Changes sting at Chief Leschi School

From the editorial board

Students from Chief Leschi School upset about the recent layoff of teachers and staff staged a walk-out Friday morning to protest. 2016.
Students from Chief Leschi School upset about the recent layoff of teachers and staff staged a walk-out Friday morning to protest. 2016.

Chief Leschi School Superintendent Amy Eveskcige may be blazing new trails on the road to reformation, but she’s leaving some people feeling burned.

In Eveskcige’s short tenure — she took over leadership of the Puyallup tribal school in June 2015 — she removed 50 staff members in one swift stroke. An even bigger shocker happened last week, when 76 non-tribal students were told they couldn’t return just days before the new academic year was set to begin.

The reason comes down to money: Tribal students receive federal funding from the Bureau of Indian Education and non-tribal students do not. The gap left the tribe using grants to help cover about 20 percent of the school's $4.5 million operating budget. But funding formulas and operational needs could not have changed drastically since June, so why wait until August to break the news?

This eleventh-hour timing is reminiscent of last year’s State Supreme Court ruling that left 1,200 statewide charter school students in a lurch. They, too, were placed on shaky ground until charter school operators worked with legislators on a more secure funding source.

Schools are supposed to be bedrocks of stability. Sudden shakeups lead to loss of familiar community and must have students and staff wondering what big changes will be targeted next.

It’s also unfortunate that Leschi school would turn away dedicated Native students pursuing tribal registration, who want to help keep customs and language alive.

Progress hinges on engaging in positive dialogue. When policy shifts get personal, students should at least be given a forum for questions and a chance to voice empathy for those no longer in their community.

After last May’s layoffs, Leschi students staged a peaceful protest against the loss of some beloved teachers and staff. When they inquired about staff changes, they were told in scripted answers that the layoffs were an attempt to boost academic performance.

It was the method of staff’s dismissal that drew criticism: Teachers and counselors queued in a hall and awaited their fate. About 27 percent of the staff received pink slips.

This was a throwback to a leadership change and layoff of 50 teachers that took place at Leschi in 1999, after a report by the Chief Leschi School Board and the Puyallup School District cited financial woes and persistently poor scholastic performance.

Native Americans historically hold the highest dropout rate of any racial or ethnic population; approximately 67 percent of American Indian students graduated from high school in 2015 compared to the national average of 80 percent. In schools run by the BIE, the graduation statistic is even worse, hovering at just 53 percent.

If it takes a shakeup to move the dial in a positive direction, so be it. But identifying weaknesses and making reforms are not the only requirements for success; sensitive management must lead the way.

The Puyallup tribe considers Chief Leschi School a crown jewel, and it should. Under its roof many generations have received an invaluable education in Native American history, culture and language.

Change brings loss but also creates opportunities. Eveskcige, the first Puyallup tribal member to lead the school, may have developed enough trust to prove short-term purges will lead to long-term payoffs.

One thing remains certain: A strong tribal school means a strong tribal community. That maxim is as true today as it was when Chief Leschi School opened in 1976.