At a recent school board meeting, Seattle’s first Native American superintendent touted the successes of her Indian Education department.

She pointed to the welcome banner behind her written in Southern Lushootseed — the language of Seattle’s first people — as an emblem of that progress.

By night’s end, Denise Juneau added another item to the list. People stood and applauded as board members approved funding for Since Time Immemorial, a state-mandated tribal history and culture curriculum.

But just outside district headquarters, protesters sang and beat drums while they spoke of loss: Group members, many affiliated with the Urban Native Education Alliance, mourned a recently broken partnership that had given their after-school program a stable home. Throughout the evening, during which board members awarded Juneau a $15,000 bonus for her plan to address racial inequity, the group called for Juneau to be placed on probation.

Citing incomplete paperwork and problems communicating with the organization, the district cut its partnership with the Urban Native Education Alliance (UNEA), a nonprofit that provided free cultural programming and resources geared toward Native students for more than a decade.

Without the partnership, the program loses a discounted and permanent home base at Robert Eagle Staff Middle School — named after the late Lakota educator and beloved principal of the district’s now-shuttered American Indian Heritage High School, which once stood on the same plot of land as the middle school.

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The discord marked another chapter in a longstanding conflict between Seattle Public Schools and a group of families that want to preserve Native American presence in the Licton Springs area, sacred land for the Duwamish Tribe.

Keeping Clear Sky where it is and re-establishing the Indian Heritage school is part of their quest. Earlier this month, they filed a legal petition —  a formal application requesting action from a court — to appeal the termination, decrying the loss of one of their last ways to access “a site which is and has been their ‘own’ for thousands of years before the School District ever existed.”

Seattle Public Schools officials declined to comment on the case, citing legal advice to not discuss the appeal “outside of the legal setting.”

Earlier statements from Juneau and her communications staff repeatedly stressed that the decision does not end UNEA’s programming, and that the group is still able to rent the space — just not for free.

But without those benefits offered by the partnership, and no plan for an alternative venue, UNEA’s board members say the program’s future is in jeopardy.

Native students’ disconnect

The U.S. education system has a long, troubling history with Native American students. Beginning in the late 19th century, American Indian boarding schools took children away from their families and sought to strip them of them of their language and traditions.

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Today, Native American students here and across the country are disciplined and diagnosed with disabilities more often compared to their peers. Their dropout rate in Seattle schools, at almost 17% for the class of 2018, was higher than any other racial group.

In Seattle and other urban settings, many Native kids grow up disconnected or far from tribal communities — and they say school is just another place to feel invisible.

Twelve years ago, a group of teenage girls decided to change that by creating an after-school club for Native students. They called it the Clear Sky Native Youth Council. Soon after, their parents formed UNEA, which allowed the program to grow into what it is today: A free, twice-weekly after-school program that provides free dinners, job training, a basketball team and cultural activities such as drum-making and prayer.

All students who participate at least twice a month in Clear Sky graduate from high school, according UNEA board members, who provided The Seattle Times with a one-page report summarizing the program’s internal data. This school year, Clear Sky’s volunteer staff says it served about 150 middle- and high-school students, many of whom are homeless or in the care of foster parents. They rely on families to submit this information.

“We just wanted a safe space to hang around other kids,” said Julia Wilson-Peltier, 25, one of the group’s founders.

Her mother, Sarah Sense-Wilson, splits her time working as a full-time problem gambling prevention coordinator for Tulalip Tribes Family Services and as UNEA’s executive director — an unpaid second job.

The nonprofit doubles as a lobbying force. Its volunteer staff and families are a regular presence at School Board meetings, where they’ve pushed for the reopening of  Indian Heritage, an alternative cultural-immersion school established in the 1970s. Robert Eaglestaff is credited with maximizing enrollment and graduating every student at the school. After his death in 1996, the district slowly downsized the school until it closed.

Robust cultural programming and inclusive curriculum for Native American students can help improve their outcomes in public schools, according to several studies.

Juneau, who grew up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana and served as the state’s superintendent and director of Indian Education, agrees. But a Native-focused school isn’t the only delivery method, she said.

The district has expanded the reach of some Native education offerings. In addition to the new curriculum, Seattle students can now earn high school credit in five indigenous languages — if their schools offer it. Members of federally recognized tribes can also access after-school programs, classes geared at fostering indigenous identity and culture nights.

