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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.

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The school had a climate that was too comfortable with mediocre achievement, says Wright. "We want to see dramatic differences in performance."

Nelson Yellowman, a school board member from Monument Valley, says, "We can do better. Why not us?"

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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Amid the monuments » Monument Valley High students grow up in a world that is both beautiful and harsh.

They live in trailers, modest stucco homes and hogans spread across nearly 30 square miles, passing daily by mesas and buttes known the world over from the many movies — including 2013’s "The Lone Ranger" starring Johnny Depp — filmed here.

Ninth-grader VanteJren Atene sometimes rides his horse to school from his home near Oljato Wash, 10 miles to the northwest. On a day in late January, a windstorm made his ride home, with girlfriend McKalette Clark and buddy Jaydon Yazzie, a gritty, grinding one.

The school has a corral and provides hay and water.

Seventh-grader Kody Smith lives in the backcountry, past where visitors to the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park are allowed to go.

His mother, Lorraine Stanley, who runs the computer lab at the elementary school, drives Kody and his younger sisters to school each day on rocky and rutted roads that occasionally cross sand washes.

They live just 17 miles from the schools, but it takes an hour each way in her Jeep.

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The family lives in a partially finished home that Kody’s father, Meryl Smith, is building as money allows. They have no indoor plumbing and their only electricity comes from a gasoline-fueled generator or a small solar panel, which power the few lights and, sometimes, the television. An oil barrel converted into a wood stove warms the house. A cooler on the concrete slab floor keeps milk cold.

The Smiths haul hundreds of gallons of water and spend roughly $20 each week at the Goulding’s Laundromat near the schools.

But Stanley says life here, with views stretching to the Blue Mountains near Monticello on the north and to the hogan where she grew up on the south, is good for her children. One can see wild mustangs in the distance; goats and sheep graze until it’s time to seek refuge from coyotes in pens at night.

Kody, Karlicia, 9, and Keilana, 7, have daily chores that include feeding the sheep, goats and dogs, and bringing in wood. Those teach them responsibility, and "they’re more adult" than cousins or friends, says their mother.

A remote challenge » The family’s lifestyle is not unusual in this part of Utah. Nearly a third of Monument Valley High’s students have no electricity and/or no indoor plumbing at home.

Their families raise sheep and goats for wool and meat. They make money catering to tourists at the handful of motels and restaurants, cashiering at Goulding’s trading post and other stores, weaving baskets or guiding horseback trips among the monuments.

The school is one of the most remote in the nation, which locals jokingly measure by the time it takes to drive to the nearest Wal-Mart. Page, Ariz., is nearly two hours away; Cortez, Colo., is slightly farther.

All but three of the school’s 216 students are Navajo, at least in part, and most are connected with teachers and classmates by an intricate clan system, even as 50 percent of them are technically "homeless," living with an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent or a friend.

Parents who can’t make a living on the reservation are often gone for long stretches working out of state, perhaps on a welding job in Texas or at a California construction site.

More than half in this Title I school fall below the federal poverty level, qualifying for free and reduced price breakfasts and lunches.

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