Story by Johanna Bernhard, photos by Tailyr Irvine
The school said she was doing fine. At seven years old, Shelby King was in the midst of the first grade. She thought everything was alright, even if what she remembered was playing with Barbie dolls and watching movies.
Halfway through the school year, it became evident Shelby King wasn’t learning. It turned out her teacher was unqualified to teach such an integral level of foundational education. In fact, her father, Sheldon King likened Northern Cheyenne Tribal School to a “daycare with no curriculum.”
Shelby King couldn’t read.
While students usually learn to read in the first grade, and Shelby King gave no previous indication of a learning difficulty, the news was alarming because of the source. The Northern Cheyenne Tribal School notified Sheldon and his wife Salley King that their daughter had underperformed on the Measures of Academic Progress, a standardized test that measures students’ performance and growth in key subjects.
“My wife was very upset,” Sheldon King said. “We were told one thing and then they told us she couldn’t read.”
The King’s pulled their daughter from the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School in Busby and transferred her to St. Labre Indian School in Ashland, 20 miles away.
Shelby’s experience at her local, tribal school wasn’t an anomaly.
While the achievement gap for students in most ethnic groups and their white counterparts has decreased since the early 2000s, the gap between Native American students and white students remained the same, according to a 2013 report from the Education Trust, a D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy organization.
According to the report, only 18 percent of Native American fourth graders were considered proficient or advanced in reading, compared to 42 percent of white students. Likewise, while students’ reading levels increased across all ethnic groups between 2005 and 2011, the level of fourth grade Native American students remained flat.
Many parents on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation choose to send their children to schools off the reservation in order to receive a better education.
Sheldon King sits on the tribal council in Busby and the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School board. He has hopes of engaging the youth and improving his hometown’s education system, but faces bureaucratic detours and criticism that his actions belie his intentions.
“It’s more of a power trip,” Dana Eaglefeathers, Busby’s district chairman, said of King’s mission to fix local education while simultaneously sending his children to St. Labre Indian School.
“There is no concern for the kids, no help and he is not invested enough to care about the school or the welfare of the kids.”
As a student, King went to the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School. When he returned to the reservation from Billings six years ago, he wanted to send his children there too. Today, he lives across the street from the aging blue and white building in Busby.
Upon returning, his first concern was his own children. He wanted them to receive a quality education, which now means getting them up at 5.30 a.m. and putting them on a bus for 40 minutes to attend St. Labre.
The King’s 8-year-old son, Sheldon Jr. is in the fourth grade at St. Labre. He has the reading proficiency of a sixth grader, his father said.
For now, King is faced with the long-term vision he sees for his community, which doesn’t align with the short-term needs of his children.
“Busby was a top school in Montana 10 years ago,” King said. “One day I hope to get it back up to that.”
After witnessing the experiences his daughter had at the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School and the general lack of youth engagement on the reservation, King decided to run for tribal council in 2014. The incentive was ‘Busby Strong.’ His focus: The youth.
In January 2015, the tribal council appointed King as a school board member for the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School. Since then, he has been working to fix the holes in school’s administrative system and provide the youth with more educational and recreational opportunities.
“I made that vow to always take care of the youth and that’s what I do,” King said.
The challenges facing Northern Cheyenne Tribal School are many. A tight budget coupled with a lack of experienced teachers and fluctuating enrollment means the problems are complicated and not easily fixed.
Montana public schools are run by the U.S. Department of Education, whereas tribal schools across the nation are run by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education. Although the schools are governed in similar ways, they are funded differently. Tribal schools receive funding from federal grants based on student enrollment numbers.
The Northern Cheyenne Tribal School is a K-12 tribally run school, funded by BIE grants.
Superintendent Loverty Erickson would not release details of the tribal school’s funding. However, according to a document published by the tribal council, in 2015 the BIE granted the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School $60,000 from the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the Office of Special Education granted an additional $168,000 from the U.S. Department of Education. A total of $228,000.
King’s wife Salley is a sixth grade teacher at the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School, where she said there isn’t just one issue.
The tribal school’s tight budget leads to limited resources. There is one textbook for each class, which is shared among the teachers. The pages are photocopied and passed out for the students, Salley King said.
