MARYSVILLE — Starting this fall, school and tribal leaders plan to “decolonize” Tulalip Heritage High School.
Years ago, educators and the Tulalip Tribes started a small learning community tying the classroom to traditional learning styles.
The goal was for Indigenous students to see themselves in the curriculum. Students drummed, sang and made regalia and cedar carvings. The school brought in Indigenous artists and speakers to teach classes, and it gave students leeway to attend tribal ceremonies or shadow jobs on the reservation during the school day.
But the practice strayed somewhat over the years, punctuated by the COVID-19 pandemic, said Chris Pearson, executive director of teaching and learning in Marysville.
“The pandemic has been very hard on Tulalip Heritage High School,” Pearson said. “… For two years, you couldn’t bring people in, and you couldn’t really send students out.”
So educators are redesigning the school with the Big Picture Learning network, a nonprofit group that guides schools taking a more “mastery-based” approach — focused on applying skills, rather than passing tests.
School leaders and tribal representatives said they will “co-create” a new model for the school that resurrects the original intention for Heritage High: to support Indigenous students in a culturally competent way.
“Our ancestors were biologists and doctors, and they didn’t need all the books we use now,” said Jessica Bustad, executive director of the Tulalip Tribes education division. “Our Indigenous students needed a different model that can support Indigenous ways of learning and growing and knowing. The regular public school system models do not work all the time for our children.”
‘A model that doesn’t work’
Heritage High is located on tribal land, and the Tulalip Tribes partner with the Marysville School District to run the school. Through that partnership, the tribes give almost $750,000 annually to pay for more staff and supplies not covered by the district’s state funding.
There is no requirement that Heritage students have tribal affiliations. However, the school’s identity is tied back to the Tulalip Tribes, and the school was started to support Indigenous students, Pearson said. In 2021-22, almost half of the 88 students enrolled at Heritage were Native American. Fewer than 7% were white.
State measures for student success show Heritage lags behind the other schools in Marysville. During the 2020-21 school year, 8.4% of Heritage students regularly attended school, meaning they had fewer than two absences per month, according to state data. That compares to 42.7% at Marysville Pilchuck High School, 51.9% at Legacy High School and 52.8% at Marysville Getchell High School.
The number of ninth-graders who passed all their courses — an indicator that they are on track to graduate — is lower for Heritage, too. In 2020-21, about 15% of Heritage High ninth-graders passed all their courses. The school with the next lowest rate was Legacy High School, at 59.2%.
“If the Marysville School District just goes status quo, we know what the data will give us,” said Chelsea Craig, cultural specialist at Quil Ceda Tulalip Elementary School and a member of the Tulalip Tribes. “It’s because we are trying to use a model that doesn’t work for our kids.”
And that has long been the case, she said. The Tulalip Tribes were introduced to the colonial model for public education through government-sanctioned boarding schools that violently suppressed Native culture and forced students to assimilate to Western values.
“That was our first stab at education, and it was so destructive to our people,” Craig said. “The remnants of colonialized education still exist today. Yes, schools look very different than boarding schools, but we are still enacting the colonialization if we don’t recognize that we need to center the needs of the kids we serve.”
For example, modern schools still prioritize “Western science” over Indigenous knowledge by valuing data, numbers and peer-reviewed studies over hands-on knowledge, according to an academic review from the University of Washington. Some academics assert colonial “remnants” include an emphasis of rule-following, a lack of focus on long-term mentorships and a valuation of grades and test scores over mastery and understanding.
“Before there was colonization, and before there were classes at university, we had our own set of knowledge,” said Deyamonta Diaz, Tulalip Tribes education advocate. “We used to know when to go fishing or how to track the seasons” without needing to get an “A” grade on a science test, he said.
‘One student at a time’
It will take “lots and lots of really thoughtful thinking,” Craig said, to adjust the school system to equitably support Native American students. It starts by centering on Indigenous knowledge, she said.
“At its heart, Big Picture is one student at a time, which means we are one community at a time, too,” said Loren Demeroutis, Northwest regional director for Big Picture. “I’ve heard a lot of students say things like, ‘I used to feel like I didn’t fit school. Now that I’ve been in Big Picture, I know that it was school that didn’t fit me.’”
Heritage High students will work closely with the same academic adviser throughout their high school career. Each adviser will work with no more than 15 students at a time.
Instead of tests, students will be graded on an end-of-term exhibition where they demonstrate what they’ve learned, the problems or weaknesses they encountered, and how they plan to work through those problems to excel in the next term. Heritage students will still take the state-required Smarter Balanced Assessment, but it won’t affect their grades.
In the classroom, advisers will work with students to create assignments aligning with their post-high school goals. If a student wants to fish for a living, their teachers would determine relevant reading, writing, science and math assignments for that job, said Heritage High Principal Nathan Plummer. What they read in class will likely be different from a classmate interested in the medical field.
“It can at first look a little frou-frou, I’m going to say, to current colonial settings that we have in school. We have standards. We have tests. We have all those things,” Plummer said. “What really excites me about this opportunity is breaking down those walls and really reaching out to students and finding their interests and passions. Their passions will drive their interest in education.”
‘Building blocks for their future’
The school will aim to get students on-the-job experience. Most internships will be tied to the Tulalip Tribes. For Indigenous students, that links the classroom to their culture and “mirrors how we raise our children,” Craig said.
“In our way of teaching, education happens at the feet of our grandmothers. It happens in the longhouse, listening to traditional stories,” Craig said. “It happens in the woods, as we are under apprenticeship with our aunties and uncles learning the way we sustain ourselves.”
Students will still have high expectations, Pearson said, but the ways they can meet that “bar” will change.
“The standards don’t change. It just means that you don’t have to sit in a class for 45 minutes every day as part of that process,” Pearson said. “You can do internships. You can go out and do some field experiences. Some of it will be in class, and you’ll get direct instruction … but how you learn can be very flexible.”
And the school’s structure will inevitably adjust during the school year as students, educators and tribal members mold a model that suits Heritage. The district plans to spend about $25,000 on coaching, conferences, supplies and advice through Big Picture.
It will take about four years — the time for one group of students to complete high school — before Marysville can measure the success of the change. In the meantime, educators will use attendance and enrollment to gauge if the new approach is working.
If more students enroll at the school and regularly make it to class, that’s a step in the right direction.
“We want our students to feel good about coming to school,” said Bustad, of the Tulalip Tribes. “We want them to be happy there and to start building those building blocks for their future.”
Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.
Tulalip Heritage High School will host a 2-hour informational meeting about the changes at the school. The meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 16. Dinner will be provided.