In an ongoing effort to strengthen relationships and communication between the Montezuma-Cortez school district and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, district principals met with members of the tribe’s education departments Feb. 19 to discuss the transition to kindergarten.
In the past, Towaoc schools were allotted 10 slots each for students moving on from Head Start to kindergarten in Cortez, according to Kassy Gnas, director of the Ute Mountain Ute Child Development Center (UMUCDC).
This specific allotment was to ensure the equal distribution of Towaoc students throughout the school district, and because of their geographical distance from the district, they are allowed an open enrollment status, said Gnas.
But this protocol meant some families were not admitted to the school of their choice.
“Once they [the schools] fill up, the families are referred to another school,” Gnas explained.
But an improvement in the kindergarten transition process is being implemented for the 2015-16 school year.
During parent-teacher conferences in March, Head Start parents will preregister their students with the schools of their choice. Each principal will then contact the UMUCDC to schedule a tour of the new school, where families will meet one-on-one with their new school’s faculty, said Gnas.
Gnas plans to invite the Re-1 kindergarten teachers to the UMUCDC to “drink coffee and just chat” with the teachers, creating a dialogue around the students and their needs.
During the first week of school in August, UMUCDC Head Start teachers will visit their former students at the Re-1 schools. The goal is for the new kindergarten students to see a familiar face in their new building, said Gnas.
For Tanya Amrine, education division director for the tribe, “A step in the right direction has been the consistency in the curriculum.”
For instance, a student attending Kemper who transfers to Manaugh will get the same curriculum. That is important because many Towaoc families are mobile, she said.
Another recent topic of concern for the school district and tribe is the dropout rate of Native American students, which is the highest in the district, according to Colorado Department of Education statistics.
A “lack of systemic process and systems that support at-risk students so they will successfully graduate” is listed as the root cause of high dropout rates, according to the 2014-2015 Montezuma- Cortez Unified High School District Improvement Plan.
“Overall, the teachers are really interested in the success of the Ute Mountain Ute students,” said Amrine.
Many teachers work hard to understand the diverse, multicultural environment at Re-1, she said.
However, “even the teachers with the best intentions don’t realize that some of the comments they make can alienate the tribal kids,” said Danny Porter, director of multicultural education at Re-1 and principal at Lewis-Arriola Elementary.
A lot of times, students encounter issues before they even get to school, starting on the bus ride or at home, explained Porter.
“We need to be more aware of what they’re going through before we judge them.”
Towaoc students experience a long day with an extended bus ride to and from school.
“They have to be up and ready [for the bus] at 6:30 [a.m.],” said Gnas.
For kindergarten students, the day can be exhausting and families have issues sending their five-year-olds to town.
“It’s scary for them,” said Gnas. “They don’t know what to expect. Even if they have older siblings, the staff have changed.”
Some Towaoc students form bonds with their teachers, which appears to foster a better academic experience.
“I know my kids both have teachers they really like. One teacher allows my son to listen to music when he works because she says she notices that he performs better,” said Troy Lynn Parker, mother of two students attending Re-1 and a Towaoc resident.
Parker said she hasn’t had any negative experiences with the school district, yet has heard stories of other Towaoc parents who have.
“It varies from case to case,” said Amrine. “Each child is different.”
Sometimes parents have the misconception that the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s education division knows what every child is experiencing at school, said Amrine.
But the UMUT policy is to obtain a privacy waiver from parents and/or guardians before the education division can get involved, stated Amrine.
According to Porter, who attended school in Re-1 with many tribal members, and has been a principal 21 years, much of that in Re-1, some families have a hard time approaching staff about problems.
“When you had a bad experience in that system, it makes it hard to [go back],” said Porter.
Still, Porter advocates for open communication.
His advice for parents who have an issue with faculty is to first “try to converse with that staff [member]. Get both sides of the story.”
If that doesn’t work, he said, the next step is to go to the building administrator. After that, speak with the superintendent.
“I’m hoping that principals can facilitate [between the families and staff].”
There are also support systems within the tribe, such as the tribal council, as well as liaisons such as Amrine; Eric Whyte, vice president of the Re-1 Board of Education; and himself, said Porter.
Many believe relations are improving between the school district and the tribe.
“I’m hoping that by making people aware of certain things – cultural blindness, limits – a lot of people want to do the right thing,” said Porter, who talked about an upcoming cultural-sensitivity training that will be offered to Re-1 staff on a voluntary basis.
For some, however, the idea of Towaoc having its own schools might be preferable. In 2013, a couple of kindergarten classes were opened at the UMUCDC as a trial effort. After one year of operation, the classes were closed.
Lack of funding and qualified teachers were obstacles to overcome. Towaoc has not had its own schools since the government-run boarding schools were operated during the “assimilation” period on U.S. Indian reservations.
Yet, with both a new Head Start director and policy council, the conversation has come up again between parents and staff.
“The teachers there [in Towaoc] might be able to work more one-on-one with the students,” said Parker.
“I think it should start with early childhood, K through second grade,” said Gnas, who would also like to see the students maintain their participation in sports and extracurricular activities with the school district.
But in the meantime, the district and tribe are working to improve relations and smooth out any difficulties.
“Being able to talk to each other and know that we have each other’s best interests in mind,” is key, said Porter.