This piece is a part of a collaborative reporting venture known as Lesson Plans: Rural faculties grapple with COVID-19 created in partnership with the Institute for Nonprofit Information and a number of other member newsrooms. The venture is made doable by a grant from the Walton Household Basis.


Earlier than class on a heat and sunny December morning, eight kindergarten college students at Schurz Elementary College listened quietly because the Shoshone Indian Flag track performed over their laptop screens. 

The lyrics, translated to English from the Shoshone language, imply, “Throughout the large water, the pink, white and blue is fluttering within the wind. Conflict spear thrown within the floor by a overseas water.”

That is how college students start their digital faculty day on the Walker River reservation, which spans 325,000 acres throughout the Nevada desert, east of Yerington and north of Hawthorne. Surrounded by mountains, the river valley is dwelling to a bit of greater than 1,000 individuals. And 69 of the 72 college students who attend Schurz Elementary College, which sits on the reservation, are American Indian.

The college’s principal, Lance West, who’s filling in for a trainer on medical depart, waits for the track to complete earlier than diving into conventional teachers: finding out the alphabet, figuring out nouns and studying with companions. 

The college operates on a hybrid schedule in response to the pandemic, with some college students studying in particular person in school and others related just about from dwelling, break up into morning and afternoon periods. On this morning, West is within the classroom talking to a pc display, with the kindergarteners’ faces staring again at him.

Schurz Elementary College Principal Lance West teaches kindergarteners, who’re distance studying, sight phrases on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Impartial)

The small, empty room appears like most kindergarten lecture rooms, full of colourful wall artwork, rugs with numbers and letters, miniature tables and chairs match for 5-year-olds. However a tribal drum and a poster depicting Native American youngsters, adults and elders distinguish the house as a classroom on a Native reservation. 

The general public faculty, which is a part of the Mineral County College District, is about two hours southeast of Reno. The distant location jibes with a 2010 Civil Rights Mission report, which discovered that American Indian college students usually tend to attend faculty in rural areas than non-Native college students. Moreover, a couple of third of Native college students nationwide attend faculties by which a minimum of half the coed inhabitants is American Indian.

A poster within the Schurz Elementary College kindergarten classroom exhibits a Native American neighborhood. (Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez/The Nevada Impartial)

Of the varsity’s six lecturers, 4 are Native American, 5 when you rely Principal West. 

Though he’s an enrolled member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, West grew up on this neighborhood on the Walker River reservation, his household break up between the 2 tribes and reservations. He as soon as sat in the identical miniature seats as those on this classroom.

His path to the principal gig on Walker River reservation wasn’t direct. He lived and taught in faculties throughout Northern Nevada — in Reno, Fort McDermitt and Spring Creek — for 17 years earlier than returning to the reservation. He got here with a singular purpose of enhancing training for the younger Native individuals in his neighborhood, and subsequently contributing to the neighborhood at massive, and for the long term. 

“Nobody’s preventing for us,” West stated. “Nicely, arduous sufficient. In order that’s form of the place my push is now, and in all places I’m going, I am at all times speaking about Indian training.” 

However enhancing training for Native college students is a frightening process for a single particular person to sort out, weighed down by historic disparities that can not be resolved or remedied in a single day. Nationally and statewide, American Indian college students have low commencement charges, excessive dropout charges, low math and studying proficiency scores and sometimes don’t see themselves mirrored of their lecturers, a lot of whom are white.  

Principal Lance West contained in the Schurz Elementary College kindergarten classroom on Dec. 1, 2020. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Impartial)

It’s a scenario, West stated, constructed on years of systemic racism — the identical racism behind federal boarding faculties, the place younger Native youngsters have been separated from their households and compelled to assimilate into American tradition and society. Take into account what Indian College Secretary John B. Riley stated in 1886:

“Schooling affords the true resolution to the Indian drawback … solely by full isolation of the Indian baby from his savage antecedents can he be satisfactorily educated.”

Greater than a century later, Native college students nonetheless discover themselves dealing with prejudice in different varieties, West stated.