There are also no extra curricular activities for students, no drama club and no music.
Salley King has the second largest class with 25 students, including five with special needs. Some cannot read. She said there are teachers who don’t want to deal with students who need extra time and attention, so they pass them through the system.
“It’s easier for teachers to pass them than work with them,” she said.
In the spring of 2015, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School board sent its superintendent and human resources team to career fairs around the state in the hope of recruiting some decent teachers. The response was dismal.
According to a Bureau of Indian Education Division of Performance and Accountability annual report from the 2012-2013 school year, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School filled all but one of its 23 teaching positions. Just under half, 11 of them, were new teachers. Before the end of the school year, two had quit and another six reported they did not intend to come back to the school the following year.
“Good teachers come and go,” Sheldon King said. “Most people have no interest to move to rural Montana.”
There are no retirement or health benefits for the teachers at the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School, no gas station or grocery store and Busby is 86 miles from the nearest city. Teachers stick around for an average of two years, King said.
The school’s administration tends to hire young, underqualified applicants with no experience. King said during the past five years, the school has gone through four superintendents.
Current superintendent Loverty Erickson said, “there has been a low teacher turnover rate this year, for some reason,” admitting this is an anomaly.
There are always a number of openings for teachers in physical education, special education, English and more, she said.
But not only the teachers come and go. Student enrollment at the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School fluctuates wildly.
During the 2012-2013 school year, there were 350 students enrolled at the school, Erickson said. Enrollment fell the following year to roughly 249 students but rose again to 280 in the 2014-2015 school year. At the beginning of this academic year, the school reported 325 students enrolled.
The BIE report also indicates that the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School graduates less than half of its high school seniors with 41 percent of high school students graduating in 2013.
Nationwide, about 69 percent of Native American high school students graduate in four years, according to the Education Trust report. For white students, about 83 percent graduate in the same timeframe.
There are two schools on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation: The Northern Cheyenne Tribal School in Busby and the public high school and elementary school in Lame Deer. Ashland Public School, St. Labre Indian School, Hardin Public School and Colstrip Public School are located just off the reservation and are also popular choices among tribal members.
Established in 1884, St. Labre is a private, Roman Catholic school that borders the eastern part of the reservation, approximately 20 miles from Lame Deer. With an annual budget of roughly $46 million, the school is funded by private donors across the nation who use a direct mail plan to send their donations.
St. Labre Executive Director Curtis Yarlott credited the school’s healthy funding to numerous factors that resonate with supporters: A faith-based education, a safe environment, good academic instruction, help for Native American communities and children and support for graduating students.
“We help to make a better life for the kids who attend our school,” Yarlott said.
There are 725 students enrolled in K-12 on St. Labre’s three campuses. The graduation rate between 2008 and 2013 was 92.8 percent, with a dropout rate of 1.4 percent, according to the school’s website.
Although St. Labre is a private school, there are no entrance fees. Students are required to wear the school uniform, a purple t-shirt, which costs $10. If families can demonstrate their lack of income, the school provides the t-shirt for free.
Yarlott said some parents choose to keep their children at the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School in Busby if there is an expectation for family generations to attend the same school, or if the family is not religious and wants to keep their kids closer to home.
Busby’s District Chairman Dana Eaglefeathers has four kids enrolled at the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School, where he and his father also went to school.
It’s a sign of community on the Northern Cheyenne reservation for all the kids to be enrolled at tribal schools, he said.
Eaglefeathers understands King’s hesitation to send his children to the tribal school. He thinks as a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School board, King should send his children to the school in Busby.
“It’s almost cowardly to run the school and not send his kids there,” Eaglefeathers said. “It’s a big concern for the district and the Northern Cheyenne people.”
Eaglefeathers wants to see a change in power on the school board.
In 2004, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School board was changed to an ad hoc committee after the previous members mishandled the funds and fell into debt, King said.
“We almost lost the school because of them,” he said.
The board now consists of three council members, the tribal education director and the director of Head Start.
Eaglefeathers, King and Oly McMakin, a tribal councilman on the school board, want the board changed so one person from each of the five districts on the reservation acts as a representative for the school and its students.
