The Ute Tribe’s kids have been failed by the public school system more than any other students in Utah. Read part 1 of series.

Ute kids are testing at the bottom on standardized tests and graduating at the lowest rates in the state.

(Keith Secola Jr. | Special to The Tribune) Ute artist Keith Secola Jr. created this collage representing the tribe's history and aspirations in education. Secola is the grandson of noted Ute leader Francis McKinley.

Editor’s note: This is the first story in a three-part series about how Utes students have been failed by educators for decades. Read the second part here. The third part is available here.

Whiterocks • His kindergarten teacher was the first to call Aibaaq Cornpeach “stupid.”

“What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you talk?” she asked the boy, who was 5 years old and trying to read out loud for a test. “Are you stupid? You must be stupid.”

Arriving to pick up Aibaaq early from school, his mom Kayleena Cornpeach walked in to overhear the insult.

It’s the same word she says teachers called her in elementary school in the late 1980s. Now it was happening again, to her son.

Today in the Uinta Basin, Cornpeach said, Ute students in the public education system face stereotyping and have long been left to fail. “That’s how they’ve always treated the Ute kids out here.”

Her family has experienced it for generations from this tiny town that was once home to a federal Indian boarding school, where Ute children were coerced to attend, forced to provide free labor and punished for speaking their own language by officials who openly worked to break their bonds with their families and traditions.

”The war cry,” said Shaun Chapoose, who recently finished his term as chair for the tribe, “was assimilation.”

The Ute Tribe gave the state its name — and America promised to educate the tribe’s children when it took its land. But rather than providing an education that would empower them, as the federal government acknowledged last year in an investigation led by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the boarding schools’ focus on work and cultural erasure damaged their health and left them with “often irrelevant” skills.

That legacy echoes today.

When the Whiterocks boarding school closed in 1952, Ute students were pushed completely into public schools — where they have languished for 70 years.

The Salt Lake Tribune has examined hundreds of pages of records, from the boarding school era to the transition to public schools to recent grades, ACT scores and graduation rates in the Uintah and Duchesne school districts, where Cornpeach’s children are among the hundreds of northern Ute students currently attending classes.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sonceray, 10, Rosalia, 16, and Aibaaq Cornpeach, 8, near their home in Whiterocks, Utah, on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kayleena Cornpeach watches from her front window each morning as her children walk down the dusty drive to their bus stop by the town laundromat in Whiterocks, Utah, on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kayleena Cornpeach said her son Abiaaq now dreads going to school in the neighboring town. Daughter Sonceray, 10, said that when she raises her hand, her teachers mostly ignore her.

Decade after decade, Native children have been the students most likely to drop out of both districts’ high schools — at a rate worse than most anywhere in the state. In 2020, 58% of Ute seniors in Duchesne County School District graduated; that’s lower than the percentage for students with disabilities.

Their test scores also rank among the lowest for any demographic student group in Utah. Last year, 85% of Ute third graders in Uintah School District were not proficient in reading. In eighth grade, fewer than 5% met the benchmarks in math and science.

The two districts cover the tribe’s Uintah and Ouray Reservation in the eastern corner of Utah.

Only one district in the state has a majority of Native students. That’s the San Juan County School District in southeastern Utah, which has a predominantly Navajo, or Diné, student body. During the past five years, the Indigenous kids there have tested better than the Ute students in the Uinta Basin.

They have also graduated — with 85% to 90% getting a high school diploma — at almost double the rate of Ute kids. Some have argued that Native students are still acclimating to public schools, which is why they’re failing in the Uinta Basin, but San Juan School District shows Native students can be more effectively served by districts.

Test scores for Native students in Uintah and Duchesne school districts, meanwhile, have largely not improved over time, dating back to the 1950s, according to research. White students’ test scores have.

“The Ute children of the 1940s and the early 1950s failed because they were hopelessly unprepared by the Whiterocks boarding school … and each year they fell further behind,” Kim Gruenwald, a researcher, warned in a paper from 1996.

State and school district leaders have long known about the inequities, which are as undeniable as the Uinta Basin desert is dry.

They have made few sustained efforts to intervene.

Past partnerships with the tribe once brought Ute language classes into some schools, and there are small efforts to offer exposure to the language today. And Ute students say a few teachers step in individually to help them.

But Uintah School District said it has no immediate plans to adjust its curriculum by incorporating Indigenous language and culture, which has been proved to better serve Native students. Jayme Leyba, who oversees underrepresented student populations for the district, acknowledged the shortcomings. “I wouldn’t blame people,” he said, “for being frustrated.”