“There’s a very good ol’ boy system that exists and the system isn’t designed, by no means was designed for minorities or individuals of coloration to be totally profitable as they need to be,” West stated. “There’s a racist system, if we’re talking clearly, notably towards American Indian populations. Our children, they’re minimized.” 

He’s on a mission to vary that. His journey simply occurs to coincide with a tumultuous interval within the historical past of the nation’s Ok-12 training system, which has been rattled by the pandemic. 

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In Nevada, there are virtually 4,000 American Indian and Alaskan Native college students from pre-kindergarten by 12th grade. It’s the smallest ethnic group. By comparability, Nevada’s faculty methods embody greater than 7,000 Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander college students, 26,000 Asian college students, 56,000 Black college students, 209,000 Hispanic college students and 144,000 white college students.

Nationally, American Indian and Alaskan Native college students make up a bit of greater than 1 p.c of public faculty college students, or roughly 644,000 college students in kindergarten by 12th grade. About 90 p.c of all Native college students attend public faculties, and about eight p.c attend faculties operated by the Bureau of Indian Schooling, beneath the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

There are 183 faculties throughout the nation in 23 states funded by the Bureau of Indian Schooling, together with two in Nevada — a junior and senior highschool on the Pyramid Lake reservation north of Reno and an elementary faculty on the Duckwater reservation south of Eureka. Different faculties ruled by native districts and the Nevada Division of Schooling — like Schurz Elementary College — educate a big share of Native college students.

Bettering training for these college students is the precedence for Nevada Native leaders, corresponding to West, who say they can’t depend on native, state or federal organizations to take the initiative. 

“I believe that the subject, the problem of training in Indian Nation, in Nevada, has at all times been close to the underside. It is at all times been in another person’s arms, however on the similar time these different individuals’s arms do not have our greatest pursuits in thoughts, as a result of they’ve their very own,” West stated. 

Mineral County college students path their friends in different districts relating to educational achievement. Through the 2018-2019 faculty 12 months — the newest 12 months of testing knowledge — solely 23 p.c of Mineral County college students have been proficient in math and 39 p.c have been proficient in English Language Arts. Statewide, 37 p.c of scholars hit proficiency benchmarks for math, whereas 48 p.c did the identical for English Language Arts. 

At Schurz Elementary College, the achievement hole is much more seen. When 20 college students in grades three by sixth took statewide standardized checks in 2019, none of them met proficiency benchmarks for math, and solely 10 p.c did for English Language Arts.

Nevada mountains are seen from the Schurz Elementary College kindergarten classroom, together with Thanksgiving decorations made by college students, on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Impartial)

Of the greater than 500 college students within the Mineral County College District, 76 are American Indian or Alaskan Native. 

Nationally, 19 p.c of American Indian and 25 p.c of Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander college students examined at or above proficiency ranges in studying in comparison with 57 p.c of Asian college students and 45 p.c of white college students, in response to the Nationwide Evaluation of Academic Progress. 

The achievement hole can also be mirrored in disparities in commencement and dropout charges. 

Nevada’s total commencement price noticed a dip this 12 months, and American Indian college students constantly have decrease commencement charges than most different racial teams apart from Black college students. In 2018, almost 80 p.c of American Indian college students in Nevada graduated, adopted by a drop in 2019 and 2020, when 74 p.c of American Indian college students graduated each years. That mirrors nationwide commencement price developments lately.

Native college students are underrepresented in commencement charges, and overrepresented in dropout charges. In 2018, amongst college students ages 16 to 24, American Indian college students had the very best nationwide dropout price: 10 p.c of scholars, in comparison with 4.eight p.c of white college students. 

The scenario creates a pure ripple impact for post-secondary training. Of the greater than 600 individuals over the age of 25 residing on the Walker River reservation, an estimated 86 p.c have accomplished highschool, however solely 5.7 p.c have a bachelor’s diploma or greater.

The tutorial disparities contribute to cycles of poverty on reservations, the place unemployment charges are excessive and charges of dwelling possession are low. 

Previous to the pandemic, the unemployment price on the Walker River reservation stood at 22 p.c, whereas the statewide unemployment price was 3.7 p.c in December 2019. 

