Parents, teachers work to bridge cultural divide at new school

New Uintah school rises after of other one shuts down
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Under the federal education law No Child Left Behind (NCLB), schools are expected to make progress over time toward the goal that 100 percent of students test on grade level in math and reading by 2014. Each year, certain percentages of students in many ethnic, ability and income groups must score proficient or better on state reading and math tests in order for schools to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward the goals of NCLB. Schools must also achieve certain attendance rates.

Schools that accept federal money for serving low-income areas but fail to make AYP for at least two years in a row face sanctions. The sanctions become more severe over time if schools continue to fail to meet goals. West failed to make AYP for seven years, so it faced the most severe sanction: restructuring. Schools required to restructure can choose from many options, which can include:

* Reopen as a charter school.

* Replace all or most of the school staff relevant to the failure to make AYP.

* Enter into a contract with an outside entity to operate the school.

* Expand or narrow grades served by the school.

* Close the school and assign students to other schools in the district.

Source: The Utah State Office of Education

Who are the Ute people?

The Ute Indian Tribe, for which the state of Utah was named, lived in the Provo Valley before they were forced to move to the Uinta Basin in the northeastern part of the state in the 1860s. They occupy what's now one of the largest American Indian reservations in the country, covering 4.5 million acres. More than 1,500 Utes live on the Utah reservation. Total tribal membership is more than 3,000.

Source: The Utah Division of Indian Affairs and The Ute Indian Tribe.

ROOSEVELT - At the top of a hill in the dusty Uinta Basin, a story of second chances is playing out behind the brick walls of a school that looks - from the outside - like any other in Utah.

Eagle View Elementary School, however, isn't like other schools. It's a new school near the heart of the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation that grew out of the demise of West Middle School. This year, West became the first school in Utah to close for failing to meet the goals of the federal education law No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for seven years in a row. Eleven other Utah schools are also facing sanctions for failing to meet the goals of NCLB, but none is yet to the point West was.

West closed after years of struggling to reconcile the cultural needs of its mostly American Indian students with the demands of NCLB, which requires schools to reach certain test scores and attendance rates each year. By the time West was done, its student body of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders had dwindled to a mere 120 children, and many extracurricular activities and class offerings had dried up.

"It's time for a change," said parent Trena Redcow. "There were hardly any students at the school."

Eagle View represents a new beginning, said Ramalda Guzman, head of the Ute Indian Tribe Education Board. The new school will be grades K-8, combining West's students with those at W. Russell Todd Elementary School. Eagle View will be housed in the Todd building while the district demolishes most of West and starts construction on a new school. Eagle View is expected to move in 2010 and will start fresh with NCLB.

"We're a new school now, and we're not going to dwell," said Tina Daniels, a media specialist at Eagle View. "We're Eagle View Elementary, and we're moving forward."

But the new school will face many of the same challenges - attendance, community relationships, poverty, cultural clashes. Only time will tell whether Eagle View will fly.

"We're on the razor's edge," said Charlie Nelson, Uintah School District superintendent. "Anything could happen."

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A troubled history

A couple of weeks before this school year began, Robert Stearmer, the new Eagle View principal, began attending truancy hearings at the Ute tribal juvenile court.

One girl had missed about 30 percent of last school year. Yet, amazingly, she achieved average grades and test scores, Stearmer said.

"I had to look the mom and dad in the eyes and say, 'Your daughter could be a leader. Are you willing for her to be average when she could be gifted and talented?' " Stearmer said. "She has to come to school to do that."

Boosting attendance might be Stearmer's greatest challenge. One of the main reasons West failed to meet NCLB goals was that not enough students came to school.

"I know a bunch of [parents] that let their kids stay home," said parent Tiana Collett.

Yet attendance problems went far deeper than students playing hooky. Some of it had to do with clashes between the school's expectations and the tribe's culture and history.

Tribal employees work four-day weeks, and parents sometimes take kids out of school for the three day weekends. A family member's death can also lead to absences. While schools typically recognize bereavement leave for immediate family members, tribal tradition dictates that children attend all family members' funerals.

But perhaps most damaging to school attendance was a long, troubled relationship between some tribal members and public education. Many students' grandparents were forced to go to boarding schools to assimilate. They had to cut their hair and weren't allowed to speak their native language.

"I remember my mom talking about that and running away" from school, said Sonja Elaine Willie, a member of the tribal education board.

Willard Sakiestewa Gilbert, president of the National Indian Education Association and an education professor at Northern Arizona University, said it's a challenge faced nationwide by schools serving American Indian students.

"We have a long history in education. Some of it is good, some of it is bad," Gilbert said.

Amid economic struggles, some parents don't see the purpose of sending their children to school. Eagle View serves some areas where 54 percent of people live below the poverty level. Only eight members of the tribe earned four-year college degrees between 2000 and 2006, according to a federal grant contract between Utah State University and the tribe.

"We have a lot of unemployment and hardships we face," said Quanah Powaukee, a member of the tribe's education board. "When I talk to parents whose kids have attendance problems, they say, 'What has education done for me? What's the point?' "

It's a vicious cycle.

"It's killing them," said Forrest Cuch, director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs and a member of the Ute Tribe. "These education problems are having a serious impact on the governance and economic stability of the tribes not only in Uintah Basin but throughout the state, and it's costing the state more money in the long run."

Though Stearmer will try his best to fill seats, both he and tribal leaders know the school can't do it alone. That's why the tribe passed a new truancy policy in May intended to more efficiently punish students and parents who don't take attendance seriously - with probation, fines and even imprisonment.

Tribal leaders know the policy won't fix history, but they're hoping it will force improvement.

The new beginning is already inspiring some parents.

Days after Stearmer attended the girl's truancy hearing, he ran into her mother. Instead of being angry, the girl's mother hugged Stearmer and thanked him for talking to her at the hearing, he said.

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Another chance

The new school will try many tactics to avoid West's fate.

Students in all grades will learn on an elementary school schedule, meaning even seventh- and eighth-graders will remain in one classroom with one teacher most of the day. District leaders hope that will help students connect with teachers.

Eagle View will also be filled with eager, willing educators. West had a reputation among some teachers as a bad place to work. Teachers sometimes worked there just long enough to transfer to one of the schools on the district's east side.

"You didn't want to be there," said Carolyn Spendlove, an educator at Lapoint Elementary School in the Uintah district.

But Eagle View is staffed by teachers Stearmer invited to be there. No one was forced to take the job.

Teachers such as Margaret Krubsack moved to Eagle View from a predominantly white school on the district's east side.

"I was excited to be part of a group that wanted to make a change," Krubsack said.

Only three teachers from West will teach at Eagle View, and those teachers, including Cheryl Knowlden, are staying despite having to take more classes to qualify to teach on an elementary schedule.

"We just like the kids," Knowlden said.

Principal Stearmer might be one of the biggest changes. The 59-year-old grandfather of seven was principal at the Todd school years ago before becoming principal of Uintah High School. District leaders asked him if he would move back to the old Todd building this year to lead the new school.

Parents and teachers remember Stearmer as an excellent leader. So far, he's been a fixture at tribal and community events. He's trying to listen and spread the gospel of optimism.

A lot is riding on Stearmer's ability to inspire results. He must convince state, community and district leaders that the school at the top of the hill across from the billboard proclaiming "Welcome to Ute Country" isn't a lost cause.

"I don't know if this doesn't work what happens," Stearmer said. "Failure's not an option."