The Ute Tribe has its own high school. It outperforms its public school neighbors.

Uintah River High offers classes on traditions, history and language.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rosalia Cornpeach at her Whiterocks home on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.

Editor’s note: This story accompanies an investigation about how traditional schools have failed Ute students. Find the series at these links: Part one, Part two, Part three.

Fort Duchesne • Rosalia Cornpeach’s favorite part of school is learning her tribe’s traditions.

At Uintah River High, she takes classes on looming, beading and speaking Ute. “We get to learn our own language,” the 16-year-old said excitedly.

Her school is an outlier in providing those cultural lessons in the classroom. And that’s because of who runs it — the Ute Indian Tribe.

Uintah River High stands in contrast to the two public school districts — Uintah and Duchesne — that otherwise serve about 800 Ute kids who live in the Uinta Basin in eastern Utah. Neither district teaches much about the customs or language of the biggest tribe in the region, with the Uintah and Ouray Reservation stretching for 4.5 million acres in this desert landscape.

Uintah School District doesn’t have any Ute language classes. Duchesne County School District offers an opt-in language program at its elementary schools, but students have to choose to skip recess to take it.

Uintah River High opened in 1998, when the tribe’s Business Committee became frustrated by these gaps — as well as continued lack of support generally in helping Ute students to achieve and graduate.

Currently, Ute children in the Uinta Basin have the lowest test scores in the state and drop out at a higher rate than any other demographic.

It’s been shown by studies dating back to the 1920s that Native students learn best and succeed when their language and culture are present in their education. Uintah River High serves as an example of what could happen if the public school districts followed those recommendations.

The school is located in Fort Duchesne, just down the hill from the Business Committee’s office, and serves 75 students. Of those, 62 — or 83% — are Ute.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The sign for Uintah River High School, run by the Ute Tribe.

It’s a public charter, so anyone can enroll, though students who were kicked out or were struggling in the Basin’s public schools are prioritized.

“They were troubled kids, according to the school districts,” said Shaun Chapoose, who recently finished his term as chair for the tribe. “But here, they graduate and excel.”

It’s funded by the state and supplemented by the tribe.

Uintah River High is ranked in the top 30% of schools in Utah by Public School Review. And its graduation rate sits at about 85%, on average, during the past five years. Fewer than 5% of students there drop out annually.

That’s less than half the roughly 10% of Ute students who drop out each year in Uintah and Duchesne County school districts. There, graduation rates for the tribe’s kids hover around 60%.

Uintah River Principal Brittany Luck said the school’s success comes down to understanding and adapting to how Native kids learn. The school takes a more hands-on approach, provides real-life examples of how concepts apply to students and infuses Ute traditions in almost everything it does.

Ute guest speakers are invited often to speak to the classes. And all students take Native American studies as their history course.

“We put a lot of culture into our school,” Luck said. “That’s intentional.”

The school also specifically plans its calendar around traditional Ute events, so kids aren’t missing class to attend those ceremonies, said the school’s counselor Charles Denny, who has Ute ancestry, though he is not an enrolled member of the tribe.

“We have to live in two worlds as Utes,” said Denny, referring to Native life on the reservation and the white world largely outside of it. The school is meant to help students succeed in both.

Rosalia started there in ninth grade and her grades have improved from where they were in public school.

“It’s going a lot better for her,” said her mother, Kayleena Cornpeach.

Cornpeach had been home-schooling Rosalia after the girl said she was being relentlessly bullied for her skin color at her elementary in Uintah School District. Family members said they reported their concerns but were brushed off by school administrators.

Rosalia said being at the charter has encouraged her to graduate. Now, she wants to go to beauty school afterward to learn how to do nails and eyelashes. Her own are fully primped.

The limitation of Uintah River, though, is that it offers only grades nine through 12, leaving out Ute children between preschool and ninth grade. It runs a Head Start program for kids to learn some reading and writing skills before they go into kindergarten — so they’re not starting school at a deficit — and that has shown some success.

Cornpeach’s two younger kids, Aibaaq and Sonceray, are both at the elementary school where Rosalia felt targeted.

And the waitlist to get into Uintah River High is growing each year.

There’s no more room, Luck said, unless the tribe expands into more buildings. There aren’t immediate plans — or funds — to do that. The tribe is currently fighting a land battle over Tabby Mountain and against white ranchers allegedly siphoning their water.

That leaves many of the tribe’s children in a system that doesn’t always serve them.