Duchesne County School District has incorporated some Ute teachings into its lessons, but not much. And its graduation rates continue to remain among the lowest in the state. In a statement, the district said it is “aware of the gaps in our system.”

[Read more about the districts’ responses in part three.]

Cornpeach said her son now dreads going to school at Lapoint Elementary in the neighboring town of Lapoint. His sister, 10-year-old Sonceray, said in an interview that when she raises her hand, her teachers mostly ignore her.

The mother wonders if she should take both kids out and home-school them for a while, like she did with her oldest daughter. Rosalia, 16, said that her teachers didn’t support her or protect her from bullying.

Cornpeach watches from her front window each morning as her younger kids walk down the dusty drive to their bus stop by the town laundromat, praying it might get better. “I just hope today will be the day their teachers won’t call them stupid,” she said, “today will be the day their teachers will actually help them.”

Analyzing test scores and graduation rates

Ute leaders have said school officials in the Uinta Basin take this approach with education: Ute students should be like red apples, appearing Native on the outside, but white — or assimilated — on the inside.

If you follow the metaphor, said Forrest Cuch, a former education director for the tribe, Ute students have essentially been left to rot.

The school system has failed to acknowledge their differences as Natives and how they learn, said Cuch, who has pushed for reform for years.

“The public school system was not designed for cultural people,” Cuch said. “We’ll probably get 10% to 15% of our kids who will succeed in that system. But the majority will not.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Forrest Cuch is photographed in Whiterocks on Monday, March 21, 2022.

Scores for Native students in Uintah and Duchesne school districts have been so low, in fact, that while other districts in the state and nation saw learning losses because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Basin schools didn’t with their Ute students. There wasn’t much lower for them to drop.

Language arts provide a powerful example.

About 90% of all Ute students in both districts did not meet proficiency in year-end exams for reading and writing in 2022. That means 10% — or 1 in 10 — were on grade level for the subject. That has hovered in the same area consistently since at least 2017, according to records from the Utah State Board of Education.

Meanwhile, white peers in the districts have made modest gains and are fairly close today to where students across Utah rank. They reach proficiency at four times the rate as Ute students in language arts.

Statewide, Native students from all tribes tend to fall to the bottom of exam achievement for demographic groups. An average of 20% of Utah’s Native students are proficient in language arts.

That’s low — but it’s double the amount of kids from the Ute Tribe who are reading at grade level.

The conclusion: Indigenous kids across Utah are being left behind, but the Utes in the Uinta Basin are more so than any other students in the state.

“There was never really a commitment to educate our kids,” Cuch said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t be seeing this pattern for so long.”

Major findings from The Tribune’s investigation show deep-seated disparities for Ute students in the region:

• Consistently behind: In every test, in every grade, across every subject and for every year, Ute students in Uintah and Duchesne school districts performed at the bottom of their classes. Their scores have consistently been at least two to three times lower than those of white students. And they are often surpassed by all other ethnic and racial groups, students with disabilities, and those who are learning English.

• Worse in Uintah: Ute students have fared worse in Uintah School District overall — even as the district has more Native kids enrolled. As of fall 2022, Uintah School District had 481 Native kids enrolled, making up 7% of its student body. Duchesne School District had 322 Indigenous students, for 6%.

• Not adding up: Math scores for Ute students in the Uintah and Duchesne school districts were the worst of any subject, followed by language arts and then science. For 2022, for instance, fewer than 5% of Ute students in Uintah School District met proficiency for math in grades 4, 6, 7 and 8. In Duchesne School District, fewer than 10% of Ute kids met proficiency for math in grades 6, 8 and 9.

• The rural divide: In Utah, rural districts tend to have students performing at slightly lower levels than urban areas. That’s often due to a lack of resources, as school districts in Utah are largely funded by local taxes. The Uinta Basin is particularly dependent on the boom and bust of the oil industry. Still, white students there have tended to keep on pace with their peers statewide. Native students have not, always scoring lower on standardized tests than other Indigenous student populations across Utah.

• Not prepared for college: Ute students also scored behind their white peers on the national ACT test, in both districts and compared to Native students across the state. In 2022, Ute students in Uintah School District got an average score of 16.1 out of 36; that’s an improvement over the past three years. Meanwhile, all students combined there got 19.2. In Duchesne County School District, Native students scored 15.1; that’s a drop from the previous two years. All students there got an average score of 18.

