Tribe, public schools partner to better serve students

The Ignacio School District and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe are pioneering an intergovernmental relationship that allows each entity some access to the other’s information and resources — and Southern Ute students are reaping the benefit.

“It’s kind of a unique relationship,” Ignacio School District Superintendent Rocco Fuschetto said. “We are here for one purpose: what is best for all students.”

Southern Ute Education Department Director La Titia Taylor said it’s a relationship that has “improved considerably” in recent years.

“We work closer; we collaborate better,” she said. “I think the school was kind of confused in the past about what our real role was.”

At the center of the relationship is an intergovernmental agreement signed in 2010. It allows members of the Southern Ute staff to access the school’s records on Native American students, including grades and attendance. That gives the tribe a clear picture of how each student is going and where help is needed, Taylor said.

“My employees are better utilized in the school district because of the agreement,” she said.

The idea for the agreement was born when Taylor attended a national dropout prevention conference for Native American students and learned of a similar agreement between a coalition of tribes and a school district in Oregon.

Fuschetto, who came to Ignacio from the Swink School District in southeast Colorado and worked for years in Indiana, said this is his first post serving a large number of Native American students. But as a former high school Spanish and French teacher, he developed cultural diversity programs covering topics such as obtaining passports and traveling abroad.

As he enters his fourth year as Ignacio’s superintendent, he said he’s learned Native American students generally have the same needs as anyone else. Parental involvement is key in every case, he said.

To that end, the school district works daily with the tribe’s Education Department in a variety of ways, Fuschetto said. His partner in the effort on the tribal side is Taylor.

“That’s the first person I call, or she calls [me],” he said. “I consider her a part of our team.”

In addition to frequent communication, there are tangible elements to the relationship between the district and the tribe.

“The thing that we are really grateful for is they provide four teachers to us,” Fuschetto said. “That’s a big help. … They do a multitude of things.”

The Southern Ute teachers — one at each school — are on the tribe’s payroll but spend most of their days inside the public schools, tutoring and offering help wherever they can. Their duty is first to Southern Ute tribal members and second to descendants and Johnson-O’Malley Program students, Taylor said.

Several years ago, the Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council identified attendance issues as a priority. Out of that grew the Truancy Team, a coalition of representatives from the school district, the Southern Ute Education Department, Southern Ute Social Services and the Tribal Court. They work together to help students and their families develop a plan to get to school consistently.

“If a kid has an attendance issue, we do everything possible that we can,” Fuschetto said.

Last year, the tribe and district added a new element. Recognizing that an existing truancy officer position did little to address the issue, they agreed to rework the job as a social worker, adding education credentials to its qualifications.

“There’s more to the attendance issue than just not getting up,” Taylor said. “There could be family things. There could be transportation issues. There could be social-emotional issues.”

The job is funded half by the district and half by the tribe. Jaceson Cole, who possesses a master’s degree in social work, took the position and has since been working with students and families.

“He’s starting to build a relationship with the whole family,” Taylor said. “The parent piece was not really looked at hard. It was known in the back of everybody’s heads, but I don’t think people wanted to approach that.”

“It’s been very successful,” Fuschetto said. “Native American students had a better attendance rate than the rest of the students.”

Over the past two school years, all but one eligible Southern Ute student have graduated from high school, Taylor said.

For her part, Taylor said Fuschetto has been a valuable addition to the school district.

“Because Rocco has seen how much the school has given to the school and he respects that, he wants to give back to us,” she said. “He’ll do things for our employees. He’ll include us in the same trainings that his employees have to go through.”

Fuschetto is also a member of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, the state’s conduit between Native Americans and the governor’s office. Taylor said he has worked with her to push for more Southern Ute history in elementary school classes.

“I think that has helped,” she said, adding that in recent years the state has made mandatory the teaching of indigenous history in fourth-grade classrooms in public schools.

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