data to flow between the two, said Karl Wilson, director of Title I and federal programs at the state office.

"We all recognize that in order for us to achieve high academic standards, having timely and accurate data is essential in evaluating program effectiveness and implementing quality instructional programs for students," Wilson said.

Wilson said Navajo leaders want to look at successful strategies such as ones used in the San Juan School District. About 51 percent of that district's students are Navajo, said Douglas Wright, district superintendent.

Wright said for years, in response to previous lawsuits, the district has offered Navajo language, culture and government classes. Wright said the district still has a way to go to bring all its students up to speed academically, but it has seen some improvements.

"We want them to realize that we're providing them a solid education that hopefully will prepare them for wherever they want to go in the world," Wright said, "but we're also honoring their traditions and cultures so they know who they are, and we feel that helps them to be better learners."

Jonathan Hale, with the 22nd Navajo Nation Council's Health, Education and Human Services Committee, called the agreement a first step.

"As I see it, the world outside the Navajo Nation is moving at a faster rate," Hale said. "The Navajo Nation has to, at some point, get a hold of that and get on that train as well, moving into the future."

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