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Tribal school officials, lawmakers sketch out performance gap solutions

Districts request support for mental health needs, counselors and substance abuse programs as educators strive to improve graduation rates and test scores.

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

by Katie Klingsporn, WyoFile

FORT WASHAKIE—Wyoming can support tribal schools on the Wind River Indian Reservation with funds for additional language teachers and counselors, substance abuse programs, early childhood education and mental health needs, district superintendents told legislators Friday. 

The mental health piece, “I’m sure it would resonate across the state of Wyoming in many different districts, but it is very profound for us,” Fremont County School District No. 14 Superintendent Stephanie Zickefoose told the Select Committee on Tribal Relations. 

The unified requests — from school districts in Fort Washakie, Arapahoe and Ethete — came as officials and lawmakers completed two days of talks about how to improve graduation rates, attendance and test scores in the reservation districts, which lag significantly behind other Wyoming schools. 

Legislators visited classrooms and toured the reservation, a vast stretch of prairie and mountains where many students live scattered in remote locations and experience high poverty rates.

The talks followed a July meeting in which committee members expressed frustration with students’ performance results. 

This time around, district officials set out to help lawmakers better understand the unique challenges reservation districts face. Those challenges, superintendents say, include lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, generational trauma and high rates of special education, foster care and housing insecurity. Meantime they have unique priorities to consider, like native language immersion and reconnecting students to their cultural heritage. 

“We are making gains,” District No. 21 Superintendent Debra Smith said. “Unfortunately, the high-stakes testing is one snapshot in time and unfortunately our kids have not tested well.”

The work, she said, “takes time.” 

Two-sided dialogue

The issue emerged this summer after lawmakers directed legislative staff to analyze education data of all eight school districts in Fremont County through the lenses of test scores, expulsion rates and other categories. District No. 38 (Arapahoe), No. 14 (Wyoming Indian Schools in Ethete) and No. 21 (Fort Washakie) fell far behind. 

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%. Just 3%-5% of students were proficient in math according to the WY-TOPP assessment, compared to the state average of 49%.

Four-year on-time graduation rates were also below average, as were attendance rates. 

None of the three districts had a representative at the summer meeting, which left a void in the conversation. Last week, however, superintendents were prepared with presentations and requests. 

From left, Fremont County School District No. 38 Superintendent Curt Mayer, Fremont County School District No. 14 Superintendent Stephanie Zickefoose and Fremont County School District No. 21 Superintendent Deb Smith present to members of the Legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Affairs in Fort Washakie on Nov. 17, 2023. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

All three underscored challenges their districts face, such as transportation in the scattered communities, enforcement of truancy, housing for teachers and the pandemic’s acute devastations. 

“Our families had a lot of trauma, a lot of grief,” Zickefoose said of the pandemic. “We are still working through that, we’re still recovering.” 

In addition, they are focused on a cultural immersion approach best suited to their student body, they said. District No. 38, for example, is a trauma-informed district that has made Arapahoe language a so-called core class. State standards may not be designed to capture the efforts’ successes.

“We want to recognize that our students’ needs are unique in integrating our culture into some of the ways that instruction is given, and also assessed,” Smith said.  

The superintendents presented a list of requests they believe could bolster tribal education and performance. Those include establishing an Indian education office, adding a tribal court liaison to address truancy, incentives for attendance, considering job corps graduates or GED recipients in the district’s graduation rate, support for social-emotional needs and fewer state mandates. Those state mandates spawn considerable compliance work, they said. 

“I will tell you as a superintendent, I probably spend 80% of my time on compliance and 20% as an instructional leader, and that’s embarrassing to say it, but it’s true,” Zickefoose said. There are even issues, such as habitual truancy, where her district knowingly goes out of compliance, she said. 

“We have to use more positive behavioral strategies to get our kids to school,” Zickefoose said. “What we don’t need to do is break down relationships with our families.”

Charter school 

Committee members in July wondered if a newly created state charter school authorizing board could play a role in boosting tribal school performance. 

The reservation has one charter school: the Arapahoe Charter High School. The 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.  

Principal Katie Law presented the history and work of the small charter high school, which has a student population of about 50. 

The student body has higher-than-average rates of special education, involvement with criminal justice, parents as students and other factors. That includes 70% of students with a single-parent household or deceased parent. 

Arapahoe High School students walk into Arapahoe Elementary School’s gymnasium for the first cultural celebration of the school year. The weekly event is a way to honor and learn about Arapaho culture. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

“So it’s a big task for the charter school to kind of balance out these different demographics and get students prepared for the next level, whatever that may be,” Law said. 

The charter high school has struggled alongside the reservation’s public schools with the type of metrics that concern lawmakers. Its four-year on-time graduation rate in 2017-18 was 0%, which bumped up to 7% in 2018-19. 

The high school in 2022 graduated its largest class in history, at 13, Law said, which represented an 18% on-time rate.. “So we are making huge gains in that.”

Next steps 

The state has resources to help, co-chair Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne) said Friday, but the first task is understanding the issues. 

“We care about these kids and share your concern about graduation rates and test scores, and not for the sake of the test score, but for the ability for those students to live productive lives,” Ellis said. 

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)

The Wyoming Department of Education will hold work sessions with each of the districts in December, Wyoming’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder said, and plans to discuss absenteeism, mental and behavioral health opportunities and more. 

“Based on these discussions … we will begin to build a path forward with all the appropriate partners,” she told the committee. 

Time has run out for the committee to draft or sponsor legislation for the upcoming session. But that doesn’t mean the needs will languish, lawmakers said. 

“Continue working on those ideas,” Sen. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) told the superintendents. “Just because we’re not taking any of these up doesn’t mean that some of them actually may not rise to the top.”

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.