A sign on the Wyoming Indian High School front door in October 2020 reminds people entering to maintain 6 feet of distance. Schools on the Wind River Indian Reservation were closed for in-person learning longer than the rest of the state due to a stay-at-home order. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Schools on the Wind River Indian Reservation fall far behind state averages for benchmarks like graduation rates, testing proficiency and attendance, Wyoming Department of Education data shows. 

The trend isn’t new, but lawmakers are working to forge novel strategies for improvement that could include tribal charter schools. 

Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne) remembers looking at similar scores years ago and considering recommendations to address them. “Throughout the last four or five years, we have bent over backwards trying to rewrite our statutes” to address the issues, she said last week during a Select Committee on Tribal Relations meeting in Fort Washakie. 

Ellis is frustrated those efforts haven’t yielded significant results, she said. 

“I’ve spent a lot of time working and thinking about this, and I feel like I’m at a dead end,” she said. “So do we just say ‘well, those are the scores.’ Or how do we make this a priority?”

Meeting attendees said factors like cultural differences, generational trauma, language-acquisition methods and social mores all play into the situation.

But ignoring the performance lags is too harmful an option. 

“We can do better. We have to do better for our native students,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder said. 

Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder listens to WDE Chief Policy Officer Wanda Maloney during a July 2023 Tribal Relations meeting in Fort Washakie. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

The committee ultimately directed the legislative staff to research tribal charter schools in other states as a way of exploring options for more tribal-tailored education.   

Scores, attendance, expulsion 

The Legislative Service Office analyzed Department of Education data of all eight school districts in Fremont County — home to the reservation — through the lenses of testing scores, demographics, expulsion and other categories from 2017 to the present for a report presented to lawmakers at the meeting.

The three districts on the reservation, District #14 in Ethete, District #21 in Fort Washakie and District #38 in Arapaho, lagged behind — in some cases markedly.  

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% — significantly below the statewide average of 53%. The percentage of students who achieved proficiency in math on the same test was 3%-5%, compared to the state average of 49%.

Four-year on-time graduation rates were also below average, as were attendance rates. Attendance of grade 9-12 students in 2021 ranged from 62%-72% in the three districts, below the state average of 88%. 

Meanwhile, the percentage of homeless students in Fremont #21 (14%) and Fremont #38 (19%) significantly exceed the statewide average of 1%, as did the percentage of students in foster care in the two districts. 

The percentage of proficient students in each of the three Wind River Reservation districts, Fremont #14, #21 and #38 ranged from 10% to 14%, which was significantly below the statewide average. (Wyoming Legislature)

None of the eight schools on the reservation met expectations of the Wyoming Accountability in Education Act in 2021-22, according to the legislative memo. In addition, all eight were identified for school improvement under federal Every Student Succeeds Act guidelines. ESSA requires identified districts and schools to draft and implement an improvement plan and allocates funds and technical assistance to them. 

Wyoming also supported the districts through professional development and additional support or opportunities for improvement plans. 

‘Just shake our heads’

“I don’t have the answer,” Degenfelder said in response to Ellis’ question about solutions. “But this is something that’s a priority … I don’t think that we can just shake our heads and stay where we’re at.”

No superintendent or administrator from the three districts attended the meeting though legislative staff notified them in advance. WyoFile sent emails to superintendents or principals from all three asking for comment and none responded by press time. 

However, community members and District #25 administrators from Riverton shared thoughts on root causes for the lags, which range from the pandemic stay-at-home orders that kept schools closed longer to divergent learning styles and staff retention challenges.

“Much of … the struggles that we see in Fremont #25 do come down to attendance and students not being in school,” Willow Creek Elementary Principal Jeremy Hill said. 

Native speakers, Hill added, create sounds different from English speakers. And a long tradition of oral storytelling also diverts from Western education’s focus on the written word. 

“We have an obligation as educators to make sure we honor those traditions and cultures,” he said. 

There are many contributing variables, Sergio Maldonado, a Northern Arapaho member who has worked in reservation education, said. It’s nuanced and complicated.

