Overall test scores appear to be rising for Native American and non-Native students in Montezuma-Cortez schools, but work still remains to close gaps in performance and disciplinary action.
Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1 held its annual Indian Policies and Procedures meeting last month, sharing data compiled over the past four years to guide the conversation about the progress of Native American students in the district.
At the Oct. 22 board meeting, administrators, school board members, and Ute Mountain Ute tribal leaders and educators discussed the academic and behavioral data, along with strategies to improve communication between the district and tribal families with the goal of closing gaps in opportunity and achievement gaps.
Performance testsThroughout the Cortez-based district, 29% of all students are Native American, according to assistant superintendent Carol Mehesy, who presented much of the report. When possible, the district tried to differentiate between Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute students, although the district has students with other tribal affiliations as well.
Superintendent Lori Haukeness added that several years ago, because the state adopted federal designations of race, a student who is identified as both Native American and Hispanic is categorized as Hispanic.
Academically, students’ academic scores were judged by their performance on the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, and STAR tests, which compares students with their peers nationally.
Math performance has been identified as an area of concern for the district. For the 2018-19 school year, 8% of Native American students in elementary school performed at or above grade level on the CMAS, while 27% of non-Native American students performed at grade level.
At the middle school, grade level performance was 6% for Native American students and 17% for non-Native students.
At the high school, 7% of Native students were college-ready for math, versus 28% of non-Natives, based on PSAT and SAT testing.
Montezuma-Cortez students performed better when compared with their peers nationally, although there was still a gap in performance. Native American students performed at the 40th percentile for the STAR math assessment, while non-Native American students were at the 61st percentile.
Students saw notable increases in growth for math and language arts. In the past two years, the growth percentile rose from 35 to 49 for Native American elementary students, and from 46.5 to 58 for non-Native American students.
Growth percentiles measure how quickly students progress compared with other academically similar students in Colorado. A score of 50 is the average growth for Colorado students – so Re-1’s goal is to score at 50 or above, Mehesy said.
At the high school level, Native American students saw higher growth in reading and writing and less growth in math than non-Native students, according to Mehesy.
Other data presented illustrated other trends as well, from discipline to graduation rates to student engagement in extracurriculars.
Disproportionate disciplineNative American students were disproportionately represented in the district’s suspension rates. At the elementary school level, Native American students comprised 31% of enrollment but 52% of suspensions; at the middle school, 31% of enrollment but 55% of suspensions; and at the high school, 29% and 51%, respectively.
Because the percentages reflected the total number of suspensions, a student who was suspended multiple times was counted multiple times as well, Mehesy said.
“But we do want to see, long term, a more balanced representation in terms of suspensions,” she said.
Improved dropout rateIn the past several years, dropout rates have decreased, and graduation rates have increased. In the 2014-15 school year, Native American students saw an 11.3% dropout rate, but that fell steadily until reaching 6.6% in the 2017-18 school year. For non-Native American students, the dropout rate dropped fell from 8.4% to 5.3%.
Dropout rates were calculated for students between seventh and 12th grades.
Graduation rates increased too. In 2014-15, Native American students had a 49.1% graduation rate, but by 2017-18 that number was 58.1%. For non-Native American students, the rate increased from 67.5% to 71.5%.
“We’re not where we want to be yet, but we’re definitely on the right path,” Haukeness said.
Strategies and discussionThe district has been working to improve services and support for Native American students, Mehesy said. The district created a Communication Support Committee and a Parent Advisory Committee, and is working to improve academic supports and interventions through programs such as AVID. It also has student success advocates at the middle and high schools.
They also hope to support cultural identity by adding a Native American club and encouraging students to attend the American Indian Science and Engineering conference. This year, Ute history curriculum was incorporated in elementary schools.
Mehesy said district officials also hope to partner with the tribal Education Department to review the district’s identification process for special education and gifted and talented classes, improve attendance and reduce truancy, and better support students experiencing discipline issues and suspension.
The discussion on Oct. 22 focused largely on the need for improved communication and collaboration among the district, teachers and Native American families.
One woman expressed frustration with what she felt was a lack of communication in a recent disciplinary incident involving her granddaughter.
“I want you guys to help me with my child,” she said. “But nobody’s talking to me over here on this other side, and it frustrates me.”
Another man wanted to see more examples of Ute and Navajo culture being celebrated at school. He suggested bringing back Mr. Ute Mountain, which used to be featured at M-CHS, and highlighted this fall’s Durango High School powwow in La Plata County.
In an interview with The Journal, Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, Re-1 board member who represents District D and Towaoc, said misconceptions about tribal culture and reservation life can create communication barriers. Often, staff feel they need to go through the tribe’s education department rather than go directly to parents or guardians, she said.
“We need to shift those paradigms,” she said, adding that technology has opened up the means of reaching all families via cell phones or email messages.
“We need to be able to find out what those best lines of communication with those households are and utilize them,” Lopez-Whiteskunk said.
Understanding each others’ culture and processes is key too, she said. She’s a strong advocate for having Re-1 staff spend time in Towaoc, to help them gain a deeper understanding of reservation life and of their students’ cultural backgrounds.
“I think also knowing that we all come with history, history also comes with trauma,” Lopez-Whiteskunk said. “I think to also help build that diversity within the district, one of the things is understanding where we came from and how we got to be where we’re at.”
At the October IPP meeting, Towaoc Education Director Tina King-Washington said that with additional historical trauma training, trauma support counselors and parental involvement, “suspensions would go down.”
Teachers also will resume science and math nights in Towaoc to engage families in the curriculum.
“One of the best ways for a parent or guardian to help their student is probably to understand the curriculum and the process, and specifically math,” Lopez-Whiteskunk said.