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A look into Kwiyagat Community Academy’s first year

A mural painted on the wall of what will soon become the new kindergarten classroom at Kwiyagat Community Academy.
And a preview of what’s to come for the state’s first public Native charter school

Colorado’s first public Native American reservation charter school is in its flagship year, and while Kwiyagat Community Academy has come a long way since its inaugural day Aug. 23, it’s still expanding.

The early learning establishment teaching Ute Mountain Ute culture and language on the tribe’s reservation in Towaoc is forging a path forward for Native students.

As tribal council member Lyndreth Wall put it, KCA is “reversing” the bleak boarding school period that saw tribal students shipped off their reservations and “stifled” whenever they spoke their native language.

Now, young Native American minds have the opportunity to begin their schooling on their reservation. And they are taught to embrace their culture – not shy away from it.

Children participate in 40 minutes of cultural lessons a day, in activities that include learning letters or beating drums.

“Ideally we want culture to be all day long, not just 40 minutes,” said Head of School Dan Porter.

Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council member Lyndreth Wall, left, and Kwiyagat Community Academy Principal Dan Porter pose with student artwork displayed on a school’s wall.

But Ute Mountain Ute culture is woven into school days in other ways.

It is seen in the way the school mirrors nature.

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For example, as part of the school’s continuing expansion, children will soon be encouraged to resolve conflict with a nature-based “peace path” under construction outside the school. It will be lined with plants key to Native culture.

The school also follows Ute celebrations.

The last day of school is June 3 to coordinate with the tribe’s Bear Dance, a Native tradition that celebrates spring and the awakening of the spirit of the bear.

The school is open to any student – not just members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

And it’s enrolling for next year, particularly for its new kindergarten class.

“The door’s open for them,” Wall said.

The school will have a new second grade class at the start of the 2022-2023 school year. It plans to add a new grade each year through fifth grade.

KCA strikes a “balance with the modern, outside world” and the traditions of the sovereign nation, Wall said.

The school is accredited by the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Charter School Institute.

It launched in August with 23 kindergarten and first grade students in a temporary modular building. It now has 27.

Since then, classes have moved into the school’s official building. Outside the front doors, the handprints of its first students, pressed into the concrete, welcome visitors.

The school also switched to four-day weeks in January to align with Cortez schools.

Student handprints pressed into the concrete lining Kwiyagat Community Academy.

Teaching students the Ute language, Shoshonean, is a core value. Transference of the language has dwindled, marred by the forced assimilation rooted in the tribe’s boarding school era and the loss of elders who were fluent in it.

As it turns out, teaching children the Ute language has influenced their parents, too.

“Their child is coming home and telling them these words,” Porter said.

“That’s the most rewarding effort that KCA is doing for our children,” Wall added.

It’s estimated that there are now a little over 110 Ute Mountain Utes fluent in the language.

A spoken-word dictionary released in November with more than 10,000 enunciated words marked another significant effort to revitalize the language.

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One of the most rewarding moments in the school’s first year came when Porter saw a child welcome a visitor fully in Ute.

“I’m Ute. I present myself in Ute. Shoulder back, head held high – that’s what we’re after. It’s happening,” Porter said.

The way Wall describes it, the Ute language “is like the contour of Sleeping Ute Mountain.” Like others in the tribe, he doesn’t want to see it lost on emerging generations.

When it comes to school leadership, Porter’s a hands-on principal. He believes in project-based learning in conjunction with core curriculum.

When The Journal visited KCA, Porter’s truck bed was filled with lumber for a woodworking project with the students.

And he encourages open lines of communication with the children.

“My office is mainly the kids’ home,” he said.

In it are small, child-size wooden desks where he encourages students to sit and tell him about their days – and any issue they may need to resolve.

Children are also encouraged to “self-regulate” with practices like breathing exercises or warrior poses. They serve as additional measures aimed at preventing punishment wherever possible.

When The Journal visited the school, a girl walked up and said “hello” with a hug.

She’s come a long way socially, after being forgotten at school three times instead of making it onto the school bus in Cortez, Porter said.

Fresh off a 25-year career in the Montezuma-Cortez School District, Porter made it clear that he’s an advocate for Cortez schools, and Montezuma-Cortez school board members have visited the school, he said.

But, KCA offers Native children a different learning experience that more closely ties to their culture.

The school’s expansion is a long-term effort. For instance, next week Wall is attending a legislative conference in Denver to speak on behalf of the school and advocate for more funding. Tribal Council member Selwyn Whiteskunk also serves as a liaison for the school.

A playground is in the works, and Porter said it will help refine the children’s gross and fine motor skills. One day, the school hopes to add a library.

“Everybody’s coming together to make these things happen,” Porter said.

Porter and Wall spoke highly of KCA’s teachers. The school is recruiting reading specialists, a part-time special education teacher and a classroom teacher.

“I enjoy the energy and the success that each educator does for KCA,” Wall said. “It’s continuing to go forward.”

And, like other nearby districts, the school is considering increases to teacher pay amid a new $50,000 starting salary for teachers in New Mexico.

Of course, the teaching experience at KCA is a unique one, Porter said. And teachers engage their students in relatively expansive classrooms.

“We’ve done a good job outfitting classrooms,” Porter said.

Richard Fulton, retired dean of the Fort Lewis College School of Education and former charter school principal, helps the school with grant writing and project management.

Ute Mountain Ute council member Lyndreth Wall, left, and grant writer and project manager Richard Fulton pose in front of Kwiyagat Community Academy.

Like many others, he has “big dreams” for the school’s future.

“We need this education now,” Fulton said, adding that the school is “bringing back the traditions, the customs” that were once discouraged in boarding schools.

“We know where we come from,” Wall said. “And when we know where we come from, we have a better foundation.”

Wall expects many stories of language, culture and curriculum to emanate from the school’s red and yellow walls.

“I want KCA to survive, and it will survive,” he said.