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New Ute Mountain charter school hosts meet-and-greet

Kwiyagat Community Academy to start kindergarten and first grade instruction in the fall
Officials hosted a meet and greet barbecue at Veterans Park in Towaoc Wednesday to inform locals about Kwiyagat Community Academy. (Anthony Nicotera/ The Journal)

Planners and staff for the newly created Kwiyagat Community Academy in Towaoc hosted a barbecue meet-and-greet for potential students and their parents on Wednesday.

Attendees were treated to hot dogs and cold beverages in Veterans Park while they discussed the potential of a school that will emphasize Ute identity as the core of its curriculum. The introduction of the school is the first step in planners’ ambitious long-term goal to create a full “education quadrant” in Towaoc.

While the school will start in the existing education building with kindergarten and first grade, officials hope to build a full K-12 campus and college, public library, archives center and vocational workshops.

Renovations of the current education building, where the school will be this fall, will include the building of two separate classrooms and updated bathrooms.

In November, the Response Innovation and Student Equity Fund awarded the Ute Mountain tribe $2.7 million to support Kwiyagat Community Academy and to integrate STEAM curriculum into Ute arts, language and culture.

Kwiyagat also received a $210,500 grant from the Colorado Charter School Program for planning and design. The funding allows for the purchase of curriculum materials, facility upgrades and playground equipment.

The tribe envisions a new building for the Kwiyagat Community Academy and will embark on a capital campaign to raise the funding.

Like all charter schools, the academy is bound by Colorado Department of Education standards, and receives state funding. But it will have more flexibility in its curriculum and instruction approach.

“What we want to do is have our language and culture embedded in our curriculum so that the kids are learning about who they are as a native person,” said school board member Tina King-Washington.

An additional grade level will be added to Kwiyagat every year.

“We’re not stopping,” King-Washington said. “We’re going all the way.”

Dan Porter, head of school at Kwiyagat Community Academy. Porter has more than 25 years of experience as a teacher, school counselor, principal, human resources director and assistant superintendent in Montezuma-Cortez School District. RE-1 (Anthony Nicotera/ The Journal)

Longtime Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1 educator Dan Porter, who was recently named to head the school, was optimistic Wednesday about what can be accomplished.

Porter plans to implement a curriculum of “expeditionary learning,” a project-based type of program in which students spend more than a day on a particular unit. Students may be asked a “guiding question” that they must explore and eventually answer in their studies. This may include include incorporating activities like dance or music into projects.

Porter believes that RE-1 does a comprehensive job of preparing its students, but a charter school in Towaoc that teaches Ute culture will be especially effective.

“I absolutely love the RE-1 school system,” Porter said. “But culturally, it was always tough because you’ve got so much more on your plate. Just having a unit on the Ute culture isn’t enough. There’s a lot of proof that kids who learn in an indigenous tongue and are taught some culture really do well,” Porter said.

About 20 kids have been signed up. Officials look to start their first semester with 30 students. It will be a public school, open to all students.

“Anybody that has an interest in having their child around cultural language, music, tradition,” Porter said. “All those things. It’s open to everybody. It’s not just ‘Oh, you have to be Ute.’”

Jennifer Flaherty, who will teach kindergarden at Kwiyagat in the fall, believes that a good school is a source of community and relationships for those near it.

Kwiyagat Community Academy will place a strong emphasis on Ute language, music, art and history. “We’re Utes and we should be speaking Ute,” said language teacher Betty Howe.

“I’m just really excited.” Flaherty said. “I know it’s going to be a challenge. I know that this can be something huge for this community.”

Betty Howe has been teaching the Ute language for years to kids ranging from grades three to five. But as Kwiyagat’s language teacher, she will adjust her methods to reach kindergartners and first graders.

“It’s going to be a challenge at first,” Howe said. “I’ll overlook that and go around the obstacle. Once they start learning, once they start knowing their identity, for me it’s freedom. I am who I am. I’ve been ridiculed for being who I am, but I’ve always stood by what I am.”