Ute Tribe members say their kids are being denied an effective education. The data backs them up.

Disparities date back decades, a Salt Lake Tribune investigation shows.

(Photo illustration by Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ute students have been left behind in today's public school system in the Uinta Basin — a trend that stems back to the boarding schools that operated on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.

When Latter-day Saint pioneers arrived in 1847, one of the tribes already living along the Wasatch Front were the Utes — who would give the future state its name and become the mascot of its flagship university.

As the government took over lands the Utes roamed, in Utah and in Colorado, and drove tribal members to the Uinta Basin, it repeatedly promised to educate their children.

Today, members of the Ute tribe say — and the data shows — Utah has been failing to effectively educate their children for decades, an investigation by The Salt Lake Tribune found.

In 2020, 58% of Ute seniors in Duchesne County School District graduated, for example — that’s lower than the percentage for students with disabilities.

Language arts provides another powerful example: About 90% of all Ute students in the Duchesne and Uintah school districts did not meet proficiency in year-end exams for reading and writing in 2022.

Ute kids singularly fall behind in every metric and have for decades.

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

Here are the three main takeaways from The Tribune’s series.

Ute children are singularly failed by public schools

Arriving to pick up her 5-year-old son early from kindergarten, Kayleena Cornpeach walked in to overhear his teacher calling him “stupid.” 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,” she said.

Reporter Courtney Tanner visited the Uintah and Ouray Reservation several times, with the permission of tribal leaders, to talk to students and families. She also 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.

She found that disparities between white students and Indigenous students in the two districts date back and have been documented for decades. The gaps are part of the legacy of two federal Indian boarding schools on the Ute Tribe’s reservation.

“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.

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.

[Read more: The Ute Tribe’s kids have been failed by the public school system more than any other students in Utah.]

The warning signs of failure were clear and repeated

Researcher Y.T. Witherspoon knew he would find a gap when he investigated how well Ute students were learning compared to their white peers.

He didn’t anticipate just how poorly Ute students would fare: He found that many were scoring “no higher than chance.”

Either the Ute children “had learned nothing from their education experience,” he decided, “or for some reason the test was not an effective measure.” After trying a mix of verbal and nonverbal tests instead, Witherspoon had his conclusions: Ute students were starting school less prepared and were not able to catch up.

The analysis, he wrote, shows “this disadvantage becomes larger as the children move through the public schools.”

His 1962 research, done at the request of the Ute Tribe, is one of a century of warnings that Ute students were being denied an effective education.

The alarms came from additional studies in Utah and in national reports — such as the influential 1928 Meriam Report and 1969′s scathing, “Indian Education: A National Tragedy — a National Challenge,” called the Kennedy report named for then-President John F. Kennedy.

Work by the late Francis McKinley, a prominent member of the Ute Tribe who worked in education, was included in the Kennedy report. He wrote this sobering summation:

“The educational system has not succeeded in providing the majority of Indian children with the minimum level of competence necessary to prepare them to be productive citizens in a larger society.

“Additionally, very little attempt has been made to perpetuate the values and culture that might be unique to the Indian people and provide them with a sense of pride in their own heritage, or confidence that they can effectively control their own future development.”

[Read more: Utah’s education system is failing Ute kids, and a former tribal education leader thinks that’s intentional.]

Research shows how to better educate Native children, but districts aren’t following it

For the more than 70 years that Ute students have been languishing in public schools, leaders have also known what would help them succeed.

It’s a paradox that Bryan Brayboy, a member of the Lumbee Tribe and director of Arizona State University’s Center for Indian Education, finds infuriating.

“Sometimes we forget that what we’re calling for isn’t actually new,” said Brayboy, who is also a professor of Indigenous education. “There’s a long history, a long list of studies that show if you can use culture in the classroom, that students can do really well.”

He’s backed by research, graduate studies and federal reports that have shown over and over that infusing both Native language and cultural lessons into instruction leads to higher test scores and graduation rates for Indigenous students.

Last year, the Uintah School District was vetting a new Native curriculum, said Jayme Leyba, who as Title VI coordinator oversees all underrepresented student populations. But this year, when asked for an update, Leyba said those plans had been shelved. “There’s nothing real specific in Native American curriculum” at any of its schools, he said.

No Ute language classes are offered in secondary schools in either district. With instructors provided by the tribe, Duchesne has one class for elementary students, who must choose to give up their recess to take it.

Harold Chuck Foster, the state American Indian specialist for public K-12 schools, said the Utah State Board of Education offers guidance and can argue for funding, but ultimately operations are up to the local boards and direction from the Utah Legislature.

Unlike foreign languages currently taught in Utah schools, including Spanish, German, French and Chinese, the state Legislature doesn’t fund Indigenous language instruction, he notes.

“Why is it that we’re not funded?” asked Foster, who is Navajo. “The language really makes a big difference” for our Native kids. “It’s something they can feel a lot of pride in at school, feel accepted with.”

[Read more: The Ute Tribe is trying to make up for the state’s education shortcomings, but resources are limited.]

One place is this approach is being taken: The public charter high school run by the Ute Tribe. Students are learning their culture there — and succeeding.

[Read more: The Ute Tribe has its own high school. It outperforms its public school neighbors.]