Moreover, the median family earnings for the reservation from 2015 to 2019 was a bit of greater than $30,000, whereas the median family earnings in Nevada was double that, at greater than $60,000 throughout the identical time interval. Of all households residing on the reservation, an estimated 39 p.c stay under the poverty stage, together with almost 57 p.c of households with school-age youngsters. 

Entering Schurz, Nevada, U.S. 95“Coming into Schurz, Nevada, U.S. 95” by Ken Lund is licensed beneath CC BY-SA 2.0

Different troubling disparities linked to low commencement and excessive dropout charges embody greater than common incarceration and suicide charges amongst Native youth. 

The tutorial, financial and psychological well being disparities among the many Native inhabitants are historic and decades-long. Native leaders acknowledge the fact of those disparities, however to pave a method ahead, they need to shift the main focus from the disparities, which some say have created dangerous stereotypes, to options, visibility and empowerment. 

In 2018, principal West created the Indigenous Educators Empowerment group to spice up conversations about and assist for Native lecturers.  Since then, West has centered on reaching out to different Native educators throughout the state to affix him and construct a powerful basis, which incorporates compiling the analysis and knowledge essential to make progress. 

Final 12 months, the group additionally launched a report analyzing components that contribute to low educational achievement amongst Native college students. Among the many challenges: alternative gaps, systemic racism, low trainer expectations and {qualifications}, and a scarcity of culturally related curriculum addressing Native historical past and generational trauma.

“Society’s narrative of us revolves across the Deficit Ideology,” the report states. “… This ideology generalizes disparities corresponding to poverty, alcoholism, at-risk college students. We now have deliberately ignored these causes for low educational achievement of our college students out. They play a task, however to emphasise them would propagate stereotypes and labeling.”

The fence surrounding Schurz Elementary College options the varsity’s mascot as seen on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Impartial)

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The pandemic, after all, added a brand new wrinkle in Native leaders’ quest to dramatically enhance training. But it surely wasn’t all unhealthy.

Whereas the COVID-19 pandemic has typically intensified present disparities, each West and Schurz Elementary College trainer Kellie Harry stated the varsity’s response to the pandemic helped bridge the know-how hole, making the training materials extra accessible for college kids and their households. 

“No person’s lacking something,” stated Harry, who teaches fifth- and sixth-graders. 

Previous to the pandemic, 80 p.c of households on the Walker River reservation had a pc, however solely 60 p.c had entry to broadband web service. Now, each single household with a pupil has a pc or a Chromebook and web entry. 

The Walker River Paiute Tribe obtained greater than $20 million from the CARES Act and put a few of these funds towards guaranteeing college students would have what they wanted to distance study from dwelling. Tribal members may apply to obtain $4,000 month-to-month stipends to assist cushion the financial blow attributable to the pandemic and assist pay for the web service. 

The fiscal cliff — a Dec. 31 deadline for utilizing CARES Act funding — had anxious Amber Torres, chairman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe. If that cash abruptly went away, she questioned how households would have the ability to keep web service throughout distance studying.

“We don’t have that form of cash mendacity round to proceed to pay for these houses,” she stated.

However the information that Congress permitted a $900 billion aid invoice on Dec. 21 introduced some welcome psychological aid to Torres and different tribal leaders. Torres described the laws, which was signed by the president and contains cash for increasing broadband companies, as “an absolute win for not solely Nevada however Indian Nation as a complete.”

From a day-to-day studying standpoint, although, Harry stated probably the most difficult a part of the pandemic was familiarizing the scholars and oldsters to the brand new know-how.

“The toughest transition was simply getting all people on board with the web and feeling snug. I believe there was numerous hesitancy and numerous concern on the house entrance, like, ‘Wait, how will we get on the web? How will we use the pc or the web platforms? Or what is the login and what’s this?’ I believe that was probably the most tough half, after which simply streamlining that.” 

A number of months later, after acclimating to the brand new studying mannequin, Harry has seen higher educational fairness in her classroom.

