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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

High School On Navajo Nation Graduates From State Program For Underperforming Schools

A large brick building with the words “whitehorse high school” on it and flags flying.
Kate Groetzinger/KUER
Whitehorse High School is located on the Navajo Nation in Montezuma Creek, Utah. The Utah State Board of Education voted to release it from a school turnaround program on Sept. 3, 2020.

Whitehorse High School has officially graduated from a Utah program for underperforming schools, which is great news for the small high school located on the Navajo Nation in Montezuma Creek.

Students and teachers at Whitehorse face significant challenges. Around 80% of students don’t have internet at home and almost all live below the poverty line, according to the school’s principal, Kim Schaefer.

Still, she said the school’s graduation rate has gone up by 20% since it entered the program in 2016, and students’ average ACT scores have gone up by three points, or 12%.

“It’s about parents, scholars, teachers and staff members all pulling together in the same direction,” Schaefer said. “All of us are all-in for scholars now, and that was not the case in 2016.”

The school has also increased its teacher retention rate. In the past, a third to half of the teachers at Whitehorse would leave each year, according to Schaefer. But just one or two have left each year for the past three years.

Christy Fitzgerald is an assistant superintendent with the San Juan School District, and she said keeping educators longer is the most important improvement at the school.

“Because, at the end of the day, to support students we need to support teachers to be more effective and to negotiate all of the things that are on their plates,” Fitzgerald said.

She said the state-funded Quality Teacher Incentive Program hashelped Whitehorse and other schools on the Navajo Nation retain educators by paying experienced teachers to mentor new ones.

Fitzgerald also pointed to increased parental engagement at Whitehorse High School. Schaefer, who became principal in 2016 after the school entered the turnaround program, has created multiple ways for parents to get involved with the school, from drop-in hours to a book club for parents.

And since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Schaefer has been using Facebook Live to talk to parents.

“The weekly contact with parents through Facebook is way bigger than anything we did in person,” she said. “I may never go back.”

Schaefer said she believes many of the gains her school has made can be sustained, despite the pandemic. But that’s partially dependent on students being able to get online.

Right now, the school district is working on getting the internet into students’ homes. The district received $3.9 million from the state’s legislature last month to help expand internet access and that project is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

“The more that network gets built out, the more we can support them,” Schaefer said. “And in the meantime, we’re doing all we can to deliver the on-grade-level content.”

Two other schools on the Navajo Nation in San Juan County are currently in Utah’s turnaround program, Tsé'bii'nidzisgai Elementary School in Monument Valley and Navajo Mountain High School.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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