August 10th, 2011 Last Updated on: August 14th, 2016
Native American Charter School
By Tetona Dunlap
Nick Twist wondered if he was missing out on real high school experience. His school did not have homecoming dances, a yearbook, homeroom or more than a hundred students. His classes took place inside a modular trailer and in front of one computer. His teacher was not even in the same room, let alone the same town. He is also the only white student in his high school located on an Indian reservation.
But Twist, now a sophomore, would never consider transferring to another school. Twist, 15, attends Fort Washakie Charter High School on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Fort Washakie, Wyoming. He is one of 51 students enrolled full-time who attend Fort Washakie Charter High School, a distance education high school.
Distance education means the entire curriculum is online and there is a teacher that conducts classes via an Internet connection. The school currently has contracts with 13 teachers around the state of Wyoming who are highly qualified and certified in the state.
Superintendent Gene Meier described a typical online class as having a lot of reading and writing, “When they leave here they are writers” he said. Meier compared it to taking an online college class. “This is pretty innovative and scary for a lot of educators in Wyoming, particularly Superintendents” said Meier, “but charter schools are meant to be innovative.”
Wyoming has three charter schools including Fort Washakie Charter High School. There is also an Arapaho Charter High School on the reservation in Arapaho and Snowy Range Academy in Laramie, which teaches K-9th grade.
“There’s a big push for charter schools around the nation,” said Samantha Mills, a charter school consultant for the state of Wyoming, “It’s fairly new in Wyoming, but also because of the small, rural population here.”
Mills works with charter schools to answer any questions because charter schools have to submit annual reports and renew their contracts every five years. In these reports they must submit any waivers they received, as well as accreditation reports, enrollment numbers, and financial reports. They must also submit any written complaints they received.
In addition to serving the reservation and nearby towns, the charter school has partnerships with school districts around the state. They currently partner with local school districts like Shoshoni, Dubois, Wind River and Riverton. Classes taken through Fort Washakie Charter High School also transfer to any school in the state because they are state accredited.
“Kids are really getting a global environment when it comes to learning. They have teachers from all over the place, but they also have classmates from all over the state sharing ideas” said Katie Swistowicz, Fort Washakie Charter School’s Technology Director.
Meier explained that Fort Washakie Charter School’s open enrollment policy also sets it a part from traditional high schools. At any time during the school year, students can enroll in classes.
“A lot of times we get kids that start at a traditional high school and make it to midterms of their first semester and realize they aren’t going to pass any of their classes and quit going to school” said Meier, “They will come to here to Fort Washakie Charter High School in November and enroll and start classes.”
Meier said open enrollment becomes an option for students who move, have deaths in families, or have to leave school for medical or cultural reasons.
“Kids can’t pick their situations. You got to create a system that’s going to be flexible,” said Meier “So when they return they are not thrust into a class with a bunch of freshmen, they can pick up right where they left off.”
Willow Pingree, 18, reads a book by Margaret Coel in front of his computer. He has a free period. Some students listen to headphones as they work at their computers, pictures of family and friends are tacked to the walls of their small cubicles. There are five to six students in the room, chaperoned by two teachers, waiting to assist with questions.
Pingree attended Lander Valley High School in Lander, Wyoming, a town that neighbors the Wind River reservation. He enjoyed his time at Lander, but wanted to return to his hometown to attend school. “One of the main reasons I came (to the charter school) was because in Lander they didn’t have many Native American history classes. Here I’ve taken singing and drumming class, Native American studies and I want to take a Shoshone language class,” said Pingree.
Initially he found the switch between teaching styles difficult at first, but now appreciates the “work at your own pace” philosophy. “I kind of miss going from class to class and doing my work the way teachers wanted it and on time,” said Pingree, “It’s harder over here because there can be a lot of distractions and the work at your own pace doesn’t click with everyone.”
Fort Washakie Charter High School addresses this complete change in teaching style by now offering 9th and 10th graders with schedules that include extra one-on-one assistance from an in-class teacher. In fact, in all the classes, students have access to a teacher if they have questions regarding their online courses. The school currently employs four teachers so it becomes a hybrid of online and in-class teaching.
At a traditional high school, students take scheduled exams whether they are prepared or not. At Fort Washakie Charter School, you voluntarily take quizzes and tests. Students can even redo homework and quizzes and get a better grade.
Teachers have due dates, in terms of responding to students, posting grades and posting the curriculum online, but for the students its about the individual and their ability to learn.
Meier says they receive a lot of phone calls from Lander, but currently the school is not a partner with them. When Fort Washakie Charter High School is a partner with a school district this means that a teacher in that district will work with the student and make sure they complete the online class.
Fort Washakie Charter High School wants to make sure students have a support system. In the past they accepted students who were not enrolled in any school districts. Those students typically did not pass their courses.
Even though the charter school does not charge tuition, they do charge the other district if their student does not finish the class.
According to the Center for Education Reform, more than 3,000 charter schools were operating in 2004-2005, serving over 700,000 students. As of 2004, 40 states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have passed charter school laws.
Today, there are about 50 students from around the state who take one or two classes from Fort Washakie Charter High School, while enrolled in their hometown high schools. However, about 82 percent of the students they serve are from Fort Washakie.
Since their inceptive over 6 years ago, the charter high school has graduated 20 students. The goal of the charter high school is to merge with the existing K-9th grade program and become a K-12th school district. Fort Washakie Charter High School recently built a new gymnasium, which houses one big lab and two small classrooms, in addition to the three modular trailers they started with.
“We have a lot of work to do. There’s an estimate of a 1,000 kids on the reservation and Fremont County who aren’t in school” said Meier. “We are that option for them.”
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