ARAPAHOE—The first Friday of the school year has arrived, and high school students stream into the Arapahoe Elementary School gymnasium. Kids wear ripped jeans, black hoodies, basketball sneakers. They squirm and whisper in the stands. The gathering in many ways resembles any school assembly.

But it also reflects the mission of Arapahoe Schools to immerse students in Hinono’eitiit, the Arapaho language. Young drummers form a seated circle and perform a song in Arapaho, the student body stands to recite the pledge in Arapaho and a small woman with gray hair gives an Arapaho prayer. The event — dubbed a cultural celebration, not an assembly — ends with a round dance. Everyone spills onto the gleaming basketball court to form a slow-moving circle. 

Fremont County School District #38 in Arapahoe, FCSD #14 in Ethete, and FCSD #21 in Fort Washakie — three of the districts serving the Wind River Indian Reservation — have long posted performance scores well below statewide averages. Lawmakers took notice this summer and demanded change. 

But tribal educators and their students face challenges above and beyond the standard academic hurdles, they say. Historic distrust of schools, generational trauma, food insecurity and the lasting effects of a pandemic that hit the reservation particularly hard are just a few of the obstacles standing in the way of high test scores.

There’s also the matter of additional priorities.

Arapahoe Schools are focused not just on teaching the basics like math and writing but also on reconnecting students with their cultural heritage by immersing them in the tribe’s language, stories and practices.

“We’re going to keep pushing with our curriculum … but we’re also going to push community,” Fremont County School District #38 Superintendent Curt Mayer said. 

Young drummers and singers perform for a cultural celebration at Arapahoe Schools in August 2023. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

The district, he said, clearly has “gaps where we need to fill in [pandemic-related] learning loss.” 

But, he said, “I think you’re gonna see a lot of improvements in the scores here within the next year or two.” 

Under scrutiny

District #38 became the target of state scrutiny earlier this summer. Lawmakers directed legislative staff to analyze Department of Education data of all eight school districts in Fremont County through the lenses of test scores, demographics, expulsion rates and other categories. When the Select Committee for Tribal Relations discussed that report in July, members expressed frustration at the reservation districts’ results. 

Wyoming Indian Schools, Fort Washakie Schools and Arapahoe Schools all lagged far behind statewide averages. 

In 2021-22, the percentage of those districts’ third through 10th grade students who achieved English language arts proficiency in the Wyoming Test of Proficiency and Progress ranged from 10%-14% — the statewide average was 53%. The percentage of students who were proficient in math according to the WyTOP assessment was 3%-5%, compared to the state average of 49%.

The 2022-23 results, which the state released in September, show the proficiency of the three schools at similar levels. About 88% of District #38 students tested below grade level on state and national tests in both math and reading in 2023, according to the school.

Tribal Relations Committee Co-chair Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne) said it’s past time to move the needle on the performance issue. Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder said “we have to do better for our native students.” 

“There’s so much involved with it. You can’t just look at that one test score.” 

Fremont County School District #38 Superintendent Curt Mayer

Though LSO staff said they were notified, no school district representatives attended the committee’s July meeting to discuss the challenges. The committee ultimately directed LSO staff to research tribal charter schools in other states as a way of exploring options for more tribal-tailored education.

Committee members will revisit the issue, Co-chair Rep. Ember Oakley (R-Riverton) told WyoFile. The hope is that district officials will be involved.

“We’re going to work again on reaching out to them and seeing about having a discussion for the next meeting in November,” Oakley said, adding that lawmakers aren’t trying to just point fingers. “We want to do anything we can to help them solve it.” 

Superintendents from Districts #14 and #21 did not reply to WyoFile requests for comment.  

Special considerations

Superintendent Mayer was moving into his new office when he first spoke to WyoFile in August. The former principal of Arapahoe Middle School became superintendent this summer.

He missed the July committee meeting because he was out of the country, but said he has plenty to share with lawmakers. 

Fremont County School District #38 Superintendent Curt Mayer in August 2023. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

First, the reservation already has a charter school. Arapahoe High School was granted its charter in 2002 with goals to increase attendance, achievement and graduation rates for the district’s secondary students. It has operated since 2005. 

Second, Mayer said: it might be hard for lawmakers who live in other parts of Wyoming to comprehend the level of disruption COVID brought to the reservation.

Arapahoe schools went virtual in March 2020, which sparked a district-wide scramble to get hotspots to the students spread throughout remote, often isolated reservation communities. Due to a reservation-wide stay-at-home order, Arapahoe schools remained virtual through March 2021 — almost a year longer than most other Wyoming schools — before going hybrid. Teachers and students remained masked for the 2021-22 school year. There was “substantial” learning loss, Mayer said — with some students “two to three grade levels behind, some even more.” 

That was just one aspect of the loss. 

“We lost so many community members,” Mayer said. “For a while there, it was multiple deaths a week.”

