Editor’s note: This is the last part of a series exploring how a $621 million cut in state spending is increasing the educational gap in Southwest Colorado. Part 1 was printed July 22.More than 500 Ute Mountain Ute students are bused each morning to schools in the Montezuma-Cortez School District. But the tribe is creating a charter school on the reservation, where Utes from across the district may be immersed in culture-based learning.
When COVID-19 forced classes online across the U.S., the gap between education access in urban and rural areas became evident – many rural students struggled to access the internet to complete assignments. For Ute Mountain Utes, COVID-19’s impact on education and travel showed how important it was for the tribe to build a school in their community for their community.
But last month, the Colorado legislature cut $621 million in education spending after COVID-19 lowered tax revenue. If less money flows from the state to Montezuma-Cortez schools and surrounding districts, it could mean less funding for the new school – called the Kwiyagat (“Bear”) Community Academy – even though the school is entitled to Title XI and Title I funds from the federal government as a tribal entity.
Schools receive funding from local and state governments based on the number of students enrolled. For example, schools in the Montezuma-Cortez district receive $8,000 per student, and a portion of the total budget for each school district comes from the state.
But after the deepest cuts to the state budget in history, per-student funding could drop next year. If the tribal school starts with 30 students as planned, it would start with $240,000 in funding, minus the impact of COVID-19. The cost of running schools is wide-ranging, including teacher pay, insurance, facilities, transportation and safety measures.
“Yes, less money will make it hard to start a school,” said Richard Fulton, retired dean of the Fort Lewis College School of Education in Durango. As a former charter school principal, he is helping the tribe do it.
“Even without COVID, it is a challenge,” Fulton said.
Many nonprofits and granting organizations also have turned their attention on COVID-19 relief efforts.
Why it mattersThe Kwiyagat Community Academy would help strengthen the tribe and solve problems its students encounter in the education system – problems exacerbated by COVID-19.
Bias, cultural misunderstandings and racism in nearby districts can keep Ute Mountain Ute students from thriving academically and socially.
“Even though the schools have attempted to make it feel like their school, it doesn’t feel like their school,” said Tina King-Washington, education director for the tribe.
Just over 6,000 of Colorado’s 913,000 students identify as Native American, less than 1%. In Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1, about 30% of the student population is Native American. But they make up 52% of the suspensions in the elementary school, 55% in the middle school and 51% in the high school, according to district data released last year.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Native American students nationwide are five times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students.
The disproportionate representation of Native Americans in suspension rates mainly comes down to cultural misunderstandings and bias between teachers and students, King-Washington said, signaling a need for cultural training at school. It also may signal family issues.
“We have kids who get expelled, and we work with the schools to get the students back into school,” she said.
But when those students work with staff in Towaoc, it can make a difference in their attitude and mental health.
“Our kids are just like other kids,” King-Washington said. But teachers are overwhelmed and not supervising children as well as they should, which may lead to bullying and racism that is overlooked by some teachers, King-Washington said.
And while overall test scores are rising for Native American and non-Native students in Montezuma-Cortez schools, math performance is an area of concern. In the 2018-19 school year, 8% of Native Americans in elementary schools performed at or above grade level on the standardized test. Non-Native American performed at grade level 27% of the time.
At the high school, 7% of Natives were “college-ready” for math, compared with 28% of non-Natives, according to Montezuma-Cortez data.
But research shows that students learning outside their cultural context have a harder time speaking up and participating, particularly if they feel vulnerable to bullying.
‘Building up our kids’King-Washington and other Ute Mountain Ute educators decided to build on the strengths of their community to develop the Kwiyagat Community Academy, which plans to open to students in 2021. As more schools question the effectiveness of test-based learning, the tribe’s charter school will offer group-based projects and learning that will better prepare students for working in the real world, King-Washington said.
Working in groups also will foster a sense of family and community that combats issues of isolation or depression, King-Washington said.
The school is about “building up our kids, their identity and their confidence in themselves,” said Sherrell Lang, a leader on the school project.
The charter school will start with kindergarten and first grade. That way, kids attending the Head Start preschool on the reservation can easily transition into the charter school.
King-Washington wanted to start with middle school students, because that is where the kids “start losing ground” compared with some of their white peers. However, the charter school will start students in kindergarten and build slowly to ensure a good foundation for students, she said.
The Kwiyagat Community Academy will have a separate room for the tribe’s elders to tell stories and help teach the children, as well as help them understand who they are, King-Washington said.
