IGNACIO – Ignacio School District Superintendent Chris deKay knows what he and his fellow educators are up against when it comes to running three schools in a rural, economically distressed area, but he says he is up for the challenge.
Recently, Ascent Classical Academy, a charter school focused on a rigid, Greco-Roman-based curriculum, wanted to put a school in Durango. After being twice denied, the charter school set its sights on Ignacio. When it seemed Ignacio would similarly reject the charter – in part because its 181-page application had clearly been written for Durango and its demographic of students – those in support of a more conservative, less modern education for their children took out their frustrations on the Ignacio School Board.
Some accused Ignacio schools of being “the bottom of the bottom” – a district failing its students.
According to Public School Review, a national database that tracks school performance data, Ignacio schools do fall into the bottom 50% of all Colorado schools, with math and reading proficiency coming in several percentage points below the state average. There are many other schools across the state and the country, however, that have been underperforming in math and reading in the last two years, the blame resting on the COVID-19 pandemic and its disruption to classroom instruction, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“Remote learning was really tough on the kids,” deKay said. “Ignacio kept its doors open for those students who wanted to come to school. The tribe (Southern Ute) was more conservative during the pandemic, so some kids worked remotely. We had to meet with the Ignacio community and really work out how we were going to keep things going. It was a collaborative effort.”
Community collaboration is something deKay emphasizes repeatedly when speaking about Ignacio schools. Ignacio has a higher diversity than most Colorado schools. Based on a ranking between 0-1 (1 being the most diverse), the Colorado school average is 0.61. Ignacio’s score is 0.71, according to Public School Review. Thirty-three percent of the students in Ignacio’s high school are American Indian, and thirty-three percent are Hispanic. White students round out the small demographic of 221 students at 28%.
“We all have to figure out how to get along out here,” deKay said. “Diversity in education is important. Community is important to us, too. Everyone knows each other here.”
One step inside the high school, middle school and elementary school in Ignacio reflects deKay’s statements on the importance of diversity and community in education. The three schools are full of color and life with architecture that has been carefully constructed to encourage interaction between students and faculty.
The high school, completed in 2015, has large gathering areas around the cafeteria and a Southern Ute-designed open meeting area outside. Further demonstrating the school’s reverence for its Native American students and their culture, a Southern Ute tile mosaic was preserved from the old Ignacio high school and placed in immediate view of those first entering the new building.
Over a decade ago, however, construction of the high school and its attentive architecture almost did not occur. School district voters narrowly approved a bond issue for a new high school in 2011.
“We won with a single vote,” deKay said. “That’s it. It was a tie vote, and then there was a recount, and one mail-in vote that hadn’t been counted broke the tie.”
DeKay does understand, however, why the community was resistant to building the new high school.
“They were thinking about the taxes,” he said, “and what it would cost them.”
Proposed construction projects on taxpayer’s dime, even outside of Ignacio’s school district, are often met with resistance in a town that has been deemed an “economically distressed” area by Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Ignacio’s median household income in 2021 was $59,484. By comparison, Durango’s median household income was $65,424.
Ignacio School District’s smaller budget and resources has led to one of its biggest problems, made even worse by pandemic: a lack of teachers.
“The teacher shortage is real for us,” deKay said. “We lose a lot of teachers to Durango.”
The Durango School District is able to offer higher salaries for teachers and more options for affordable housing. Ignacio can offer housing just up the hill from the high school and middle school for teachers, but space is limited, and Ignacio cannot match Durango’s base wage rate.
Ever the optimist, DeKay insists what Ignacio lacks in funding for competitive pay for teachers, his school district makes up for with its health benefits plan.
“We’ve got great benefits,” deKay said. “Really great coverage.”
The district’s new strategy for teacher retention, he says, is to switch to four-day workweeks and try to enlist Ignacio residents to become educators.
“We try to recruit locals into education,” he said. “Then they stick around.”
Besides hiring teachers and convincing them to stick with the school district, the economic situation in Ignacio continues to provide many other challenges for deKay, himself an Ignacio native whose father was a superintendent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“Sixty-eight percent of our students get free or reduced lunches,” deKay said.
By comparison, the average percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunches in Colorado is 31%.
According to the National Association of Secondary School Principals, schools with more diverse populations tend to have more students who fall below the poverty line. Schools that deal with a student body living at higher poverty rates must contend with more parents who work longer hours or multiple jobs and are less available to help their children with homework or support them academically at home, leading to those students not studying or completing homework as often. Low-income students also have to contend with a lack of resources at home, such as having access to computers. One way in which deKay and Ignacio High school combat this issue is by providing laptops to students for the school year, though even that comes with its own issue.
“The Wi-Fi is still an issue out here,” deKay said. “The fiber optics isn’t great.”
High-speed broadband has been a continual problem for many rural communities in southern Colorado, and a hindrance to rural students in secondary and postsecondary education. Colorado Attorney General, Phil Weiser, even mentioned developing broadband deployment initiatives as part of his to-do list for 2023.
The question remains: With every obstacle that Ignacio schools continue to face, are they ultimately failing their students, as Ascent Classical Academy supporters have recently claimed?
Taking the fair but narrow-view criticism in stride, DeKay would rather focus on what Ignacio schools are doing right, rather than what the numbers say they are doing wrong.
“We’re about pathways in education,” he said. “We’ve been creating new pathways for students through SCEC (Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative).”
Ignacio High School recently hosted a SCEC symposium, which brought in teachers and staff from nine Southwest Colorado school districts. The purpose of the symposium was to create more career pathways for students in rural, financially disadvantaged areas once they graduate high school, from environmental sciences to construction to information technology.
“We want to give our students options,” deKay said. “We have a welding shop. We have a wood shop. We teach agriculture. We have CTE (Career and Technical Education). We have Native American studies and food and sewing classes. We want them to have choices. We want them to succeed no matter what they do.”