Students lost grandparents, lost the ability to gather with family for meals, lost the chance to hug their teachers. “It was difficult,” Mayer said. 

“When we did start coming back, we really wanted to focus on the social emotional aspect of it,” he said. “So that’s what we did.”

The third point he’d like to get across, he said, is that though its statewide markers are low, District #38 is focused on a cultural immersion approach it feels is best suited to its student body. 

Cornerstones of that plan include trauma-informed instruction that weaves in Arapaho language utilizing certified Hinono’eitiit instructors, weekly cultural celebrations and regular community events to foster family involvement. Students attend Hinono’eitiit class daily. 

Arapaho vocabulary words are displayed on posters in Arapahoe Elementary School. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

The school has also bolstered efforts to improve graduation rates with strategies such as assigning each student a mentor for the duration of high school, he said, and has brought in coaches and staff to address learning loss.

Any conversation about tribal education must take into account a spectrum of factors that go beyond teaching two plus two, he said. Most of District #38’s students are considered high-risk for dropout due to factors like higher rates of special education, students who are parents themselves, education gaps and involvement in the criminal justice system. 

Such considerations seemed to be missing from the July committee conversation, Mayer said. 

“Did they sleep in a car last night?” Mayer asked. “Did they have a bed? Is a fifth grader taking care of his three younger siblings? There’s so much involved with it. You can’t just look at that one test score.” 

Best practices

Teachers from across Wyoming and beyond gathered at Central Wyoming College in Riverton over two hot days in August. They watched videos on generational trauma, learned about culturally responsive teaching methods, talked about nutrition and shared best practices on reading intervention. 

The Native American Education Conference also tackled the dilemma of achieving academic success on the reservation. 

Northern Arapaho member Sergio Maldonado led a session focused on the subject. He advocated a focus on early literacy, getting parents more involved in their children’s education and hiring more tribal teachers. 

Arapahoe Elementary School students work on a lesson in August 2023. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Micah Daniels, a Navajo and Arapaho teacher from Utah who presented on Indigenizing curriculum, emphasized an intention to not dwell on trauma but to spend more resources on cultivating resilience. 

“Empowerment in the classrooms just really means implementing that high expectation of academics, but high expectations of healing,” Daniels said. She spoke of instructional tools like brain breaks, talking circles and tribally specific restorative justice. 

“We want to stop the cycle of trauma,” she said. 


Before the Arapahoe School Friday cultural celebration ended, a contingent of students and staff from the Red Cloud Indian School in South Dakota got up to talk about their own language immersion program. 

Red Cloud — formerly the Holy Rosary Mission founded by Jesuit priests in 1888 — was for its first 100 years a residential boarding school where Native American children forcibly taken away from their families were forbidden to speak their own languages or practice their own cultural traditions.  

Today, Red Cloud school focuses on Lakȟóta culture, and is advising Arapahoe Schools. During their presentation,  students talked extensively and sang songs in their language. 

Arapahoe Elementary School students watch speakers during a cultural celebration in August 2023. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

After they finished, Northern Arapaho elder Ron Oldman,  who emceed the event, told the student body he could see in their faces the awe of “listening to these young students from Red Cloud speaking the language without hesitation.

“And I want to tell all of you that this is what I want for you,” Oldman said. “We all want you to be able to speak this language on the basketball court, on the volleyball court, on the football field.”

School officials hope to achieve that too, even though the result won’t be captured by the state’s academic assessments.

Katie Klingsporn reports on outdoor recreation, public lands, education and general news for WyoFile. She’s been a journalist and editor covering the American West for 20 years. Her freelance work has...

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  1. I was involved in the early years of formation of Arapaho High School and I’m so glad to read what Superintendent Mayer says in this article about multiple priorities for his students. They are making great progress in teaching Arapahoe culture and language and it’s known from around the country that this is a pathway to future academic success and especially to reduced drop-out rates. Congratulations to Arapaho High School for their great progress!

  2. I get that all the problems are immense. But I think readers should also be informed of the funding for these schools. What’s the cost per-student? Who’s paying? Legislators can be much more helpful with the problems–and perhaps resolve some of them with increased funding.

  3. Glad that the schools are taking a culturally appropriate approach to the issues they are facing – and they are correct that it’s not all about test scores. I hope they find success and support to overcome the challenges they face.

  4. I think the cultural emphasis is really important. However, can anyone excuse the utterly abysmal academic achievement numbers? When 3% are proficient in math and 10% in English, how does the district expect those kids to find employment or compete in the today’s economy? When they can’t compete, then they have no choice but to remain in poverty. How does this not lead to hopelessness, drug abuse and depression? How is this not failing the children? How is this not failing the tribe?

    1. I’m so happy our Superindent spoke out. I wish these state leader would communicate with our schools, let alone pay a visit to see the strides we are all making.
      Thank you for this article Katie!!