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.
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 held Sept. 3. 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’ generation is not the first to feel this way about public 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.
But a school with teachers who are Native, and peers who 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 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 community surveys, 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 also is partnering with the academy to provide access to resources and best practices, as well as to create a safety plan for students.
Representatives from the Charter School Institute sat in on the meeting. The design team for Kwiyagat Community Academy submitted an application to the institute last month and is waiting to find out whether the academy will be credentialed to ensure it is meeting 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,” she said.
The Kwiyagat Community Academy aims to open in fall 2021 with a kindergarten and first grade class. The school will add a new grade each year until it has the K-5 grade levels.
FLC hopes to work with the academy. Native student teachers from FLC are going to Towaoc to assist students with online learning.
“We hope they stay and become teachers for the school,” said Tina King-Washington, education director for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.