“Now our college students are at an equal taking part in subject. This introduced fairness to our college, distance studying did — getting all people on the web, getting all people on a Chromebook and having them be required to do the work that different five-star faculties or different faculties are doing,” she stated. 

Schurz Elementary College trainer Kellie Harry instructs fifth and sixth grade college students. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Impartial)

The brand new know-how expertise, she stated, can pay dividends down the street as college students enter junior excessive and past. Harry added that she’s not anxious a couple of lag in educational efficiency amongst her distance-learning college students. 

“The efficiency is similar. I’ve numerous distance learners who’re outpacing and maintaining and have made numerous development on their math scores and maintaining with all of the coursework simply as simply as in the event that they have been proper right here,” she stated. 

Older college students seem to have struggled extra with on-line studying. When college students graduate from Schurz Elementary College, which matches by sixth grade, they will select what neighboring faculty district to attend for higher grades. For college students on the Walker River reservation, that’s sometimes faculties in Hawthorne or Yerington, though some go farther north to Pyramid Lake. 

Yerington Excessive College, which is within the Lyon County College District, employs a university profession coach — with the assistance of a federal grant — who works completely with Native college students, stated Wayne Workman, the district’s superintendent. When the Lyon County College District started the 2020-2021 educational 12 months, solely choose pupil teams obtained in-person instruction 5 days every week. These teams included youngsters in kindergarten by second grade in addition to college students in special-education applications, studying English as a second language or experiencing homelessness. 

The choice boiled all the way down to house constraints whereas working beneath COVID-19 security tips, Workman stated. All different college students have been break up into cohorts that rotate between every week of in-person studying adopted by every week of on-line studying. 

However greater than 1 / 4 of Lyon County college students opted to stay in distance-education mode, giving faculties extra flexibility to increase in-person instruction, Workman stated. So by early October, Yerington Excessive College began welcoming again Native college students full time after noticing the hybrid mannequin wasn’t working nicely for them.

“In the event that they’re right here, I can encourage them to proceed on a profitable path,” stated Gerald Hunter, school and profession coach at Yerington Excessive College. “In the event that they’re dwelling, I’m competing with TV, meals, babysitting duties, different issues.”

Yerington Excessive College has 398 college students, together with 74 who’re Native American, in ninth- by 12th-grade. Hunter, who’s in his fourth 12 months serving as the school and profession coach, has watched self-discipline and truancy issues fall amongst Native college students, whereas seeing their educational achievement enhance. Final 12 months, 70 p.c of the varsity’s Native college students maintained a minimum of a 3.Zero grade-point common.

The vast majority of Native college students selected to return to in-person instruction 5 days every week, Hunter stated, and their grades have improved consequently. Some Native college students stay in distance training, although, due to well being issues amid the pandemic.

Whereas Hunter’s presence has helped increase educational achievement ranges amongst Native college students, Workman stated, it hasn’t been a cure-all. Offering further helps merely doesn’t reverse historical past and longstanding inequities which have led to Native college students trailing their friends academically.

“We might speak for hours as to explanation why that is perhaps the case,” he stated. “For goodness sakes — how we handled our Native populations ceaselessly in our historical past has led to numerous mistrust.”

Again on the reservation, Harry is hoping Schurz Elementary College can protect its pandemic-triggered 1-to-1 know-how ratio for college kids that’s confirmed to assist guarantee the standard of training for her college students.The good unknown, although, is how the varsity, like others throughout the state, will fare through the upcoming 2021 legislative session. 

“It’s simply retaining what we’ve got,” Principal West stated, particularly with the funds cuts coming.”

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Schurz Elementary College fifth-grade pupil Suiti Sanchez watches a video throughout class on Dec. 1, 2020. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Impartial)

Regardless of the grim circumstances attributable to the pandemic and an already slashed state training funds, West isn’t limiting his targets and imaginative and prescient for the way forward for Native training. 

When he created the Indigenous Educators Empowerment group, West had 4 targets — to spice up training consciousness among the many neighborhood, advocate for Indigenous training professionals, improve recruitment and mentorship for Indigenous educators and revitalize and protect Native language.

