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A new school opens where students can embrace Native American culture

‘Once you have a whole child, the test scores will come,’ head of school says
Ute Mountain Ute tribal elder Alfred Wall, center, speaks to the children at Kwiyagat Community Academy before his blessing Monday during the first day of school in Towaoc. He was joined by tribal council members Lyndreth Wall and Archie House Jr., and Head of School Danny Porter, right. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

TOWAOC – Kwiyagat Community Academy, the new Ute Mountain Ute charter school, opened its doors Monday to 23 kindergarten and first grade students.

A long time in the making, the school’s inaugural day was a pivotal moment for the education of Ute Mountain Utes. Kwiyagat aims to grow year by year, with school officials hoping to offer additional instruction in second through fourth grade next year.

While the school’s new building isn’t finished, it’s expected to be done in late September. Until then, children are learning in a temporary modular building.

The journey to the first day wasn’t an easy one, with several discussions leading to the eventual birth of the school. In one virtual meeting Sept. 3, 2020, a Fort Lewis College student said his educational opportunities had come “at the cost of my culture.”

Kwiyagat will provide a sanctuary for emerging minds to embrace their culture alongside STEM and other curriculum.

Redsky Lang, 5, holds her drawing that she did on her first day of school at the Kwiyagat Community Academy on Monday in Towaoc. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The school’s charter application was approved by the Colorado Charter School Institute on Oct. 27, 2020, making it the first public institution to be approved on a reservation in the state. The institute approved the school’s contract on Jan. 19, and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council approved the contract Jan. 27.

Head of School Dan Porter expects more students to enroll as the school year unfolds.

“People are going to start coming here because it’s project-based,” he said.

An educator in Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1 for 25 years, Porter said he thinks there is an increased focus on standardized testing within the public school system, and that enrichment in subjects such as music have become less of a priority.

Students line up for recess on Monday during the first day of school at Kwiyagat Community Academy in Towaoc. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Kwiyagat is aiming to provide kids with a well-rounded education, he said.

“Once you have a whole child, the test scores will come,” he said.

Tribal elder Alfred Wall led a blessing of the school just after 10 a.m.

“Everything we do, we always start with a prayer,” he said.

Archie House Jr., Ute Mountain Ute council member, speaks to the children at Kwiyagat Community Academy on Monday during the first day of school in Towaoc. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Council members present for the monumental day adorned him with a printed blanket – a custom in line with Native American tradition to grant someone a token when showing appreciation.

The school’s opening sparked feelings of nostalgia within Wall. He remembered a time when there was a boarding school on the reservation. It had four classrooms, and went up to fifth or sixth grade, he said.

It closed in 1958.

“We all got shipped off to Cortez or boarding school,” he said. “Now we’re back on the reservation.”

The new charter school is different, though.

Council member Lyndreth Wall said attendees weren’t allowed to speak their native language at the Ute Mountain Boarding School.

Kwiyagat, on the other hand, is embracing Ute language and culture, opening its arms to students not only from the reservation, but to any who are interested.

Elders will periodically visit the school to instruct children in Ute language and stories.

“I’m a true believer in infrastructure,” Lyndreth Wall said. “Infrastructure on our reservation is education.”

Council Secretary Archie House Jr. said that the new school will also help students to bridge any educational and social gap they experienced in the wake of the pandemic with shifts to online learning.

Michael Beard, 5, shows his excitement on the first day of school at the Kwiyagat Community Academy on Monday in Towaoc. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Eddie Loughran grew up in the Navajo Nation near Moenkopi, Arizona.

Up until this school year, he was a teacher in Denver.

But when he heard about Kwiyagat, he jumped at the opportunity to teach students in a way that was close to his heart.

“This is my chance to give back to people who gave so much to me,” he said.

The kids were restless – and understandably so. They participated in a variety of first-day activities, including coloring, song learning and a friendly game of tag as they explored their new classroom and got to know their peers.

“There’s so much stimulation,” Loughran said. “They’re doing well with it.”

As of the 2016-17 school year, there were 31 charter schools on 22 reservations in 11 states. An additional 12 were counted that year on other Bureau of Indian Affairs lands.

The school received a few grants that aided in its development, including one for $2.7 million from the Response Innovation and Student Equity Fund, as well as a $210,500 grant from the Colorado Charter School Program.

For more information about the school, visit utekca.org.

Teacher Jennifer Flaherty at Kwiyagat Community Academy gets students to line up to go back inside after recess on Monday during the first day of school. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Students at Kwiyagat Community Academy in Towaoc play hide-and-seek at recess on Monday during the first day of school. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
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