Kindergarten closer to home

By Luke Groskopf Journal staff writer

In an effort to downsize crowded kindergarten classes, Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1 is shifting some of its Ute Mountain Ute students next year to a new full-day classroom in Towaoc.

It will share a building with the tribe’s Head Start preschool program and day care. The pupils, 16 to 18 of them, will be selected by lottery, according to assistant superintendent Lori Haukeness.

“The rest will come up here (to Cortez) as they normally do,” Haukeness said.

For the past few years, Re-1 has been in talks with the Ute Mountain Ute tribal council about starting a classroom in Towaoc, and now they’ve been able to ink an agreement. The tribe will cover utility costs and classroom materials, while the district will pay the salary for a teacher yet to be determined. The Towaoc students will learn the same curriculum as other Re-1 kindergartners and be assimilated back into Cortez schools for first grade.

This year’s nine Re-1 kindergarten classes average 27 students, a number administrators believe is too high for individualized teacher-student interaction.

For Towaoc, it’s the first foray back into primary education in 50 years. The Bureau of Indian Affairs once operated a boarding school there, later a day school, but it shut down in 1942. After 11 years with no school whatsoever, it reopened in 1953. As the decade wore on, though, the tribe increasingly encouraged public school attendance in Cortez, and all Towaoc-based schooling was phased out by 1961, according to Richard Keith Young, author of The Ute Indians of Colorado in the Twentieth Century.

“I think it’s a good idea. We have the means to try something different and think outside the box,” said Tanya Amrine, the tribe’s education director. “The main goal (for Towaoc) is increased attendance and increased parent participation. Having the classroom right here in the community, we’ll be better able to address those issues.”

To pay for the new classroom, the school district is turning to the federal government. Each year Re-1 receives a sum of money from the U.S. Department of Education for its population of Native American students, called a Title VII grant. This grant also covers Navajo language teacher Betty Ray.

The Title VII sum for 2013-14 will decrease because fewer Native students are enrolled and because of sequestration cuts.

Phyllis Lockhart, Re-1 grants manager, said Title VII funds for academic year 2012-13 totalled $158,000 for 784 qualified Native students. Next year that amount is projected to drop, to $147,600 for 774 students. Under sequestration, Title VII grants are being chopped by 5 percent across the board nationally.

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