By Marit Gookin

Staff Writer

Joseph Fountain spoke to a classroom of teachers during his “Fierce Healing – Honoring Resilience in Traumatized Indigenous Students” workshop at CWC Friday.

Some of the schools on the Wind River Reservation are struggling; this isn’t a new problem, but it is an important one. Across the nation, Native American students often score lower than the average on tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Native American students also encounter other problems at disproportionate rates, experiencing higher rates of homelessness and hunger.

“We have too many of our students … withdraw from family, withdraw from community, withdraw from school,” Sergio Maldonado Sr. remarked when speaking at the Native American Educational Conference held at Central Wyoming College this past week. “They live with that and yet they endure, they survive … Our students don’t only survive, and yet they do meet their goals.” 

Other presenters at the conference echoed this sentiment of students’ basic needs needing to be met before they can fully engage with their education. “You can’t learn when you’re hungry,” observed Becky Marquardt, a former teacher who now works for Tribal Tech, LLC, a government-contracted company that helps administer the National Indian Education Survey. When she was teaching, she said, she once had a year when there were eight kids in foster care in her class. “I would have what I call a ‘mini-buffet’ in the background … and that really helped me develop that relationship with those kids, and they came to school more.”

“As of today we cannot account for 1,000 students,” Maldonado told the Wyoming state legislature’s Select Committee on Intertribal Relations at its July meeting. He pointed out that when he taught in Arizona, having that many students unaccounted for in an area would be considered a major problem, and would probably result in some kind of taskforce or federal involvement; in Wyoming, and especially on the Wind River Reservation, unaccounted-for students are common enough to be unremarkable. “Does Wyoming care about our students less than Arizona does? I believe that Wyoming does care.”

He explained that there are many factors impacting student outcomes on the reservation that are beyond the control of educators. These “nuisance factors,” as he referred to them, are often related to issues such as poverty and parental absence. For example, many students on the reservation come to school hungry, and may not have a permanent place to sleep but instead are “couch-surfing,” bouncing from residence to residence sleeping on the couches of friends and relatives. 

Maldonado also emphasized that early literacy rates are often a key indicator of future academic success; as Representative Ember Oakley pointed out at the Intertribal Relations Committee meeting, some school districts on the Wind River Reservation have very low literacy rates, with one school district having only 5% of its students test at a proficient or advanced reading level in the 2021-22 Wyoming Test of Proficiency and Progress (WY-TOPP) assessment. Maldonado stated that being able to read at a third-grade level by the time a student leaves third grade is important, because if they haven’t learned to read by that point, for the rest of their educational career “they won’t be learning, they’ll be learning to read.” 

Maldonado’s emphasis on early literacy isn’t coming out of nowhere; educational research supports his claims that learning to read at a grade-appropriate level when you’re young is one of the most important factors in later academic success or failure. On its website, Ball State University explains that “experts tell us a child’s ability to read at grade level by third grade is the single greatest predictor of future success, because this is when they transition from learning to read to reading to learn.”

To the Intertribal Relations Committee, Maldonado suggested that the school districts should change how their money is spent, and that the tribes could step in to help, as well. “The money isn’t the problem, the problem is how it’s used,” he told them. There should be more teachers and paraprofessionals per classroom, especially in the lower grades, so key components of early education such as reading and basic math can be worked on in small groups. He also suggested that weekly “parental education” classes could help educate parents of struggling students, and that the tribal business councils could hold weekly meetings with the public in order to solicit public input and come up with specific action items based on this feedback.

The 2021-22 results for Fremont County schools aren’t all bad; some actually have fairly high literacy rates. One attendee at Maldonado’s presentation at the conference described her own experience with a similar issue in South Dakota, where they discovered that the same students would succeed at certain schools and struggle on the same state tests when attending other schools. The major factor in South Dakota, she said, turned out to be consistency. Many students were moving from school district to school district as they moved from home to home, and the schools they tended to find academic success at were the ones that had standardized curriculum – so the students could pick back up exactly where they left off when they came to a new school. 

Getting kids engaged can also be a primary factor in their academic success; while what works to build rapport with one student may not work for another, with Native American students expressing respect for their culture can sometimes go a long way. Incorporating language, history and other topics related to this cultural heritage can also help students connect with and relate to the material.

The question of testing is also an important one, with many educators feeling that reservation schools need their own testing system as WY-TOPP doesn’t account for the differences in education on the reservation. For example, students on the reservation often spend time learning about the Arapaho and Shoshone languages and cultures – subjects which are not present on the WY-TOPP tests but which are important to majority-Native American schools. Maldonado suggested that creating their own testing system could go hand-in-hand with other solutions, working to improve literacy rates, increase community engagement and develop a reservation-specific testing system simultaneously. 

Maldonado said that the road to change may be a difficult one, particularly in a state like Wyoming. “There is this xenophobic notion with too many people in Wyoming – they are frightened of change, they are frightened of difference,” he commented. But, he said, just because implementing change may be hard doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing. 

“This has been going on for five generations, for five decades. Do we wait another five decades?” he asked the room full of educators at the conference. He then voiced the general consensus of the room: “We can’t wait.”