A brief history of tribal education

In 1933, Edna Hood became the first Southern Ute tribal member to earn a college degree — an associate’s in nursing.

Since then, hundreds have followed in her footsteps, earning everything up to and including doctoral degrees. But for each student earning a certificate or degree in the 65 years between 1933 and 1998, there were three between 1999 and fall 2012 — an astonishing increase that can be directly attributed to the tribe’s Financial Plan, introduced in 1999, said Education Department Director La Titia Taylor.

The plan overhauled the department’s scholarship program, allowing it to provide much more help to students wanting to pursue higher education. The effect has been drastic: Before the change, 103 tribal-member students completed some form of higher education; in the 13 years since then, 290 more have become graduates.

Additionally, the dropout rate among higher education students has never risen above 19 percent in any academic year since 1999-2000.

The tribe has seen similar success on the high school level: According to Taylor, all tribal-member students but one have earned a diploma in the past two graduating classes. For comparison, the National Center for Education Statistics reported in January that the average graduation rate among Native American students was 69.1 percent.

The tribe’s emphasis on education dates back decades before the Financial Plan, though. The Southern Ute Montessori Head Start opened its doors in 1969, becoming one of the first tribal programs in the country, according to Director Char Schank. At that time, the tribe made a conscious decision to open the program to both tribal-member and non-tribal-member families.

Head Start blazed a new trail again in 1996 when it became one of the first programs in the country to offer an Early Head Start program for kids between 6 weeks and 3 years of age.

In 1984, the Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council, under Chairman Leonard C. Burch, passed a resolution declaring education to be the tribe’s first priority.

In 1985, a family with longtime connections to the tribe created the Elbert J. Floyd Award, a scholarship that has since been given annually to a promising young tribal-member student. This year, the 29th award went to Ayona Hight.

The early 1990s saw the introduction of the GED Program, which offers tutoring and testing to students seeking a GED diploma.

The last year of the 20th century brought changes to more than just the scholarship program. It was also when the department split into three — Public Education, Private Education and Higher Education — and when construction began on the Southern Ute Indian Montessori Academy.

The precursor to the academy was the Blue Sky Montessori School, a “school-within-a-school” hosted inside the Ignacio School District for two years beginning in 1998. When the academy opened in September 2000, it initially served students up to 9 years old.

It added 10-year-olds in 2002, 11-year-olds in 2003 and 12- and 13-year-olds in 2004, according to Director Carol Baker-Olguin. In 2012, the academy achieved a crucial milestone when it received accreditation from the American Montessori Society.

In 2009, Public Education and Higher Education would merge again into today’s Education Department, while Private Education and the academy remain one and the same.

More recently, in 2010, the department signed an interagency agreement with the Ignacio School District to work together to meet the needs of Southern Ute students. The fruits of that agreement have been huge, Taylor said.

Looking forward, Taylor said another milestone is on the horizon: The tribe has struck a deal with the district that would allow students to take a Ute language class to satisfy the foreign language requirement for graduation. She said she hopes to see a class offered in fall 2013.

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