The 2020 Indigenous Educators Empowerment report gives suggestions for the right way to get there, corresponding to advocating for extra funding, bolster tribal and state chief involvement in efforts to enhance training and set up scholarships for tribal members concerned about changing into lecturers.

However West stated the whole lot hinges on extra knowledge and recordkeeping.  

Native college students belong to what Native leaders name the “Asterisk Nation,” due to the inhabitants’s small pattern measurement, American Indians are generally ignored of analysis and knowledge assortment. 

“The information is missing,” stated West. “How do you anticipate us to deal with training and search that enchancment that has by no means ever actually been a spotlight if we don’t have correct info?” 

Armed with extra dependable knowledge, Native leaders corresponding to West can present benchmarks and steerage for state and federal companies with reference to allocating funding and different sources for Native college students. Elevated knowledge can even make Native college students, their communities and the problems they face extra seen.

Lengthy-term targets additionally embody efforts to train academic sovereignty, particularly, by establishing a tribal constitution faculty on the reservation, starting with youthful youngsters and finally increasing to serve college students by highschool. With a constitution faculty, the tribe and academic leaders might take full possession and management of what their college students study and the way they study it — sovereignty. 

The opposite purpose is to determine “Indian Schooling for All” as state regulation, which means the state would require Native historical past and tradition to be included within the curriculum for all grades in public faculties. 

A poster that includes a Native girl and an inventory of verbs translated from English to Paiute hold on the cupboards of a classroom in Schurz Elementary College. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Impartial)

West has already began down that path at Schurz Elementary College, the place the curriculum contains extra Nevada Native historical past, to make sure the scholars study their id in a optimistic and empowering method. He’s additionally made it some extent to recruit extra Native educators to construct the illustration for the Native college students. 

“Our Indian youngsters right here have to see extra of themselves mirrored within the classroom and they should see Native lecturers,” West stated. 

West recruited Harry, who was beforehand instructing within the Washoe County College District at Depoali Center College in South Reno, two years in the past. Harry is an enrolled member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe as nicely, however half of her household grew up on the Walker River reservation. Now, a majority of the varsity’s lecturers are Native. 

“If there’s an opportunity to get again and contribute, that is what I believe our life’s journey is about,” Harry stated. “Our goal, mine anyhow, as lecturers, we need to give again and contribute. So that is what introduced me right here to Schurz.” 

Lower than 1 p.c of educators nationwide and in Nevada are American Indian or Alaskan Native. Harry stated the illustration she supplies for her college students helps create a way of security within the classroom. 

“I believe that it is past phrases and past impactful for the scholars to have a Native trainer. And that is why I didn’t hesitate to come back out right here. It was actually arduous to go away the place I used to be, I needed to transfer my household and my youngsters, however I might not have ever second-guessed coming right here due to the distinctive scenario and what I can present and contribute.” 

Kellie Harry and her two college students, Suiti Sanchez and Kameron Gonzales, stand outdoors their classroom on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Impartial)

Within the final two quarters, Harry has included classes concerning the historical past of voting rights for Native individuals, Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day and what it means to her college students to be Native American. Her curriculum is extra well timed and related than the Native American historical past and imagery in textbooks, which normally give attention to occasions previous to 1900, in response to a 2015 examine, thus contributing to the erasure of the trendy presence of Native communities. 

Harry lately requested her college students to finish a written train exploring their Native id. Their responses, submitted in late November, highlighted Native language, conventional costume, ceremonial occasions, corresponding to pine-nut gathering, looking and basket-weaving. 

However the college students didn’t simply write about this stuff up to now tense — and, so far as tribal leaders are involved, that’s proof of academic progress.

“We’re proud individuals by displaying respect to household and pals,” wrote one pupil, Suiti Sanchez, 10. “We honor our ancestors by retaining our traditions alive. We respect elders by studying our language and by passing our traditions to others.”

This piece is a part of a collaborative reporting venture that features the Institute for Nonprofit Information, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Issues, Iowa Watch, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore Information/Pamplin Media Group and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Mission. The collaboration was made doable by a grant from the Walton Household Basis.