Navajo school balances culture with college prep
MONUMENT VALLEY, Utah (AP) — Music teacher Jeremy Johnson instructs his piano students on proper concert etiquette as they listen to a classmate play a tune from the musical "Cats."
Lean forward. Listen attentively. Applaud, he says.
"Even if you are totally bored out of your head, sit up in your seat," Johnson says, perched on the edge of his own as students take turns practicing in the auditorium for an upcoming recital.
Hours later, Johnson is with another group of students who stay after school once a week to learn to play the elegantly simple, carved native flute. They work with a prominent Navajo musician, Vince Redhouse, via Skype from his home in Seattle.
From common courtesies to indigenous instruments, Monument Valley High School in southeastern Utah's San Juan District has a broad mission.
The school, which has grades seven-12, must prepare its 216 students, who grow up amid the Navajo Nation's iconic red mesas, for success in the wider world: jobs, college, trade school, Anglo culture.
But it also must teach the Navajo language and traditions as a result of federal lawsuits, beginning in the 1970s, that accused the district of unequal treatment of American-Indian students.
The challenge for Sylvia McMillan, hired this school year to be the struggling high school's "transformational principal," is to hew close to the second mission while dramatically improving performance of the first.
"We can view them as competing," says McMillan."But we don't want to. We want the best of all worlds for these kids."
Monument Valley High, according to Utah's new School Grades accountability system, is a failure.
It was slapped with an "F'' grade in the fall, joining Kearns High as the only two traditional high schools in the bottom 15. (The others were an online school and alternative high schools, which serve at-risk students.)
Monument Valley's elementary, Tse'bii'nidzisgai School, also got an F, scoring dead last among 555 grade schools in the state.
The grades are based on student achievement in math, language arts and science, as well as graduation rates — measures by which American Indians lag across the nation.
Frustrated by years of small gains that could not keep Monument Valley High on pace with academic improvement elsewhere in Utah, the San Juan District school board took a dramatic step.
It adopted what federal education officials call a "transformational model" to try to fix the school's problems, which meant replacing the beloved principal of three decades and half the school's 16 teachers.
The move angered parents, who also were stung by the suggestion that their children were academically inferior.
Racial tension is always just below the surface here, where county and school government is seen as dominated by minority whites. American Indians comprise 52 percent of San Juan County's population.
The shake-up exposed old wounds, including grievances behind lawsuits that forced the San Juan District, based in Blanding, to build Monument Valley and other Navajo Reservation schools beginning in the 1980s.
But it also gave the school a fresh start, says Superintendent Douglas E. Wright.
It put Monument Valley High in the running for Title I School Improvement Grants, which could mean $600,000 to $800,000 for the school during the next three years. And it will send district and school administrators this spring and summer to a boot camp: The Partnership for Leaders in Education at the University of Virginia.
The school had a climate that was too comfortable with mediocre achievement, says Wright. "We want to see dramatic differences in performance."
Nelson Yellowman, a school board member from Monument Valley, says, "We can do better. Why not us?"
Monument Valley High students grow up in a world that is both beautiful and harsh.
They live in trailers, modest stucco homes and hogans spread across nearly 30 square miles, passing daily by mesas and buttes known the world over from the many movies — including 2013's "The Lone Ranger" starring Johnny Depp — filmed here.
Ninth-grader VanteJren Atene sometimes rides his horse to school from his home near Oljato Wash, 10 miles to the northwest. On a day in late January, a windstorm made his ride home, with girlfriend McKalette Clark and buddy Jaydon Yazzie, a gritty, grinding one.
The school has a corral and provides hay and water.
Nearly a third of Monument Valley High's students have no electricity and/or no indoor plumbing at home.
Their families raise sheep and goats for wool and meat. They make money catering to tourists at the handful of motels and restaurants, cashiering at Goulding's trading post and other stores, weaving baskets or guiding horseback trips among the monuments.
The school is one of the most remote in the nation, which locals jokingly measure by the time it takes to drive to the nearest Wal-Mart. Page, Ariz., is nearly two hours away; Cortez, Colo., is slightly farther.
Parents who can't make a living on the reservation are often gone for long stretches working out of state, perhaps on a welding job in Texas or at a California construction site.
More than half in this Title I school fall below the federal poverty level, qualifying for free and reduced price breakfasts and lunches.
Some, like senior Remington Begay, are immersed in American-Indian culture. His father is Comanche; his mother is Navajo.
He wears his hair in a long braid, an arrowhead necklace around his neck and a wide silver bow-guard that belonged to his grandfather on his wrist.
Outside school, Begay breaks horses for a trail-ride business and leads customers on horseback tours, sometimes stopping in a cave to improvise melodies on his flute, the haunting notes echoing off the walls.
On weekends, Begay says, he joins in Native American Church ceremonies in tepees or hogans, where peyote is shared.
Other students are less anchored in the Navajo culture.
Though hundreds of miles from the nearest city, Monument Valley's students have many of the same problems as their urban peers: alcohol and drug abuse, teenage pregnancy.
"It's like an inner-city school," McMillan says, "but we're in the middle of nowhere."
Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com
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