“Until you’ve been in a classroom, until you’ve lived in a community, until you have got your hands in the educational dilemma day-in, day-out as well as you live there,” he said. “Then you will see the full picture.” 

A specific variable, he said, is “we have no control on the social conditions of our children at home.” 

There’s a fundamental way of thinking about education that Maldonado said needs to be changed. “How do we bring this to the attention, to the heart of our community, that education will provide you success?” 

Sergio Maldonado. (Sofia Jeremias/WyoFile)

If this situation happened in any other place in America, “they would have White House Senate select hearings addressing this problem,” Maldonado said. “Does Wyoming care less about our students? I believe that Wyoming does care about our students … This must be addressed now, tomorrow, the day after.”

He advocated focusing on early literacy and getting parents more involved in their children’s education. 

Solutions should also take into account structural barriers like poverty, food insecurity, housing challenges and intergenerational trauma, said Teresa His Chase, a Northern Arapaho Business Council member.

Weaving traditions, history and culture into education is crucial, she said. “What our children need is to be blessed with our language and culture.” 

Charter schools?

Committee members wondered if a new state law to create a charter school authorizing board could play a role. State education leaders including Degenfelder have increasingly made school choice a priority.  

“I’d like to know more about whether the bill can be part of the solution here,” said Rep. Ken Chestek (D-Laramie). “Can a charter school … have more flexibility on curriculum and more flexibility in terms of management and be part of the solution that’s tailored to the needs of the reservation?”

The committee directed staff to research that question. Members also said they need to hear from District #14, #21 and #38 representatives.  

“They need to be a part of this,” Chestek said. 

Rob Black, WDE Native American liaison, noted there are successes at reservation school districts worth celebrating. Graduation rates have improved, and STEM programs have been embraced. “The kids and the teachers have been very excited to learn how to code and to learn these concepts,” Black said. 

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. As an educator from Ft. Washakie with 50 years experience from public school teacher, Head Start Director, Wind River Tribal College and CWC instructor, UW TRIO coordinator and two term FW School Board Trustee, I offer four specific suggestions to improve historic low academic state-wide scores.
    1). Parent/family engagement opportunities need to be established for Native parent participation in state-wide forums such as academic tests selection and preparation, scheduling and cultural bias prevention of testing.
    2). Cultural awareness of fundamental Native history and Wyoming-specific tribal histories need to be taught and tested on all Wyoming public school students.
    3). Family/community engagement in development of anti-racism curricula for the Equality State is needed. The Courageous Conversations About Racism
    is a possible pedagogy I introduced at FWS nearly 20 years ago. Racism exists and is a determinant factor in low test scores.
    4). WDOE and public school staff would benefit from professional development on Ogbu’s theory of involuntary learning.

    I am available for further discusiion.

  2. Sure thing Sergio.

    “Throughout the last four or five years, we have bent over backwards trying to rewrite our statutes” … Ridiculous!

    Statutes don’t teach students to read. Lawmakers are too far from education and making laws without understanding the day to day problems will NEVER fix a problem.

    “I’ve spent a lot of time working and thinking about this, and I feel like I’m at a dead end,” she said. “So do we just say ‘well, those are the scores.’ Or how do we make this a priority?” … Ridiculous, Scores can change and they have in the past.

    There was a state superintendent who did make it a priority. At Fremont #38, scores dramatically improved from 2011 to 2012. There was a collaborative effort between the State and the District and the scores did improve. Later as in the article… Rob Black noted Rob Black, WDE Native American liaison, noted there are successes at reservation school districts worth celebrating. Graduation rates have improved”. Of course Graduation rates went up. Children that were learning to read in 2011/12 can graduate at higher rates than those who did not learn to read.

    One of the problems with data from WDE is the time frames are not long enough to capture trends in elementary education as they are tied to graduation. For instance enrollment rates in Stat Series 2 only cover 10 years, while public k-12 education is 13 years. The staff at LSO researched from 2017 forward and completely missed what really worked in 2011/12.

