SUIMA celebrates 15 years

1. A groundbreaking ceremony was held for the SunUte Community Center and Southern Ute Indian Academy on Monday, October 25, 1999. The ceremonial groundbreaking included Southern Ute Tribal Council, educators, and Southern Ute elders. This year marks SUIMA’s 15-year anniversary.
2. The entire 29-member staff of the Southern Ute Indian Academy stands facing the audience after being introduced during the ribbon cutting ceremonies on August 31, 2000 in Veterans Park.
Jenny Gummersall|SU Drum Archive
Dave Brown |SU Drum Archives

September 5, 2015 will mark 15-years since the grand opening of the Southern Ute Indian Montessori Academy (SUIMA). A total of 83 students ranging from infants to Lower Elementary, occupied the campus eager to learn through the Montessori method.

Initial planning for the Academy began in the late 90’s with a group of elders voicing their concerns to Tribal Council. These concerns ranged from the quality of education that was being received by tribal members in public schools, to a desire to implement culture and language for young tribal members benefit.

“It was decided [by those in Tribal Council] that the Montessori would be the best method to teach with, along with the culture,” Carol Baker-Olguin, Principal of the Academy said. “When that Tribal Council selected the Montessori method, it was because it had more in tune and very similar to the method that taught in the traditional Ute teaching.”

For those whom are not familiar with the Montessori method of teaching, Maria Montessori first introduced it in the late 1800’s. The method has a more hands on approach to education and learning, with the students being the driving force behind the “specialized” curriculum. The curriculum features more independence for students, classes with a three-year age range, and a child-centered environment.

“Our native people learn from hands on, than from a book,” Ute Language Design Coordinator, Georgia McKinley said. “They learn from the environment which is why we take them on trips for learning.”

The Southern Ute Indian Montessori Academy was not the first Montessori school in the Southern Ute Community. Prior to development in July of 1999, the Head Start was one of the first schools to use the Montessori method.

Blue Sky Montessori school was another program developed around 1997 and helped pave the way for the development and success of the Academy, and included the grades from pre-K to third grade. Blue Sky was housed in the modular buildings near the Higher Education buildings and was overseen by past Ignacio School District Superintendent, Juvie Jones and financed by the tribe.

“Blue Sky was the model,” Baker-Olguin said. “We were trying it out to see if the parents would be interested in a program like this. Those non-tribal students went to public school and those tribal students went to the Academy [once it opened] or public school.”

Once SUIA was opened, Blue Sky was closed down but the Montessori philosophy was transferred to the Academy for the benefit of students as well as a language and culture program.

For the past 15 years, SUIMA has held education, culture, and language to the core of their methods and teachings. For most students these values have had many benefits along with helping keep Ute culture and language alive for future generations.

“For older kids, they can grasp the basics of the language and can have an easier time communicating with elders,” McKinley said. “The kids can put things together and may not understand the language but can understand pieces and put two and two together.”

Students also benefit from the Academy by learning the Ute culture and customs, from everything to: Bear Dance, gender roles, and restrictions.

“On of the big differences we had [from public school] was that we were all in one class. We would only move class from P.E. to Language which I liked,” Randy Herrera, council member of the Sunshine Cloud Smith Youth Council and former SUIMA student said when asked about the differences from private to public school systems.

Herrera is one of many students who went to SUIMA from primary to sixth grade, and transitioned to public school from seventh grade onward. Herrera enjoyed the Ute language aspect and believed it was one of the biggest benefits from attending SUIMA, he said.

For the last 15 years, these core values have remained a dominant factor in the quality of education that is presented, many hope that these values will continue in the next 15 years. For Baker-Olguin, the need for the next generation to begin pursuing the field of education has never been greater to continue on the core values of the Academy. Baker-Olguin has other hopes.

“The number of kids is almost at our limit, but I want more enrolled children to enroll,” Baker-Olguin said. “Although we meet the needs of all kids, there is always the older kids who need ‘more’ for their educational needs.”

With this Baker-Olguin wants to include new facilities such as; a computer lab, science lab, library, and more playground space for the academy in the future.

“It has been very enjoyable to see all the students from the last 15 years grow up and graduate and be successful,” Baker-Olguin said.“Even those students who do not end up graduating have my blessings and hope for success!”

There will be a 15-year Anniversary Celebration for SUIMA on Friday, Sept. 18.

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