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.
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.
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?”
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.”
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.