    Sergio… this was the best statement in the Article. “Until you’ve been in a classroom, until you’ve lived in a community, until you have got your hands in the educational dilemma day-in, day-out as well as you live there,” he said. “Then you will see the full picture.” That statement was Spot on!

    I have sat in those classrooms. I have seen students do very well when they are given comprehension and purpose to reading.

    This statement is ridiculous. “Can a charter school … have more flexibility on curriculum and more flexibility in terms of management and be part of the solution that’s tailored to the needs of the reservation?” … Ridiculous. Mr. Chestek should be concerned with public education. People do want a choice. But focusing on charter schools while paying public schools that are failing is chasing a distraction. Focus on the government run schools, Mr. Chestek.

    Sure a charter school could do that, but Fremont #38 had already seen a year of improvement that was then stopped. Public schools could perform better. And they absolutely should. The legislature stood in the way of that improvement in reading at Fremont #38.

    Sergio, the Arapaho Flag has the colors red, black and white. White represents knowledge that is to be passed to the young. That flag was created in honor of the Arapaho war veterans. It is an Arapaho culture to pass knowledge to the young. That can be done by teaching reading comprehension. Reading comprehension is work. But it is essential to pass knowledge to the young. In 2011/12 it was done one on one. Those students thrived.

    This is the one time I will say that those who do not study the past find themselves unable to repeat the past. They should study what happened in Fremont #38 that helped students graduate in higher numbers and do better on their scores.

    I see a lot of frustration in the article and not a lot of hope. But Arapaho school in 2011 had 3rd grade proficiency of 18%. When those third graders were tested as 4th graders… the proficient and above rates were raised to 58%. Grades 3 through 8 all had improvements in scores on PAWS. Most grades had scores rise dramatically.

    Sergio would you like to see that again? That was done for very little money (relatively speaking) by committed people working with students.

    It is time to “study” what works and has worked in Wyoming. It is time to repeat the past.

    Superintendent Degenfelder, should be leading the charge to improve reading comprehension on the reservation. Fire up S-5 and spend a whole bunch more time on the reservation, and with accomplished reading teachers that are experienced in remediation.

    The children on the reservation can learn very well. It is a disservice to not improve their learning in all ways. Reading is the essential start.

  3. Wyoming does not understand Indian Education. Teachers working on the reservation are trained by the districts to serve their populations. Teacher education programs cannot properly train educators to teach the Arapaho or Shoshone students from a majoritarian culture. Councilwoman HisChase spoke to this. Culturally responsive teaching or CRT is a method of teaching that is evolving as each tribal nation or minority group develops what their students need. SMIL or the Standard Model of Indigenous Learning should be brought into the curriculum.
    The schools often have leadership that is not from the community, and Mr. Maldonado inferred this with his statements. Leadership does need to reflect the communities in which they serve. Many of the positions of leadership do not identify as Indigenous, one or two leadership positions may have one of our community members there, but it is still not enough.
    Absenteeism is also a reflection of the houseless issue families in our state deal with. Most of my students were in school when I taught. Our parents in our communities are committed to their children’s education. In my research, I find “school” is interpreted by many of the families as a negative experience, meaning that there is “no good knowledge” from that place. This lens comes from the boarding school era, when children were stolen and taken to “school”. The trauma of assimilation is a factor in why students cannot be successful within the current model. Today, parents hope their students have a “good experience” in school and learn what they need for their future. Gaining knowledge is one of the highest goals within our communities, but we need knowledge that can be useful in our communities as well as outside our communities.

  4. We have had great success in improving education on the reservation. It did not come from legislation or studying other reservation schools. It came from hard work and working with students. I am very sure that good results can happen again.

    Many of the statements in this article are ridiculous.

    1. Greetings. Can you share which “statements in this article are ridiculous.” Thank you and be well.

  5. Instead of just studying successful charter schools on other reservations, why not also study successful public schools on other reservations?