Fort Washakie Stories Part I: A School In Transition

Oct 24, 2014

Fort Washakie High School on the Wind River Indian Reservation was a charter high school until a few years ago. Now it’s a public school. Most of its classes used to be online. Now, it’s building a brick-and-mortar building for 150 students.

For now, around 50 kids and a dozen teachers make do in makeshift classrooms. The school’s last reported graduation rate was just 7 percent, but as it morphs into a more traditional high school, the current crop of students has high hopes for the future.

In English class, Mike Read delivers a lesson on figurative language to about a dozen students. A few are slouched in their chairs with ear buds in. One keeps his face nested on his desk in the sleeves of his hoodie. But junior Blaze Condon is alert. This is her favorite subject. And since she arrived at Fort Washakie High School this year, Condon says she’s been pretty serious about her education.

“It’s pretty important to me to graduate high school, simply so I can go to college,” says Condon. “I want to head to college as soon as I can. Mostly because I really want to get off the reservation. There’s not a lot of opportunities coming towards you, so I need to leave the reservation in order chase the opportunities that are running away from me.”

Blaze started out at nearby Lander Valley High School. Now she’s here, and for the most part, enjoys it, but says she’s not really used to the online learning that’s part of many of her classes—including this one.

“Sometimes the online classes can get a bit confusing, says Condon. “Because with a normal classroom setting, a teacher can explain what they’re talking about. But with the online classes, they’re all pre-recorded.”

Like every other student here, Manny Vasquez learns math entirely online. But he’s one of just a few upperclassmen who’s learning the Shoshone language. Vasquez says it means a lot to him to preserve the culture of his people. His mom is Eastern Shoshone and his dad is Kiowa Apache. Vasquez sings in two different drum groups—perfecting the distinctive regional styles associated with either side of his heritage.

“It’s the root of our souls pretty much,” says Vasquez. “You can feel the drumbeat from when you’re in the womb—the heartbeat. And that’s what the drum is. It’s the heartbeat of the tribes."

It’s lunchtime—and a student named Harold Friday shows me what’s on his tray.

“Uh, I think it’s chicken noodle soup with peanut butter and jelly and some applesauce,” says Friday. “And I’m having a salad.”

Harold is looking to complete both his junior and senior coursework this year. When I ask him more about graduation and beyond, it becomes clear he’s the right guy to be showing me around the cafeteria.

“My grandma, she’s been pushing me—she wants me to go to high school and get the paper, then go to college,” says Friday. “I really want to go culinary arts. That’s like the only thing I really like. I like to cook.”

"It's pretty important to me to graduate high school, simply so I can go to college. I want to head to college as soon as I can. Mostly because I really want to get off the reservation. There's not a lot of opportunities coming towards you, so I need to leave the reservation in order chase the opportunities that are running away from me."

Friday, like nearly all of his classmates, has bounced around to a few different schools. He went to Wind River High School and a boarding school in California before landing at Fort Washakie. He says he mostly likes it here, but school can be stressful.

“The one thing I hate about it is just the fear of dropping out,” Friday says. “Cause if I don’t pass high school, everything would go wrong. I would have no place to go and just be stuck here in Wyoming.”

After lunch, some of the high school guys play pick-up basketball outside. Ché

Stiffarm spins into the lane and throws up a reverse layup. Stiffarm has a great name for an athlete, and he is one—or was one. He played basketball, football and track at nearby Wyoming Indian High School, but his parents sent him here this year after some trouble with the law.

“I got arrested twice, and I got put in jail for a couple days,” says Stiffarm. “When I was in jail for a couple days, that’s when they decided to put me here.”

Sixteen-year-old Stiffarm says he hopes to play college football after graduation. There aren’t any sports teams at Fort Washakie yet, but Stiffarm is leading the charge to field a basketball team—and he says he’s making the best of his time here.

“It was my mistakes that got me here, so I kind of have to deal with the consequences,” says Stiffarm. “But overall, it’s not that bad—just the fact that there’s no sports.”

A Northern Cree war cry echoes from the school’s intercom system. The song isn’t culturally significant to either of the tribes in the area, but administrators thought it’d be a cool way to signal it’s time for class—and this is the first time they’ve ever needed to do that.

“This year’s the first year that we have a bell schedule—in 10 years,” says Fort Washakie principal Shad Hamilton, with a laugh. “And we have actual classrooms for each teacher, as opposed to a computer lab.”

Hamilton is proud of the changes being made here. He says the main reason the school became public was to get school construction funding from the state. Now a more than $50-million building project is underway. Another benefit, he says, is that a public high school is more permanent.

“There’s a good chance now that they’ll probably still be a high school in this district 100 years from now, based on the work that we’ve done in the last 10 years—where if it was just a charter school—sometimes you see charter schools come and go pretty fast,” Hamilton says.

At the end of the day in life skills class, students are brainstorming about what it would take to raise kids. Keenan Large is jotting down ideas on the whiteboard. There’s only 6 or 7 students in the room—something he enjoys that about this school. 

“It’s like, we’re all a community, so it’s just good to see everybody’s faces and voices and smiles,” Large says.

Eighteen-year-old Large was born and raised here on the reservation. He says he’s definitely thinking about college—but he has options.

“I don’t know,” says Large. “I got a job to go on an oil rig, so I’m still thinking about that.”

Large says his job offer is tempting, because he’d make enough money to help his mom out with finances. Whatever direction he chooses, his goal is just to make her proud.

“She wants somebody to get educated,” says Large. “She wants somebody to graduate. She wants somebody to be famous. So I’m going to try to be the best I can.”

For now, For Washakie’s students’ hopes are just hopes. They have another seven months of school to make them reality.

These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen!  -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.