Progress continues on a Ute Mountain Ute charter school that will open in Towaoc this year.
The Kwiyagat Community Academy will provide kindergarten and first grade instruction for 30 students beginning in August, with a goal of adding additional grades in the future. Kwiyagat means “bear” in the Ute language.
The school recently launched its website at utekca.org and is accepting enrollment applications for its inaugural year.
On Jan. 19, the charter contract for the school was approved by the Charter School Institute. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council gave its approval Jan. 27.
Kwiyagat Community Academy is a partnership between CSI and the Ute Mountain Tribe. It is the first public charter school on an Indian reservation in Colorado.
Opening a charter school on tribal lands has been a longtime goal of the tribe, officials said.
“It has been a lot of planning, now we will have a new educational opportunity for students and families,” Ute Mountain Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart said in an interview with The Journal.
The curriculum will blend Ute history, art and culture with core educational instruction, including science, technology, engineering and math (STEAM), he said.
“It is about passing on our language and traditions, while also providing the basic skills and educational needs for children to grow up and be successful in life,” Heart said.
The tribe recently appointed a five-person board of directors to oversee the school’s operation and strategic direction.
The board members are Tina King-Washington, Alicia Whitehead, Dyllon Mills, Ceriss Blackwood and Raleigh Marmorstein.
The school will start with two teachers, and there will be a principal and support staff. Hiring will happen this year.
The public school initially will operate out of the existing education center in Towoac, Heart said. It has been awarded grant funding for school implementation and curriculum development.
In November, the Response Innovation and Student Equity Fund awarded the Ute Mountain tribe $2.7 million to support Kwiyagat Community Academy and to integrate STEAM curriculum into Ute arts, language and culture.
Kwiyagat also received a $210,500 grant from the Colorado Charter School Program for planning and design. The funding allows for the purchase of curriculum materials, facility upgrades and playground equipment.
Heart said the tribe envisions a new building for the Kwiyagat Community Academy and will embark on a capital campaign to raise the funding.
Like all charter schools, the academy is bound by Colorado Department of Education standards, and receives state funding. But it will have more flexibility in its curriculum and instruction approach.
“Today’s educational processes have led to tribes forgetting who they are,” Heart said. “We want to bring that knowledge back. Our elders will be a part of the school, sharing stories, passing on wisdom and teaching traditional songs to students.”
Ute Mountain Ute elder Betty Howe stated that “past generations had to block their way of life, their Native way of life, and learn a new way of life and now they (young people) are coming back and asking more about the old ways.”
In a resolution passed last year, the Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 School District removed itself as the authorizing agent for Kwiyagat Community Academy, which allowed the charter school to seek authorization through CSI.
“We are proud to authorize a charter school that will serve the Ute Mountain Ute community. Given the uniqueness of this school option, we continue to partner with the tribe, the Kwiyagat Community Academy team, and the state to navigate this process collaboratively,” said Dr. Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of CSI.
The Keystone Policy Center coordinated with the tribe and CSI to plan and develop the school and its education plan, said Ernest House Jr., Keystone’s senior policy director and director of American Indian/Alaska Native Program.
House, who is a Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Member, said the new charter school is a welcome educational foundation for the tribe and wider community.
“It not only provides another opportunity for an education, it also provides social and family support for the community,” he said.
The school’s eye toward preserving Ute culture is refreshing compared with the “dark history” of long-ago Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools that tried to strip away Native American identity and language, House said.
Like any school, Kwiyagat will teach science, history, math, reading and writing, but it will also be “bringing traditional knowledge back into the classroom,” he said.