• Failing classes: More Ute students in Uintah School District failed classes than their white peers, leading to a lower overall GPA. The 27 Ute seniors there in 2022 had a combined average GPA of 2.55 out of 4. White students had a 3.29. The University of Utah — the state’s flagship school, which uses the Utes as its mascot under an agreement with the tribe — doesn’t have a set GPA requirement for admission, but its average for acceptance is about 3.2, meaning most Ute students aren’t meeting that.

• Fewer diplomas: During the past seven years, the lowest graduation rate for Ute students in Uintah School District was 50% for 2020 and 2017. The lowest for Duchesne School District was 52.2%, in 2016. Duchesne has made some strides since then, with 65.5% in 2021. Still, both districts fall far behind the state percentages for Native kids who graduate, at an average of 75%. Meanwhile, roughly 90% of white students in the two districts and across the state graduate.

The trend for Ute graduation rates has remained that low since the 1970s — or for the past 50 years.

• Lack of representation: There are currently no Native members on the school boards for either district. And there are few Ute teachers; Duchesne County School District employs one.

Ute brothers say they were ‘expected to fail’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joseph DuShane-Navanick, front right, and his twin brother, Joey DuShane-Navanick, back left.

The Ute Tribe’s 4.5 million-acre reservation — though opened to piecemeal land sales to white settlers and others by the federal government — is the second largest Native American reservation in the United States. It’s behind only the Navajo Nation, which stretches south from a strip of land across the southeast corner of Utah.

Joseph and Joey DuShane-Navanick stood this spring at the Fort Duchesne headquarters of the Ute Tribe, on its sovereign lands, where a Tribune reporter and photographers visited several times in recent months with the permission of the tribe’s leaders.

The 26-year-old twin brothers, who grew up there, could point out across the sagebrush-filled ravines toward each of the schools they attended. They believe their 12-year public school education was built on bias and left them exemplifying many of the statistics for Ute students.

As boys, they started first grade in fall 2001 at Todd Elementary, named for W. Russell Todd, a white man who served on the Uintah School District’s board of education. It was renamed Eagle View Elementary in 2009.

The Roosevelt school has long been the only school in either Uintah or Duchesne school districts that has a majority of Ute students, making up 62% of the enrollment there today.

Being surrounded by other students who looked like them made them feel comfortable and understood, the DuShane-Navanick brothers said.

The teachers at the elementary school were all white — and remain so today, according to the district — though the brothers said they generally understood Native ways. And while that’s positive, the brothers said, those educators also expected little of the Ute kids.

Joseph said he has few memories of being tested on spelling from first to fifth grade, and by the time he got to middle school, he struggled with writing out basic words — reflecting the low standardized test scores of other Ute students in language arts.

The brothers next went to Roosevelt Junior High in Duchesne County School District, where they were two of the total of five Ute students enrolled. That’s how the boundaries are drawn — splitting up kids from the reservation and busing them to schools where they become the minority.

In junior high, Joseph said, the brothers felt the attitude among their educators was: “There’s a Native kid, give him a C and pass him along.” There was no one offering to guide them, they said, or engage with their culture.

The brothers’ story is an echo of the experiences of Utes who attended public schools on or near the reservation in the 1950s and 1960s. Larry McCook later told an oral history interviewer that teachers back then “thought we were ignorant. They didn’t even try to teach us.” At Union High School, he said, “We could sit in the back — and make it with zzzs.” Cecelia Panteloon Lambeth said teachers would “just let them pass,” referring to Ute kids.

The DuShane-Navanick brothers don’t recall being taught Ute history. Indigenous people, in Joseph’s memory, were “only mentioned one day” in his high school education. “They called it the tragedy of Native Americans in my U.S. government class,” he said, which to him suggested that Indians were extinct. And there were no Ute language classes offered — still true today, in both school districts, although Duchesne allows members of the tribe to teach their language to elementary kids during recess.

And while Duchesne County School District officials say they are trying to infuse more Ute history into their curriculum, it remains scarcely taught in the Uintah District.

Despite the significant Native population in the Uinta Basin, white classmates would use racist slurs, the brothers said, or ask questions like, “Do you live in a tepee?” When they tried to report bullying, the DuShane-Navanick brothers said, administrators often looked the other way.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joseph and Joey DuShane-Navanick share a moment while visiting with their aunt Cassandra Manning, the diabetes program director for the Ute Tribe.

Both the elementary and middle schools they went to in Roosevelt sit on the reservation — which doesn’t look like others in the United States. The Ute Tribe was forced by the federal government at the turn of the 20th century to allow non-Natives to purchase parcels of its land and build businesses there, creating a checkerboard of landownership.

