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Les Bowen, Vernal Express
Ute Business Committee Chairman Curtis Cesspooch says the tribe is committed to quality education.

ROOSEVELT — All three of Ramalda Guzman's grown children attended West Junior High School. One daughter works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, another is studying to become a pharmacy technician. Her son has a degree in social work.

Guzman has been involved in education for much of her professional career, but not many families on the Ute Reservation can claim a background like that.

Guzman, chairwoman of the Ute Tribe's Education Board, knows that a child's success in the classroom is dependent to a large extent on how much the importance of education is stressed in the home.

"I think a lot of it has to do with parenting," she said. "Children need to know their parents value education."

The Uintah School District Board voted in December to close West Junior High School along with nearby Todd Elementary and replace the two-decades-old buildings with a modern educational facility in Fort Duchesne that will house grades K-8.

Far more crucial than bricks and mortar will be the attitudes toward education that the American Indian students — the majority of whom are members of the Ute Tribe — bring with them into the classroom, officials say.

West Junior High, the only school in the Uintah School District with predominantly American Indian enrollment, has a lengthy history of poor test scores, discipline issues and chronic attendance problems linked to the days tribal members receive payroll and dividend checks.

For seven consecutive years the school's seventh- and eighth-graders failed to meet the standards established under the federal No Child Left Behind education mandate. Even before NCLB was in place, the school suffered from poor performance.

New goals, partnerships

To end the discouraging trend, the Ute Tribe Education Board, the tribe's governing Business Committee and Uintah School Board have pledged to work together toward a different outcome when the slate is wiped clean and the new Todd School opens in 2009.

"I think this has been a real big breakthrough," said Guzman, who serves as a non-voting adviser representing the tribe at Uintah School Board meetings. "It's all about working together and building a good relationship ... talking about what is going to work and what is not going to work, and coming to a compromise."

The tribe's next big goal is to impress upon parents, the community and leadership "the importance of education," said Guzman.

"We all need to make sure our students are attending school and know that ... education is going to enrich their lives," she said.

Guzman said the tribe's education board has already met with school district personnel and school counselors to make sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to tackling truancy.

"The (tribal court) prosecutor is creating a policy so that each school knows who to contact," Guzman said. "We are trying to do something to move the referrals along more quickly and enforcing what is in place already. We want to let parents know that this is a serious issue. Students have to be in school."

Tribe's role

Studies have shown that American Indian students at West are chronically absent on Fridays after parents — who are employed by the tribe — receive their paychecks and when dividends are distributed. Both payments are made on Thursdays. The tribe's four-day work week entices many parents to take their children and leave town on their free Friday.

Business Committee Chairman Curtis Cesspooch said that there has been some discussion about changing the dates that dividends are given out to coincide with Fridays when school is not in session.

The tribe's education board is considering the possible use of family advocates to help parents with at-risk students and hiring more truancy officers, according to Guzman.

"We are looking at different options to provide a support system for parents and to advocate for them," she said.

The tribe's education board also wants educators working at West and Todd to go through cultural sensitivity training.

"There are unique circumstances, and we want those to be taken into consideration," said Guzman.

Cesspooch said the Business Committee wants to do its part and back up some of their proposals to improve the school with money.

"We are going to try to do our part and even provide some funding to get some extra classrooms and get some teachers," he said.

Ideally the tribe would like some of the teachers at West and Todd to be American Indian and serve as role models for youngsters.

Looking to future

Cesspooch said the controversy surrounding what to do with West and Todd schools reminds him of the contention created several years ago by the proposal in Salt Lake City to build the TRAX light-rail line.

"They didn't like change," he said of the opposition to the mass-transit plan, comparing it to the votes by two Uintah School Board members against building the new school in Fort Duchesne to avoid busing students to Vernal.

"They are seeing only the bad side of everything; that is what reminded me of the TRAX proposal. They didn't want to even look a year beyond that to the future ... that's the same way I am looking at the school up here," Cesspooch said. "After TRAX was put in, they liked it so much they wanted more."

Still, Cesspooch realizes that moving the students ahead so they're no longer behind the curve will take time, energy and commitment.

"It's a challenge, let's put it that way," he said. "The parents have to walk the walk and keep the kids in school. It all boils down to education right from the very beginning of kindergarten. The teachers have to stimulate kids' minds and get them thinking."

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