Until this past week, 10-year-old Roland Ware was looking forward to the start of a new school year and the beginning of fifth grade.
Since kindergarten, he has attended Chief Leschi Schools, a preschool through high school campus in the Puyallup Valley, operated by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.
On Aug. 23, his mom, Breanna McNeece, got a letter that shocked her.
It came from Chief Leschi Schools, and it told her that Roland would not be able to enroll there this year.
The reason? He’s not a registered member of a Native American tribe.
McNeece has Cherokee heritage, but is not a registered member of that tribe. She says her family has been pursuing official registration status for years.
The Tacoma mom says she’s heartbroken, stressed — and scrambling to find a new school for her son. She also plans to appeal the Leschi decision in hopes that Roland can stay at the school where he loves learning not only traditional academic subjects, but also about Native culture and language.
“They are punishing the students,” McNeece said. “It’s not fair.”
School starts at Chief Leschi on Thursday.
Leschi Superintendent Amy Eveskcige, a former Tacoma school district administrator who took on the job of superintendent at Chief Leschi in 2015, said the school board decided to tighten enrollment criteria. That was after they took a closer look at the funding the tribal school receives from the federal Bureau of Indian Education. In order to qualify, students must be a registered member of a tribe, Eveskcige said. The funding amounts to about $5,000 per student.
“We discovered we had 187 students on our rosters that we were not receiving funding for,” she said. That amounted to more than $930,000, or about 20 percent of the school’s $4.5 million operating budget, that had to be covered by other sources of money.
Eveskcige said that in the past, the school had allowed the non-tribal registered kids to enroll, and had tried to cover the shortfall with grants. But she said most of the grants were short-term, which left the school having to constantly re-apply for them. It created instability from year to year.
She said Chief Leschi has had a policy in place for more than a decade that the school’s primary purpose is to serve Native kids — Puyallup tribal kids first, then members from other tribes. She said Chief Leschi students include those from some 60 tribes.
But she said that the policy had not been followed, leading to the enrollment of students who didn’t qualify for BIE funding, and leaving some Puyallup Tribe kids on waiting lists.
“We are a tribal school, that belongs to the Puyallup Tribe,” she said. “All the other tribes are guests in our home.”
She said that while it was hard to say “no” to some students and families, “we have to be able to pay the bills.”
She said the Puyallup Tribe already pays for the school’s after-school programs, its field trips and other programs. She said school officials didn’t want to ask for more.
The school board decided to “grandfather” in Chief Leschi’s high school students who lack tribal registration because it was assumed they had been at the school the longest. That has led to some unusual family situations, with younger students being asked to leave, and their older siblings allowed to stay.
In the end, Eveskcige said, about 76 students were told they wouldn’t be able to return to Chief Leschi this year. She said current enrollment, which includes some new students, is anticipated to be about the same as last year: between 800 and 900 students.
Eveskcige and parents who spoke to The News Tribune disagree on the timing of the announcements. While parents said they knew nothing about the enrollment tightening until they got letters this past week, Eveskcige said postcards were sent Aug. 3 notifying families that enrollment was under review and that the school would be making decisions by Aug. 19.
McNeece said she never received that notice. Another mom, who asked not to be named, said the same thing.
When Eveskcige assumed the position of superintendent last year, it was a homecoming for her. She had worked as a school secretary at Leschi years before pursuing college and her doctoral degree. She also became the first member of the Puyallup Tribe to hold the school’s top job.
But her first year of leadership brought big changes — and controversy — to the school. Toward the end of the school year in May, an estimated 27 percent of the school staff — at least 50 teachers, counselors and others — were told that they’d be let go. The move sparked protests from students and parents.
Eveskcige said it was a part of a change in direction for the school. She said school leaders reviewed research, both national and statewide, about the kinds of teaching techniques that work best for Native students. The school adopted six initiatives — including a program that teaches study skills, and another designed to boost vocabulary. Teaching was to emphasize hands-on, project-based learning. Many of those same initiatives are widely used in public schools throughout the state.
Eveskcige said her goal was to re-build a teaching team that believed in those strategies and could effectively put them into practice. She said many Puyallup families have embraced the change and are “excited about the journey ahead.”
Eveskcige said she understands the importance of Chief Leschi’s role in the tribal community.
“We are the heartbeat of our community,” Eveskcige said. “We recognize that.”
But she said school leaders also believe they have a responsibility to ensure the school’s future through prudent fiscal management.
McNeece said that when she first told Roland the news about Chief Leschi, he cried. He was was looking forward to Native drumming lessons this year, she said.
McNeece lives with her son and her boyfriend near Whitman Elementary School, a Tacoma public school . But she’s not yet been able to make contact with anyone there. She plans to try again Monday. She is worried that if her son isn’t enrolled somewhere soon, he might be declared truant.
McNeece’s home is decorated with symbols of her Native American pride, and Roland’s art work and some school assignments from Chief Leschi are on the wall in the living room.
One of them is titled Pledge of Respect. It begins: “I am a smart, special, valuable person…”
Roland has a collection of awards he earned at school, for being responsible, for turning in 100 percent of his homework and for doing well on tests. His mom says he got all A’s and one B last year.
“He loves his school,” McNeece said. “He is comfortable there. He knows his teachers. He has friends.”
Roland hopes the adults at Chief Leschi will change their minds.
“I wish they would try their hardest and do the best they can to try to get kids back in school,” he said.