This story was originally published in the Rio Grande SUN on May 31, 2018.
Ninth-graders Mike Gashwazra and Kristen Montoya wake up at 5:30 a.m. to start getting ready for school. By 6:30, after groggy showers and quick breakfasts, they get into their mom Joycelyn Montoya’s white SUV and leave their home in Dulce, on the Jicarilla Apache Nation, for Colorado.
They travel for about 10 miles along bumpy Rio Arriba County Road 357, crossing over cattle guards, surrounded by low skies, squat hills and acres of dusty green sagebrush.
About 330 feet north of the border is the intersection of Archuleta County Roads 391 and 359, at a bridge passing over the Navajo River ringed by farm lands and pastures of grazing cows, horses and the occasional donkey.
It is at this intersection where elementary, middle and high school students from Dulce wait until 6:48 a.m., when two Archuleta School District buses pick them up for the 45-minute, 24-mile ride to Pagosa Springs, Colo.
Although their day officially begins when the school bell rings at 8:10 a.m., by then, Gashwazra and Kristen Montoya have already been awake for nearly three hours.
“I am always tired,” Kristen Montoya said. “On weekends, I sleep in ‘till, like, 11.”
Adjusting schedules and the sleepy mornings have all been worth it to get Jocelyn Montoya's children out of the failing Dulce Independent School District and into Archuleta School District in Pagosa Springs, Colo..
“It is not an inconvenience,” she said. “They have learned a lot more at Pagosa than they have going to school at Dulce from kindergarten (to) eighth grade.”
She’s not alone.
About 100 students make this trip everyday, to and from school, either by bus or driven by a parent or guardian
“It is not something that is new,” Archuleta School District Superintendent Linda Reed said. “This is my ninth year in the district, but I have only been superintendent for five and people have been doing that for years.”
This year, the numbers hovered at about 32 elementary, 36 middle school and 31 high school students making the trip, daily.
The Dulce Independent School District received an F grade from the New Mexico Public Education Department for the 2016 and 2017 school years. From 2012 to 2015, the District received Ds.
Last year, Dulce Elementary School was identified as one of four New Mexico Schools in need of a Most Rigorous Intervention program after receiving a failing grade for five years in a row.
District administrators have applied for Most Rigorous Intervention program funding three times since Feb. 26. Their application was rejected the first two times.
According to a response letter from the Public Education Department, their applications were denied for their failure to demonstrate “requisite urgency, clarity and cohesiveness to dramatically improve student achievement outcomes” and that “an entire generation of students has been deprived of a high-quality education.”
Superintendent Pam Montoya did not return calls or emails beginning in April inquiring about the state of the District and the number of students who leave the state to go to school in Colorado.
According to program applications, the District has struggled recruiting and retaining qualified teachers for years due to its isolated location, community property laws and culture.
Dulce is located on the Jicarilla Apache Nation, about 30 minutes from Chama and about 50 minutes from Pagosa Springs. Besides being isolated, non-Native Americans are not allowed to own property because the reservation is one of only two in the country where the nation owns the land. They must also travel to a neighboring community for all medical and dental care and are often challenged by “the culture, religion, language and core values of the Jicarilla Apache Nation.”
“Because of these challenges, recruiting and retaining personnel has been difficult at best,” the application states. “The District understands these challenges and understands that they are a significant factor in the performance of its schools.”
Parents have noticed.
Joycelyn Montoya, who describes herself as an involved parent, said there are times when there was no English, math or science teacher for her children’s grade. Instead, they would have substitutes or sit in common areas, the library or gym using their phones and talking.
Janelle Muniz said she pulled her now 13-year old son out of the District last year after its failure to provide him with special education programming to help with his dyslexia.
“They didn’t tell me until last year when I was dis-enrolling him that they didn’t have a special education teacher for two years,” she said. “My nephew that is going here has a substitute teacher, he doesn’t even really have a teacher-teacher.”
Both Joycelyn Montoya and Muniz said it was also very difficult to get in contact with staff.
“It took me almost a whole year before I could get his IEP (Individualized Education Program), just to get the paperwork,” Muniz said. “I got it done last year in March and they told us that they were going to get it sent to us in the mail or they were going to print it out and I could come by and get it. I kept going by the school. ‘Oh the person that is in charge of that, you have to come back, they’re not in.’ It was always they’re not here or the printer’s not working. There was always an excuse.”
Both Joycelyn Montoya and Muniz said their children were regularly bullied at the Dulce schools, but the teachers and administrators were not doing anything to make it stop.
Gashwazra, a soft-spoken, shaggy haired young man who wears glasses, said he has less anxiety and better grades now that he goes to school in Pagosa Springs.
“I’m not getting bullied all the time,” he said.
When something would happen, no one from the school would call her to let her know, Joecylyn Montoya said.
“My son was burned on the hand by the student that used to be his friend,” she said. “He burned him with a hot paper clip and was holding my son’s wrist and he kept trying to pull away and he has a scar on the top of his hand.”
Muniz said her 9-year old granddaughter was teased everyday for being half Jicarilla, half Hispanic and light-skinned.
“She didn’t have much friends, she didn’t like to go to school everyday,” she said. “Her self-esteem is much better.”
She also said her fourth-grade grandson had his glasses pulled off and was hit in the face. Administrators never told her or his mother.
Muniz and Joycelyn Montoya said their children’s grades and moods have improved since the change.
Gashwazra and Kristen Montoya went from getting low Cs and Ds to Cs, Bs and some As.
Muniz’s granddaughter looks forward to school and Gashwazra sometimes has friends from Colorado come to his house in Dulce over the weekend.
“Now, Mike tells me things, what is bothering him, if somebody is bothering him,” Joycelyn Montoya said. “Now, our communication is...better.”