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Reservation school leaders urge patience by lawmakers

Aug 19, 2013 - By Alejandra Silva, Staff Writer

Superintendents from Fremont County school districts updated the Wyoming Legislature's Joint Education Committee and the Select Committee on Tribal Relations on their schools' performances during a meeting at Central Wyoming College.

Retired Fremont County School District 14 (Wyoming Indian) superintendent Michelle Hoffman described the successes her district has had, saying that Wyoming Indian Elementary School made the most academic gains in the state roughly 10 years ago.

"We are seeing progress," Hoffman said. "You just don't go from below basic to proficient overnight."

Hoffman said dedicated teachers help students who, many times, may need many extra years to graduate. She said students often choose to delay graduation, adding that she hasn't seen the 18-year-old age requirement work for her students, referring to a resolution passed by the tribes that requires students to receive an education until the age of 18 instead of 16.

State Sen. Jim Anderson (R-Glenrock) of the JEC told Hoffman to look for ways to make students want to go to school. Hoffman said the teachers have made home visits to build connections with parents in addition to encouraging youths to stay in school.

"Education can be intimidating to parents," she told the committees. "You have to hold someone accountable, and it's not just the schools."

She said poverty, lack of transportation and cuts in the Impact Aid Program have made education far more difficult. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the mission of the federal Impact Aid Program is to disburse payments to "educational agencies that are financially burdened by federal activities and to provide technical assistance and support services to staff and other interested parties."

New District 14 Superintendent Terry Smith said it is important to teach students what is "in it for them" if they go to school and learn.

Karen King, a School District 21 board member, said her group is advocating for the review of current policies. She said instructors in Fort Washakie have been encouraged to learn more about their students, not just teach them.

"Native children know a whole lot that's never been tested," King said.

As for the turnover rates in school staff, King said they don't keep anyone who doesn't fit in the community.

She also suggested to the committees that they advocate for the preparation of teachers who will teach specifically on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Also, the mindset that many students have, King said, is usually a negative one, mostly because of what they learn from textbooks. She recommended that committee members learn what is being taught from the textbooks.

"It's very difficult to learn from your oppressor," she said.

Superintendent Chantell Denson of the Arapahoe schools said her district has made some "great gains" in the last five years. She said officials in Arapahoe have learned that about 70 percent of their students are visual-spatial learners. She also said her school has created a safe environment for students, but the preschool program has been widely affected due to budget cuts in the Impact Aid money.

"We're the only district in the state that will play therapist," she told committee members. "We have some major relationship issues to build between our schools, our parents, our administration and our board."

St. Stephen's schools superintendent Mike Hejtmanek said his schools -- which are funded by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education -- will be moving into a block schedule for the next school year. He also plans for an addition to be built that will help provide vocational and fine arts classes. He said the school has been more strict with students who want to join an athletic team but may not be succeeding academically.

"For them to be successful we have to show them how they (can) become successful," Hejtmanek said.

Anderson asked Hejtmanek if school officials have met and shared with each other what has worked for them. Hejtmanek said they have met and discussed issues that often are similar.