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Fast College Fast Jobs program comes to a halt

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Ute tribal leaders wanted more time before making a decision

DENVER - Legislation that would have extended an accelerated college-level jobs program to Colorado;s two Ute reservations appears to be a lost cause, at least for the foreseeable future.

''Personally, I don't think there will be another window of opportunity like this for Indian children,'' said state Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, a member of the Comanche Nation.

She co-sponsored a bill that would have broadened eligibility for the Fast College Fast Jobs program by adding school districts and high schools that serve students residing on American Indian reservations in Colorado to those presently qualifying due to low graduation rates.

The tribal lands of the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes are the only reservations in the state, so the program would apply only to the high schools serving them, even though a significant number of Dine' and other tribal members live in the Four Corners area.

Williams' Ute student-specific bill was postponed indefinitely after Ute tribal leaders determined they wanted more time to consult with their members and determine whether existing programs might serve the same purpose, said Ernest House Jr., executive secretary of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs.

The Fast College Fast Jobs program, enacted in Colorado in 2007, allows students in qualifying high schools to obtain both a diploma and associate degree or career certificate within five years.

Qualifying high schools in Colorado are in districts with graduation rates below 75 percent, which represents the level existing in about 13 percent of the state's school districts.

The pilot dual enrollment program had positive results in two Denver-area high schools, where college-bound graduation rates were reported to have increased from 17 percent to 82 percent in two years.

House said two school districts in Montezuma and La Plata counties already qualify for the program, and a number of Ute students living on-reservation attend Montezuma and Ignacio high schools in those districts.

''In this state, tribes ask the CCIA to review proposed pending legislation that could affect Indians,'' House said, so he worked with Williams, tribal education directors and school superintendents to get information on whether the tribes wanted to participate.

The bill was pulled after passing the state Senate in part because tribal information-gathering this spring took time that did not permit the bill to be re-introduced.

House said tribal leaders had a number of things to consider. For one thing, with existing school districts' eligibility for Fast College Fast Jobs near the Ute reservations, he was asked, ''Do we need this bill, or do we just need to talk with superintendents and develop our partnerships? Do we need a bill to do this?''

Generally, tribal and school officials ''had more questions than answers,'' he said.

Williams said tribes may have wanted ''a bigger or more expansive project,'' and that although she may be asked to work on that in the next legislative session, she feels the opportunity ''is probably foreclosed.''

House said the Ute tribes appreciate Williams' work on the legislation, and she and the bill's co-sponsor, state Rep. Edward Casso, D-Adams County, may be asked to come to the Four Corners area this summer to discuss Fast College Fast Jobs further because ''it's a great program.''

In addition to questions about overlap with the existing program, Northern Utes from Fort Duchesne, Utah, wondered about their students because they do not reside on a reservation in Colorado, he said.

In addition, people asked whether the program could be extended to tribal students attending other schools or all students statewide, House said, terming the wider application ''a good thing.''

Nationwide, Fast College Fast Jobs could be a good partner with tribal colleges located near reservations, he said, noting that Fort Lewis College - tuition-free to eligible Indian students - is in Durango, near the Ute reservations.

Although the Fast College Fast Jobs program could eventually be expanded to all students, ''I don't know when that will happen,'' Williams said. ''This would have been a special consideration for Indian children on the reservation.''

The Southern Utes said they have specific scholarship money they could use for this program, but they could use state money for this program and their funds for some other educational benefit for tribal members, she said.

Tribal councils were asked whether ''it was of value and concern that Indian kids be specially maintained - which the legislation would have done,'' she said. ''If in the future, schools would have lost the program, this would have kept it for Indian kids.''

Williams described herself as an unqualified supporter of Fast College Fast Jobs because ''in grade nine, students can begin with counseling to help them, to plan each year and to start earlier in what they want to do. It is a good deal for students and a good deal for school districts.''

Qualified school districts that choose to participate must enter into a contract with one or more institutes of higher education to meet students' instructional needs. Students take a mix of high school and higher education courses and must maintain at least a 2.0 grade point average, according to the Colorado Legislative Council.

Participating school districts provide regularly scheduled counseling and other support services throughout the five-year program.

Eligible school districts receive 85 percent of the amount of the district's per-pupil revenue for students enrolled in higher education courses. Those students may not be eligible to be counted by participating colleges for separate funding purposes.