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Mallory Gruben
Everett Herald

TULALIP, Wash. — The Tulalip Tribes have plans to start their own K-12 school within the next three years.

The move would sever a longtime relationship with Marysville schools and could stop the flow of millions of dollars to the public school district. But tribal leaders say starting their own school will ensure their students get the education they deserve.

In 2021-22, Marysville School District had about 565 students — about 5.5% of the district’s student population — who identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native. That number does not represent Indigenous students who indicated two or more races, nor does it identify how many of those students were members of the Tulalip Tribes.

Tulalip Tribes Chairwoman Teri Gobin said the tribes have poured time and money into supporting the district, where many of their children attend, with little to show in terms of student success.

Gobin estimated that the tribes donated more than $2 million last school year to pay for Native American liaisons, special programs and other classroom supports for Indigenous students. Still, Indigenous students continue to trail behind their peers, Gobin said.

State data shows that one in five Native American students in the Marysville class of 2021 dropped out of high school. That’s compared to about one in 10 white students, and one in 10 students overall.

Attendance and test scores also lag.

“The Marysville School District has pretty much failed our students. They are just not getting the education that we thought,” Gobin said. “It’s just time for us to start moving ahead.”

She did not say whether there was a specific event that triggered the decision.

Tribal leaders have discussed starting their own school for at least a decade, Gobin said. If they pulled out of the Marysville district, they would take their financial support with them, she said.

The district also would lose part of its state funding if Tulalip students left for a different school. In Washington, school districts receive state money based on enrollment. The total per-pupil allocation varies based on a complicated formula that considers special education, low-income status and other factors, but on average districts received about $14,500 per student in 2020, according to federal data.

That calculates, roughly, to about $8.2 million of state funding that Marysville receives for its Indigenous students.

The plan is still in its early phases, but the tribes are advertising now for a superintendent and principal. A representative of the Marysville School District told The Daily Herald she had not known about the posting until a reporter asked about it.

The job postings outline how the roles fit into a three-year planning process for the Tulalip Education Academy, a K-12 tribal school.

“During 2022, 2023 and into 2024 the Superintendent will be planning, developing policies and procedures and locating funding for the Tulalip Education Academy,” the superintendent posting says.

The principal will determine curriculum and create a plan for opening, according to the job posting.

“We are hoping to recruit some strong candidates who can help us and take the lead on this project,” Tulalip Tribes Education Division Executive Director Jessica Bustad told The Herald in an email. “We know this is a huge undertaking but our children deserve the best from a system that is created FOR them.”

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The tribes have not decided whether the school will function as a private school, charter school, state-tribal education compact school or something else, Gobin said. But tribal leaders know they want to see a “more exploratory, hands-on” model for learning.

“It always has been a hands-on type of learning that really helps our students,” Gobin said.

The Tulalip Tribes were introduced to the public education system through government-sanctioned boarding schools that violently suppressed Native culture and forced students to assimilate to Western values. Many of those values, such as prioritizing data over experiential knowledge and valuing test scores over mastery, remain in modern schools today.

In research reviews about and best practice guidelines for better supporting Native American students, experts often suggest using place-based and experiential teaching models that emphasize storytelling. Those strategies help improve student performance.

Ron Friesen, a retired Tulalip Elementary School music teacher and advocate for Marysville schools, said he was not surprised by the tribes’ decision. Friesen has worked with the tribes on committees promoting school levies.

For the past six months in public comments, Friesen has urged school board members to reflect on and repair their relationship with the tribes. He has suggested renaming the district Marysville-Tulalip School District and providing better representation for the tribes in the schools.

He said he has watched the board, which has not included a member of the Tribes since 2009, avoid making any significant changes.

In the areas the district has tried to make progress, the changes have fallen short, Friesen said. He pointed to a new, mastery-based model adopted at Heritage High School this school year. The district made the switch with the “very good intentions” of meeting the educational needs of tribal students, Friesen said. But at an open house for the school, district leaders served up a “pre-packaged plan” based, “still, on Anglo-Western values” for how it would run.

“This is the ongoing type of stuff that the tribes are having to deal with all the time, and they are going, ‘We’ve had enough,’” Friesen said. “Guess whose loss this is: It’s Marysville’s loss.”

Ray Sheldon Jr., a Tulalip Tribes member who made a bid for Marysville School Board in 2021, said there are still many questions to consider before the tribes start a school. To name a few: How does a school guarantee its diplomas meet college entry requirements? Could the tribal school support robust athletics programs for students? How much would starting and maintaining a school cost?

As the tribes explore those questions and others, there may be time for the Marysville School District to rebuild the relationship and prevent a schism, Sheldon said.

“Anything is mendable, but you have to be willing to work at it,” Sheldon said. “You’ve got to take the criticism and go with it.”

Sheldon has recommended that the school board members visit the tribes. To his knowledge, the newly elected members have not met with tribal leaders in Tulalip since they started in January.

“I was at the school board meeting the other day, and I told one of them that they need to go visit with the Tribes to figure out what’s going wrong and how (the school board) can help, not the other way around. … You just need to know how can we make this better,” Sheldon said.

For now, Tulalip students will continue to attend Marysville, Gobin said, and the tribes will continue to support the district financially.

“We are really early in the planning process,” she said. “It will probably take us a couple of years to get situated in how we might move forward.”

Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.

This article was published in AP Storyshare.