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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jaydon Yazzie, VanteJren Atene, and McKalette Clark ride home from Monument Valley High School on their horses, Thursday, January 30, 2014.
Utah schools in Navajo communities try a monumental turnaround

Monument Valley High balances teaching Navajo culture with preparing students for careers or college. But with persistently poor academic performance, it’s rated a failing school. Dramatic changes aim to get students on the path to success.

First Published Feb 15 2014 11:16 pm • Last Updated Feb 24 2014 08:12 am

Monument Valley » Music teacher Jeremy Johnson instructs his piano students on proper concert etiquette as they listen to a classmate play a tune from the musical "Cats."

Lean forward. Listen attentively. Applaud, he says.

At a glance

Grading Utah schools on the Navajo Reservation

The five Utah schools on the Navajo Reservation did not fare well in the first round of School Grades, an accountability program created by last year’s Legislature.

The elementary and high school (grades seven-12) in Monument Valley both got F’s, and the elementary and high school (grades seven-12) in Montezuma Creek got D’s. Navajo Mountain High, with just 34 students in grades nine-12, was too small for a grade to be statistically meaningful.

Superintendent Douglas E. Wright says poverty and geography play roles in the schools’ poor performances, mirroring a national trend for Indian schools.

Navajo Mountain, in particular, is difficult for district staff to visit. It is 200 miles, including some on dirt roads, from the district office in Blanding, a round trip that takes more than seven hours.

Looking back: Schools have roots in lawsuits

The San Juan School District’s schools on the Navajo Reservation have roots in lawsuits that alleged discrimination against American Indians in Utah’s largest county.

Fifty-five percent of the district’s 3,064 students are Indians, mostly Navajo.

A 1975 consent decree in the first case ordered construction of Monument Valley High near Oljato and Whitehorse High in Montezuma Creek, as well as bilingual education and renovation at two elementary schools just off the reservation but serving Indian students.

The lawsuit was renewed and splintered into several others in the early 1990s, resulting in settlements in which the district agreed to build Navajo Mountain High. Those named in the lawsuit also agreed to find funds to build an elementary school in Monument Valley. That school, Tse’bii’nidzisgai, opened in 2011.

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"Even if you are totally bored out of your head, sit up in your seat," Johnson says, perched on the edge of his own as students take turns practicing in the auditorium for an upcoming recital.

Hours later, Johnson is with another group of students who stay after school once a week to learn to play the elegantly simple, carved native flute. They work with a prominent Navajo musician, Vince Redhouse, via Skype from his home in Seattle.

From common courtesies to indigenous instruments, Monument Valley High School in southeastern Utah’s San Juan District has a broad mission.

The school, which has grades seven-12, must prepare its 216 students, who grow up amid the Navajo Nation’s iconic red mesas, for success in the wider world: jobs, college, trade school, Anglo culture.

But it also must teach the Navajo language and traditions as a result of federal lawsuits, beginning in the 1970s, that accused the district of unequal treatment of American-Indian students.

The challenge for Sylvia McMillan, hired this school year to be the struggling high school’s "transformational principal," is to hew close to the second mission while dramatically improving performance of the first.

"We can view them as competing," says McMillan, whose appointment still rankles many parents. "But we don’t want to. We want the best of all worlds for these kids."

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From ‘F’ to fresh start » Monument Valley High, according to Utah’s new School Grades accountability system, is a failure.

It was slapped with an "F" grade in the fall, joining Kearns High as the only two traditional high schools in the bottom 15. (The others were an online school and alternative high schools, which serve at-risk students.)

Monument Valley’s elementary, Tse’bii’nidzisgai School, also got an F, scoring dead last among 555 grade schools in the state.

The grades are based on student achievement in math, language arts and science, as well as graduation rates — measures by which American Indians lag across the nation.

Frustrated by years of small gains that could not keep Monument Valley High on pace with academic improvement elsewhere in Utah, the San Juan District school board took a dramatic step.

It adopted what federal education officials call a "transformational model" to try to fix the school’s problems, which meant replacing the beloved principal of three decades and half the school’s 16 teachers.

The move angered parents, who also were stung by the suggestion that their children were academically inferior.

Racial tension is always just below the surface here, where county and school government is seen as dominated by minority whites. American Indians comprise 52 percent of San Juan County’s population.

The shake-up exposed old wounds, including grievances behind lawsuits that forced the San Juan District, based in Blanding, to build Monument Valley and other Navajo Reservation schools beginning in the 1980s.

But it also gave the school a fresh start, says Superintendent Douglas E. Wright.

It put Monument Valley High in the running for Title I School Improvement Grants, which could mean $600,000 to $800,000 for the school during the next three years. And it will send district and school administrators this spring and summer to a boot camp: The Partnership for Leaders in Education at the University of Virginia.

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