UPDATE, July 11: Adds information about the school board rejecting the proposal to re-establish Indian Heritage High School and the African-American Academy, as well as information about a legal challenge to the district's decision to terminate the partnership with the Urban Native Education Alliance.
For the past few years, there's been a push from Native American families in Seattle to revive Indian Heritage High School, a Native-focused school that served a little more than 100 students per year in the 1990s.
The school was led by a dynamic and beloved Native American principal, Robert Eaglestaff, until he died unexpectedly in 1996.
The school district turned the school into one of its Middle College programs in 2000, after enrollment had declined, and then closed Indian Heritage altogether about five years ago. The district offers programming and support for native students through its Huchoosedah Indian Education department.
School Board Director Scott Pinkham, who is a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, proposed setting aside money for re-establishing the school as well as re-opening the African American Academy, which the school board voted to close in 2009 amid a budget crunch. At a July 10 school board meeting, three out of five directors rejected the plan. Pinkham was the only vote in favor, and Zachary DeWolf, who's a member of the Chippewa Cree Nation, abstained.
Board President Leslie Harris said Pinkham had introduced the measure at the last minute without first bringing it to the relevant board committees. Board Director Jill Geary said she thinks a better approach is to focus on supporting students’ racial and cultural identity in the existing schools.
"We have to continue to grapple with a way to make every single one of our schools safe for all kinds of students," Geary said.
In earlier memos regarding whether to reopen the school, district officials had raised concerns, including what they described as a low graduation rate at Indian Heritage High School. Pinkham addressed those concerns at a June 26 board meeting, saying it offered a supportive environment for students who otherwise felt marginalized.
“They didn’t have a fantastic graduation rate, but most of the students that they served would have dropped out of school if they stayed in their other assignment school,” he said. “So that’s one reason I think we’d be able to save some students that would have been lost otherwise through this school.”’
Pinkham’s proposal came at a time when the district is facing scrutiny and criticism from native leaders. District officials terminated an arrangement with the Urban Native Education Alliance to have access to rent-free space for its Clear Sky youth program at the new school built on the site of the former Indian Heritage High School. The new school is named Robert Eagle Staff Middle School.
Superintendent Denise Juneau, who herself is an enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa Tribes, has sent a letter to people who expressed concern about that action, saying the Urban Native Education Alliance doesn’t fall into any of the groups that typically qualify as an “aligned partner” entitled to use school space for free.
“This action does not terminate or end UNEA’s programming and services to students — only the agreement and related access to dedicated, rent-free space,” Juneau wrote, adding that UNEA can rent space in Seattle school buildings.
But current and former students who took part in the Clear Sky youth programming run by the Urban Native Education Alliance urged the school board to take action to reinstate the partnership agreement. One young man called the program his “go-to support system,” and another said the district’s decision to end the agreement “breaks my faith in our school system.”
UNEA has now filed an appeal in King County Superior Court challenging the district's decision to terminate the arrangement, calling it "arbitrary and capricious." Seattle Public Schools spokesman Tim Robinson declined to comment on the appeal.