Some Native American parents are urging California school teachers to stop assigning the mission project. That’s where kids in the fourth grade build replicas of historic Spanish missions.
Lori Rushford is a fourth grade teacher at Albert Schweitzer Elementary School in Carmichael. It’s the last recess of the day and she’s getting her students set to go home.
“…and then we’ll get lined up and ready to go,” she instructs students just seconds before the bell rings.
Rushford has been a teacher for more than 30 years. She grew up in California and recalls when she was in the 4th grade, doing the mission project with her father.
“It was very special because it was a time to be with just my dad out in the garage," says Rushford. "We built our mission, which was San Juan Capistrano – I still remember.”
Rushford and her dad built it out of cardboard.
“We painted everything and we cut out doors and windows," she says. "Nowadays you can go and buy a lot of the things. And that was one of the complaints that we had. Parents were complaining about how much it would cost them to build these missions.”
More recently, parents of Native American children have been complaining about the project for other reasons.
“This is offensive to some people," says Calvin Hedrick, a Sacramento area father of three school-age kids. He comes from the Maidu Mountain Indian tribe. Hedrick also leads The 5th Direction. It’s a group that promotes cultural strength among tribal youth.
Hedrick says the 4th grade mission project gives kids a false impression of what life was like for California’s indigenous people.
"This is traumatizing to some of our students. What should happen is that a school district should say ‘we will no longer be doing the mission project.’
“It was a very horrific time for native people," says Hedrick. "Everything was taken away from them – physical, sexual, mental, spiritual, emotional abuse happening when people were being taken to these places to be taught how to be civilized. And the whole idea of what civilization was, was very different through the minds of the missionaries coming in.
The California Department of Education says it’s already made changes to the project. Last year, the state Board of Education approved a new framework for teaching 4th graders about the missions. Robert Oakes is with the department.
“We have a whole different way of recommending that teachers talk to their students about this period, get them to understand the terrible impacts that the missions had on many of our Native American populations in California,” says Oakes.
The new framework says: “Building missions from sugar cubes or popsicle sticks does not help students understand the period and is offensive to many. Instead, students should have access to multiple sources that identify and help children understand the lives of different groups of people who lived in and around the missions so that students can place them in a comparative context. Missions were sites of conflict, conquest and forced labor.”
The changes will be reflected in future textbooks.
Nancy McTygue helped write the framework. She heads the California History-Social Science Project at UC Davis.
“What we’re asking teachers to do, and I’m not suggesting this is an easy task especially with nine year olds, but really to kind of tell the larger story," says McTygue. "And we felt that the mission project itself, doesn’t provide the kind of nuance and support for students understanding a really complex past."
But Calvin Hedrick says it’s unlikely every 4th grade teacher in California is aware of the state’s new framework for teaching the project.
“It’s much more than just putting it down in the framework," says Hedrick. "I think you need to get out there and you need to tell people and you need to have parents at every single school district questioning it.”
For teachers like Lori Rushford at Albert Schweitzer Elementary, that sort of consciousness raising about the mission project is having an effect.
“I chose not to do them this year after a parent came to me concerned about the project,” says Rushford.
She says her students did read about the missions and wrote compare and contrast essays.
But Rushford replaced the mission replica building assignment with a science project instead.
“There are lots of other projects we can build," says Rushford. "Our society has changed, education has changed. This is just something that has been in our curriculum for so long, it’s just taking a while to make that change, but I think it’s an important change.”