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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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Some, like senior Remington Begay, are immersed in American-Indian culture. His father is Comanche; his mother is Navajo.

He wears his hair in a long braid, an arrowhead necklace around his neck and a wide silver bow-guard that belonged to his grandfather on his wrist.

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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Outside school, Begay breaks horses for a trail-ride business and leads customers on horseback tours, sometimes stopping in a cave to improvise melodies on his flute, the haunting notes echoing off the walls.

On weekends, Begay says, he joins in Native American Church ceremonies in tepees or hogans, where peyote is shared.

Other students are less anchored in the Navajo culture.

Though hundreds of miles from the nearest city, Monument Valley’s students have many of the same problems as their urban peers: alcohol and drug abuse, teenage pregnancy.

"It’s like an inner-city school," McMillan says, "but we’re in the middle of nowhere."

Supporting success » McMillan reaches for a book that sums up her task at Monument Valley: "Driven by Data, A Practical Guide to Improve Instruction."

"This is where public education is going," says the new principal. "And it doesn’t work here."

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She has worked in India and Africa as well as in private schools in northern Utah and California. She has a doctorate in education from Brigham Young University.

By focusing on data, "I worry that we are stifling creativity in the kids," says McMillan, who, like her new art and music teachers, is in awe of many students’ talents.

"There are brilliant students here. Brilliant!" says art teacher Josh Boehner.

Nonetheless, McMillan and her teachers are pushing hard for quantifiable gains, particularly in the core classes.

The early results are encouraging, she says, especially in language arts. Students earned 70 F’s in all classes the first term, but only 40 the second.

One of the key new programs is Guaranteed Personal Success, GPS for short.

A computer spits out a list of students who are missing assignments at the end of every school day, and those students must go to the cafeteria for an hour after school to catch up.

Ninth-grader Josiah Nelson says he used to slough off in school and often skipped it altogether. (The school has a high 8 percent absentee rate).

But GPS changed that; he missed wrestling practice when he had missing assignments, so he stays caught up now.

"I wasn’t used to doing that much work in one day," he says.

McMillan says the number of students routinely in GPS after school has dropped from 150 to about 40.

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