A school dedicated to preserving the culture and language of regional Native American tribes is expanding.
The Salish School of Spokane opened in north Spokane in 2010 for kindergartners through sixth-graders. Now it will go through 12th grade.
Chris Parkin, principal and co-founder of the school, said the school will serve 58 students when school starts Tuesday: 28 will be in elementary grades, 20 in preschool and 10 in the new high school program.
“If all we did was try to save Salish, it would be an overwhelming mission,” Parkin said. “But it isn’t just enough to teach kids Salish, we also have to really take care of our community and try to build an awesome education system for our kids that they largely hadn’t had in the public schools and the dominant society.”
Parkin said the expansion is paid in part by the Native Youth Initiative for Leadership, Empowerment and Development federal grant awarded in 2016. The five-year grant was given to six schools across the U.S. and Pacific Islands. The grant is worth about $200,000 a year and the school is required to raise an additional $50,000 every year.
The school’s budget for this school year is about $1.1 million, a reduction from last year, Parkin said. He added that the school receives about 10 percent of its annual budget from the Business Council of the Colville Confederated Tribes and some financial support from the Kalispel, Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Tulalip, Muckleshoot and Kootenai tribes.
Parkin said the school is short on funding and working to raise $100,000 in grants and $100,000 in private donations.
Because of the shortage, the school’s junior preschool will close.
It costs the school about $16,000 per student to keep the school open, Parkin said. Much of the cost is covered by the grant. But the school charges between $2,750 and $8,250 a year for an elementary education, based on a family’s ability to pay. The high school programs are tuition-free, thanks to grant funding.
The key components of the school’s project, Parkin said, are for students become fluent speakers in Salish and have them become culturally connected.
“Lots of Native youth kind of talk about feeling disconnected – that they don’t have the connections that people used to have with the Native elders,” Parkin said. “There’s been a lot of pressure on families in the economy. It’s very difficult to make a living on the reservations, so lots of families have come to the city of Spokane.”
However, in the city, it is difficult for these families to maintain those connections and cultural identity, he said.
The new high school program will not be the first time the school has worked with high school students.
Last year, it provided students from grades 8-12 cultural instruction at the school and academics from Spokane Virtual Learning, an online program of Spokane Public Schools.
Kristin Whiteaker, director of Spokane Virtual and Blended Learning, said the students were Spokane Public Schools students taking online courses while “accessing cultural and language enrichment independently through the Salish School of Spokane.”
Parkin said the Salish School opted to take over the academics of the high school program because the virtual school proved unsuccessful.
“It became pretty clear to us, even in that first semester, that we didn’t choose the right model,” Parkin said. “That full-time online learning through Spokane Virtual Learning did not offer the flexibility or the individualization or the responsiveness that our kids needed to be academically successful.”
At the beginning of the program, Parkin said there were 16 students. That number dwindled to seven by the end of the first semester and five by the end of the second semester.
Elijah Murphy, a student who graduated from the program this year, said some of his classmates left the program for a variety of reasons, including communication issues with online teachers.
Despite having contact information of online teachers, Murphy said communicating with them was difficult because they worked at other schools and already had full schedules.
He added that it was easy to fall behind due to the amount of work given, field trips, out-of-state conferences and other aspects of the program. He said students were doing an average 20 to 25 assignments a week.
Whiteaker said the students who remained were successful in their online courses and completed the school year with passing grades and credits in all five courses they attempted.
“Our teachers and support staff provided a high level of support to Salish students and staff from the beginning of the year throughout the end of the year,” Whiteaker said. “We worked together on each enrollment change, with many students returning to their original school.”
The Salish School’s new high school curriculum will incorporate both English and Salish into the classes.
Parkin said social studies courses will acknowledge the “true history and the real repercussions of that history” of genocide Native Americans experienced.
He said the school wants to give students real-world experience and connect them to people in the community.
In addition to its 33 employees, which includes 21 teachers, the school plans to work with Whitworth University and Gonzaga University to help students. In math classes, Parkin said they want to have math majors be mentors and coaches to their secondary students.
The average student-teacher ratio across all classrooms is five students per teacher, Parkin said.
For the secondary math and science classes, the school has Dominique Wiley-Camacho, a Salish speaker who has a master’s degree in marine conservation and geographical information systems from Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
“Her task is going to be to take our students and give them really meaningful applied science experiences,” Parkin said. “We’re going to have basic science curriculum, we’re going to buy curriculum, they’re going to be able to do bookwork, but our goal is to get them doing fieldwork, doing applied science, doing science that matters to them.”