Elders know alot about Ute culture, and including them in the charter school can help new generations learn oral history and traditions, which is more sacred to tribal members than written texts.
And culture-based learning would benefit students mentally and academically.
“Language and culture are very important to us,” Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart said. He encourages the young people to wear two shoes – one moccasin and one regular shoe – as they look to the future.
“The better they can relate to the subject matter, the better students do,” said Fulton, former dean of education at Fort Lewis College.
Here’s how Fulton explains it: If a teacher asks students to count the hippopotamuses they see, it’s difficult to conceptualize because the students have never seen one. But if the teacher asks students to count horses and tie in why horses are important to their society, students become engaged.
Fulton was a teacher at Southwest Open School, a charter school in the Montezuma-Cortez district. Some students drove from the reservation early in the morning. One young man described his experience leaving the reservation and arriving in Cortez like “driving through a veil,” as he reoriented to Anglo culture.
Looking for a balance in societyPeople in surrounding towns question why the tribe would remove their children from public schools, where they can interact with other children. But King-Washington said the charter school would create a community and culture-based learning environment for Ute Mountain Ute children.
The school would incorporate their language, culture and history while allowing the students to participate in sports with the public school districts. The faculty would include certified Native American teachers qualified to teach their culture and impress a different worldview on the children.
“We are not trying to segregate them, we are trying to help them grow up in a safe and cultural environment,” King-Washington said.
Heart, chairman of the tribe, said that as a sovereign nation, “if we can be self-sufficient, we can live how we used to live.”
The school district can’t teach tribal traditions such as hunting and harvesting. The tribe can add the traditions to curriculum outside classrooms, in the wilderness.
“Society has become so fast-paced, we need to balance it for all our people,” Heart said.
The design team for Kwiyagat filed a first draft of the application for the school in June.
Despite the financial needs of the tribe, Heart and other leaders constantly educate U.S. Congress about their concerns and jump through hoops to acquire funding and support, he said.
“The states think they are above the tribes, but we are equal,” Heart said.
Heart said he sees COVID-19’s impact as an opportunity to incorporate virtual learning in the tribe. He is working with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., on drafting a broadband bill specific to tribes that would improve education and telemedicine for the tribe.
Ernest House Jr., a tribal member and senior policy director for the Keystone Policy Center in Denver, said the school hopes to teach Ute history, language and culture before it is lost.
The language of the Utes is Shoshonean, a dialect of the Uto-Aztecan language, but only 15% of the tribal population converses in the language today. In the national push to revitalize Native cultures and language, charter schools are a way to accomplish the objective.
“This brings the opportunity to the tribe to be the voice, to have them drive how that history and culture is being taught,” House said. He is reaching out to foundations to gauge interest in donating grant funding for the school.
The Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque is a leading example of the difference a tribal-led school can make for its students.
The school was so successful that the academy started a network to support other Indigenous charter schools, called the NACA Inspired Schools Network, where Lang, a leader at the Kwiyagat Community Academy, is a fellow.
For Anpao Duta Flying Earth, acting executive director of the NACA Inspired Schools Network and executive director of NACA, what stood out about the charter school was the “tribal support of the effort.”
Parents want their children to succeed, Lang said, but they also want the cultural piece that the Kwiyagat Community Academy would provide.
“When we are looking at culture and language, it is healing, stories and a way of life,” Lang said.
And preparation for college and culture are not mutually exclusive, Flying Earth said.
“That is a core paradigm of our operation,” Flying Earth said. “Students solidify the strength of their identities through their education.”
The school also could connect parents to services from the tribal department.
“I think the most important thing is that the school is being established because of the strengths the community has to offer,” Lang said. The creation of Kwiyagat Community Academy is led by the community as a whole and offers integrated cultural practices such as song, prayer and smudging, the burning of sacred herbs.
The school also plans to use the land as a teacher, with experiential learning that inspires healing and connection.
“Our communities have everything they need to thrive, heal and grow,” Lang said.
The NACA Inspired Schools Network is providing funding and guidance, and the Colorado Charter School Institute is providing some funding. A few foundations are considering supporting the school, but the state budget is a concern.
“Every little dime matters ... money is always a struggle,” King-Washington said.
Emily Hayes is a reporter with The Durango Herald and a recent graduate of American University’s journalism graduate program. She expresses her appreciation to all who shared their stories for this project. She can be reached at [email protected]