A Fort Lewis College student from Towaoc gave a heartfelt explanation of the need for a charter school on the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe reservation during a virtual community meeting with tribal members on Thursday evening.
Dyllon Mills, who is studying public health and business administration at FLC, said he is grateful for the education opportunities he was given. But the opportunities came “at the cost of my culture,” Mills said.
Despite his success in school, he was “still missing a big chunk” of himself, Mills said during the meeting. The Montezuma-Cortez public schools “didn’t make me understand how to value my culture,” which created “doubt in my success,” Mills said.
Operating and running a charter school, the Kwiyagat (Bear) Community Academy, that focuses on Ute and Nuchiu language and culture is an “opportunity for us to become better,” Mills said.
Mills’s generation is not the first to feel this way about Anglo-run schools.
Betty Howe, an Elder in the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, said it is a challenge to be a minority in a public school. Native American students feel “not too confident in themselves,” and that’s why “we sit in the back,” Howe said during the Zoom meeting on Thursday.
But a school with teachers that are Native, and peers that are Native, is “very important to us, to the children, to the future,” Howe said.
“A lot of our Elders… we’re dying, and we’re taking our language and culture with us,” Howe said.
The Kwiyagat Community Academy will have a learning process in which families, Elders and other community members can pass on knowledge to a new generation.
“It will keep the children proud of who they are,” Howe said.
The meeting on Thursday was held to answer questions and receive feedback from community members, though much of the development process for the school has been community-led through various informational gatherings.
The core values of the school, such as Ute culture and language and healthy minds and bodies, came from surveys of the community, said Sherrell Lang, a fellow with the Native American Community Academy and a member of the Kwiyagat Community Academy design team.
The NACA-Inspired Schools Network is also partnering with the academy to provide access to resources and best practices, as well as create a safety plan for the students.
Representatives from the Charter School Institute also sat in on the meeting. The design team for Kwiyagat Community Academy submitted their application to the Institute last month, and is waiting to find out whether the academy will be credentialed by the organization to ensure it is meeting the proper academic and operational standards.
While there are about 30 charter schools on reservations across the nation, the Kwiyagat Community Academy is the first charter school to apply to the Colorado Charter School Institute for support and accreditation.
Janet Dinnen, Chief of Staff at CSI, said the review team for the charter school’s application will include someone with a background in Native American culture and education.
“Our practices give schools autonomy while holding them to the same standards,” Dinnen said.
The Kwiyagat Community Academy aims to open in the fall of 2021 with a kindergarten class and a first grade class. The school will add a new grade each year until it has the K-5 grade levels.
FLC is also interested in partnering with the academy in whatever way it can. Already, Native student teachers from FLC are going to Towaoc to assist students with their online learning.
“We hope they stay and become teachers for the school,” Tina King-Washington, education director for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, said in the meeting.