They went next to Uintah High in Vernal, returning to Uintah School District, with a one-hour bus ride there each morning and another back home each afternoon. The only high school in the district, it is just outside the reservation.

As of this fall, it had 83 Ute students attending out of 1,800 total, making the Native population about 4%.

Part of what skews the representation of Ute students in high school is the dropout rate. Last year, nearly 10% of Native students from ninth through 12th grade dropped out of Uintah School District. In Duchesne County School District, almost 11% did. In recent years, those numbers have been higher.

By comparison, in San Juan School District, 4.2% of Native students dropped out in 2022. That’s the same percentage as the white students in the Uinta Basin who did. Statewide, about 4.7% of students drop out.

It wasn’t until high school, the brothers said, that they had a teacher who saw that they were struggling and offered to help them outside class. Before then, Joseph said, he couldn’t say what a verb or noun was.

Other teachers, he said, had just written dismissive remarks on his papers, like “I gave up reading this.” He failed almost every test.

“I just thought I was stupid,” Joseph said, using the same label that has haunted Kayla Cornpeach. “I was expected to fail. That’s just what they thought Native kids were supposed to do.”

By the time they reached ninth grade, they would’ve considered leaving, if not for their mom, who pushed them to finish high school.

Stereotypes and struggling to graduate

The DuShane-Navanick brothers and their friend, Sidney Atwine, were all in the class of 2014.

As they moved through high school, they saw friends who dropped out, often for jobs at the oil rigs in the Basin. Some, Joey said, have since gotten into drugs, been arrested or died.

“That’s the typical experience,” Joseph added. “You have to be very, very lucky to even get through high school as a Ute kid out here.”

Joseph said he wasn’t told about the ACT, a college entrance exam, until the day he was expected to take it. He got a 14 on it, lower even than the average for Ute students in the district.

Joey said no one ever talked to him about higher education, including his school-appointed counselor. That was despite him taking Advanced Placement biology. “No one,” he said, “pointed me in that direction.”

Meanwhile, a higher percentage of white students in the Uinta Basin — around 80% — go on to college than the state’s average of 78%, according to numbers from the Utah System of Higher Education.

Kayla Kidd, 20, said she also wasn’t encouraged by staffers at Uintah School District to apply for college, even though she remembers her white peers often talking about it. She had one Native teacher during her time in high school, and it was for a class funded by federal grant money given to tribes.

The racism she experienced, she said, from staffers and classmates felt relentless — she remembers being told she was worth nothing, that her skin color made her ugly, that she wasn’t smart.

“I had a lot of trouble in high school,” she said. “I got picked on a lot. I didn’t really have any friends.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kayla Kidd only had one Native teacher during her time in high school, and it was for a class funded by federal grant money given to tribe.

Atwine, who started at Uintah High with Joseph and Joey, was expelled his first year. One day, he said, he got angry at a bully and flicked a small piece of hot glue on the white student. He said the school made him apologize and then kicked him out. After that, Atwine bounced around different high schools in Duchesne County School District — as well as a boarding school out of state for a short time — where he said he failed all his classes.

Atwine briefly spent time with people who were in a gang on the reservation, he said, because he didn’t feel like he could do anything else. Teachers, he said, had told him he wouldn’t achieve much in life.

He returned to Uintah High for his senior year, starting with a 0.4 GPA. With the support of his brother, Atwine was able to turn most of his F’s into C’s; none of the credit, he said, for his improvement should go to the school districts.

Joseph took summer school classes to catch up.

The DuShane-Navanick brothers and Atwine all graduated. Joseph took a job at a grocery store before working as a mechanic. Joey worked at McDonald’s for three days — which he hated — before also going to work in a grocery store. Atwine got into construction.

“That’s all we were told we could do as Ute kids,” Atwine said. “We were told that so many times.”

But on their own, all three — and Kidd — have found their way to college.

The DuShane-Navanick brothers went to Salt Lake Community College; Joseph will soon be transferring to the University of Utah. They hope to return to the tribe with their degrees, to upend the system that didn’t help them.

Atwine started college at SLCC and is now studying at Utah Valley University while running a Native food truck.

Kidd is a junior at the U. now; she says she ended up there only because she’d visited the campus on a trip paid for by the tribe. She worries how many kids are like her on the reservation.

The U. offers free tuition to all Native students and has a partnership with the Ute Tribe to enroll its high school graduates. But with the failures of the public school system, those promises of higher education can be hollow.

Joey applied to the U. before going to SLCC. He was rejected for being unprepared.

[NEXT: Read part two here.]