Wyoming’s superintendent of public instruction attended a legislative committee meeting in Fort Washakie last month to express her commitment to improved outcomes at K-12 schools on the Wind River Reservation.
“I support this issue and want to make sure that we’re collaborating,” superintendent Megan Degenfelder told the Select Committee on Tribal Relations last month. “We can do better. We have to do better for our Native students.”
The committee reviewed a report during last month’s meeting showing five-year enrollment data, graduation rates, test scores, and more for all eight public school districts in Fremont County.
The report showed that, for the three districts on the Wind River Reservation, student proficiency has been “significantly below the statewide average” on the WY-TOPP test.
Graduation rates are lower on the reservation, too, according to the report.
The situation isn’t new, Degenfelder said, recalling conversations about “this same issue” taking place at least six years ago under a previous superintendent, but now she has “begun to kind of dive into this,” and it is a “great priority” for her administration.
“We’re ready to stand and work on it,” she said. “I don’t have the answer, and I don’t pretend to, but this is something that is a priority for me. …
“I don’t think that we can just shake our heads and stay where we’re at.”
She was echoing a comment from Wyoming Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, who had just expressed frustration about the data contained in the report.
“I’ve spent a lot of time working and thinking about this, and I feel like I’m at a dead end,” Ellis said. “How do we make this a priority? Is there something we can try?”
Rob Black, who serves as the Native American liaison to the Wyoming Department of Education, agreed with Ellis that “there is some frustration that these scores are still too low (and) the results are still unacceptable.”
But he also pointed to “some bright spots” – particularly the “things going on in the schools that are positive.”
“There are programs that I think are helping our students on the reservation and in the communities near the reservation,” Black said. “(They just) take a little time to gel and show up, possibly, in the WY-TOPP.”
The district initially hired her to oversee its 21st Century Community Learning Center after-school program, which His Chase said she quickly “restructured” to incorporate Arapaho language and culture, including a dance society, hand games, a drum group, and more, with Tribal elders involved “in every classroom.”
“(In) the dance society the children learned different dance styles, where they came from, how to dance, how to bead, how to make their own regalia … as well as mindfulness and storytelling,” His Chase said. “We also opened up the greenhouse (and) incorporated language and culture and elders into that setting. … Even measuring was in our language.”
Students learned college and career readiness along with hand game in the “Warriors Club,” His Chase said, and they also received lessons on entrepreneurship, budgeting, social responsibility, and public speaking.
In their science, technology, engineering and math classes, His Chase said her students learned to calculate the number of beads it would take to cover a moccasin, for example, or they would take measurements for a teepee and determine how many animal hides would be needed to cover the structure.
The program also offered Saturday schools, game nights and storytelling events on evenings and weekends to encourage parents and guardians to get involved and learn more about Arapaho “language, culture, history and life ways” themselves, she said, noting that, after two years, the program had achieved “100 percent parent involvement.”
Her students had increased their academic scores by 77 percent, too, with a 56 percent improvement in behavior in other classrooms, she added, calling the data “proof of what it takes for our students to succeed.”
“What our students need to know is who they are and where they come from,” His Chase said. “Studies have shown that students who are blessed with their language and culture far surpass their English counterparts on standardized tests, and we proved that through what we were doing.”
In Riverton schools, Willow Creek Elementary School principal Jeremy Hill said educators incorporate storytelling into their early literacy programs – a practice that “is very important, we know, in Tribal cultures.”
Storytelling also requires “repetition and practice,” Hill said – two elements that are “incredibly important when it comes to students being able to learn to read,” since “they have to have those opportunities to repeat and practice those sounds.”
Indigenous languages often include sounds that “come from different parts of the vocal system” and aren’t utilized in the English language, Hill added, “so when we’re teaching phonics, we’re very careful to understand that a student may hear a sound differently or produce a sound differently because of the Tribal tongue that is spoken in their home (or) their ceremonies.”
“It’s important to us, specifically as white educators, to spend the time honoring that tradition and giving space for those sounds to be created in the way that they are created in their homes,” he said. “(We’re) helping students navigate the differences in those things.”
At the end of last month’s meeting, the committee talked about ways Wyoming could more formally incorporate Native language and cultural education into the public school curricula on the reservation.
One suggestion was to start a Tribal charter school, mirroring efforts in other states.
Committee members asked to learn more about that possibility during their next meeting.
Another idea was to design a separate educational “track” that would allow students to meet state standards while still being steeped in “the Native world,” Wyoming Rep. Ken Chestek, D-Laramie, said.
The committee should “gather some information” about that prospect, Wyoming Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, recommended, wondering whether there are “examples out there” of other “public educational systems that have the latitude within them to build culturally specific curricula that meet the standards.”
The committee also plans to consider a request from Eastern Shoshone Business Council Member John Washakie, who asked the state to think about waiving tuition and fees for Indigenous students at the University of Wyoming and community colleges in the state.
“We have some other schools that are doing that, some other colleges (in other states),” Washakie explained. “So I’m here asking for a waiver of some type … that will make it so (that) people can pursue a degree at the UW.”
The committee had already heard from NABC co-chair Karen Returns to War about low ACT scores on the reservation negatively affecting Native students’ eligibility for Hathaway Scholarships to attend UW.
Students must score “a high number” on the ACT test in order to be eligible for the scholarship, Returns to War explained – a requirement that “leaves out many, many of our Native students.”
She asked the committee to talk to their legislative colleagues about lowering the ACT requirement for Hathaway eligibility so more students could access the scholarship.
Wyoming Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, said the committee could consider the requests from Washakie and Returns to War in “combination,” exploring the waiver option along with the potential to increase “the availability of Hathaway for Tribal students.”
“We’ll put that on the agenda and look at that and continue to discuss that,” she said.
The committee’s next meeting is scheduled to take place Nov. 16-17.