This would make the system more reliable and accountable, Eaglefeathers said.
The school board is revising the school’s manual policies and working to rectify the financial misdeeds of the past, by 2017. That way, tribal members can be elected to represent their communities on the school board again, King said.
McMakin also sends his kids to St. Labre Indian School.
He was appointed to the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School board two and half years ago with the hopes of creating a model school on the reservation, somewhere he could send his kids. During his four years as councilman however, McMakin said he has seen
“I feel like a failure,” he said.
The structure at the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School hasn’t improved and he, like King, lacks faith in the administration. With the poor consistency in personnel and such a high teacher turnover rate, the students are suffering, McMakin said.
Among the tribal school’s problems, is its close relationship to the tribal government. With three council members on the school board, parents continuously skip the chain of command in the school system, including the principal, and go straight to the council with their problems or concerns, McMakin said.
“We need to get politics out of the school,” he said. “People run to us for the craziest reasons and say, ‘I voted for you, help me.’”
Although tribal members may dispute some of the council’s decisions regarding the school and the community, few can deny King’s devotion to the youth and the projects he has implemented.
King said he wants to see younger members of the reservation earning degrees and gaining the skills they need to leave the reservation, find a job and eventually return home bringing business and knowledge back to their tribal community.
Every year, King hosts holiday events for the Busby community. He raises funds for Easter egg hunts, Mothers Day brunches and Christmas events.
But funding is one of King’s struggles. The money he receives from the district has to be spent on projects involving solely the Busby youth. The majority of the money King pends on youth projects is his own so he can include all the youth on the reservation.
Last year, the Busby district gave $1,500 to the Easter egg hunt.
All of the events have a common goal, to bring families together.
“If you can bring your community together, you can accomplish anything,” King said.
Last year, Sheldon and his wife started a little league baseball team to occupy the youth during the summer months as there is little else to do on the reservation after the basketball season ends. That’s when kids start causing trouble, King said.
Every year they raise around $100 for the baseball team by standing on the side of the street in Lame Deer, selling pulled pork sandwiches and potato salads. That money buys equipment and merchandise.
For King and his wife, the baseball season also gives them a chance to interact with the youth and other parents. After Salley King warms up the team with a series of exercises, she goes home to prepare dinner. Last year 63 kids filled their house at the end of practice.
“What we give to the kids, we’ll receive back from God. He’ll take care of us,” Sheldon King said.
In March, under the Native Youth Community Projects program, the U.S. Department of Education gave the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School a $140,000 grant as part of an initiative to help Native American youth become college and career ready.
Tribal Education Director Norma Bixby saw the grant as an opportunity to improve the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School. She said she saw the potential to create a national model for tribal schools.
As one of the founding members of the Tribal Education Departments National Assembly in Oklahoma, Bixby found two specialists Michael Pavel, the principal grant writer and external evaluator, and Julian Guerrero, the project director of the grant.
The purpose of the grant is to reduce segregation and improve collaborations between the tribe and external communities, Guerrero said. A transformation needs to happen. Education at the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School needs to be influenced more by technology and pushed into the 21st century, he said.
Guerrero and Pavel took a tour of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School to assess how the grant will be spent. They conducted a series of inventories with the staff to decide how the NYCP program can be locally constructed to customize it to the needs of the school.
Guerrero was shocked by the school and described the situation as “abysmal.”
“The teachers are a bunch of misfits trying to run a school,” he said. “Over 50 percent of the students have a below average reading proficiency.”
Sheldon King said he would like to see how the grant benefits the tribal members and the community. He wants the kids to understand that there are more opportunities and different fields of work off the reservation and hopes the grant will reflect that.
King is working on his next project for the youth, a ski trip for all the older high school kids on the reservation.
“We are all one tribe, one nation,” he said. “We are stronger as a community.”
As a councilman, King said he has no regrets. He has the upper hand to get things done and that’s exactly what he is doing.
Although he faces obstacles and the process of helping the youth is not happening as fast as he would like, he is confident that the changes he is making now will benefit the reservation in the long run.
“I am going to find a way over the wall and succeed,” he said. “I am never giving up.”