“If we do our job right, and ensure [we’re] culturally competent, we’re going to provide an education that is world-class — it’s content for everybody to understand,” said Juneau, a descendant of the Blackfeet Tribe and an enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation.

“Energized and healed”

For Amadanyo Joseph “A.J.” Oguara, Clear Sky filled a gap.

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While his peers navigated their first month as high school students, Oguara dealt with his parents’ breakup. Amid the divorce, the teen lost access to reliable housing. He was 14, depressed and attending Nathan Hale High School alongside bullies who mocked his disability and who had ostracized him since elementary school, he said — the first time he was punched in the face.

He skipped class frequently. Even after switching schools, Oguara said, he struggled socially as a young Native American man with Nigerian ancestry. Teachers often forgot to accommodate his motor-skills disability, he said.

“I felt like there was no one in this world that was going to help me outside of my immediate family,” said Oguara, 21, an enrolled member of the Colville Confederated Tribes. “They saw me as a burden.”

By his junior year, he was ready to drop out. But at the recommendation of a family friend, he got involved with Clear Sky, attending one of its yearly youth conferences. The group helped him regain the confidence he lost while attending public schools, he said.

He met prominent Native American figures like Olympic track star Billy Mills, joined students to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline and learned about local tribes.

After years of trying and failing to find a community in high school, he said, these experiences motivated him to ultimately graduate from Middle College High School and work for Clear Sky as a program coordinator.

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Sixteen-year-old Alex Landwehr started attending meetings a few months ago, where he met Duwamish historian and Clear Sky elder Tom Speer.

“If you tell him about your tribe specifically, there is a chance he will know something about it,” — a welcome change from school, where he says he felt “cheated and lied to during history class,” said Landwehr, who is Menominee and Potawatomi.

“The school system can be brutal. It’s a harrowing thing for a lot of students,” he said. But “every time I go to Clear Sky … I feel energized and healed, like I just got a powerup in a video game.”

How the relationship frayed

When news of the termination broke, the district said it was thankful for UNEA, but was forced to end the agreement despite “extraordinary” effort over the past two years to communicate the terms of the partnership, which included sharing a list of students, curriculum and an overall plan. The district has not fully responded to a request for related documentation The Times submitted in late June.

UNEA’s board members say the termination came without notice of any of the issues. The program records attendance and registration for each student, and volunteer mentors and staff track academic progress. But because some students are highly mobile, UNEA says it doesn’t have an official tally of Seattle Public Schools students.

Since 2008, by Sense-Wilson’s accounting, 118 Clear Sky youth have graduated, the “vast majority” of whom attended city schools.

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The tension between the district and UNEA simmered for several years. Parents filed an unsuccessful legal petition in 2013 after the district decided to demolish the Indian Heritage building.

Last fall, as Juneau began her tenure, many affiliated with the organization told The Times they hoped a Native American superintendent would address their concerns. But they point to a few events that caused the relationship to fray, including the disagreement over the Clear Sky space at Robert Eagle Staff Middle School.

Sense-Wilson and other UNEA parents opposed several district proposals raised this year, including a science curriculum, a strategic plan, and possible relocation of Licton Springs K-8, an option school that emphasizes Native history and culture and is in the same building as Robert Eagle Staff Middle School. Their testimony at School Board meetings sometimes rebuked district leaders.

District spokesman Tim Robinson said UNEA’s public statements had no bearing on the partnership decision. He said UNEA simply did not meet the criteria for the type of partnership the group had with the district, which Juneau said was better suited to an organization like Seattle Parks and Recreation. In a statement sent to reporters last month, the district said it has taken similar action with other partnerships in the past.

“Licton Springs, strategic plan and science curriculum are three separate, unrelated subjects. It is a subjective, misleading and unfortunate choice to conflate them,” Robinson wrote in a July 19 email. “We do not have a conflict with UNEA.”

After UNEA members spoke at the June 26 board meeting, a few board members, including director Scott Pinkham — whose wife serves on UNEA’s board — said they want the relationship to improve.

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“We as a board don’t have a decision-making power here, other than [to request] additional support from the superintendent to work on this,” said board member Eden Mack.

When asked late last month if the district would consider reinstating the partnership, Robinson responded, “We’re not discussing the situation.”

Looking ahead

What’s next for Clear Sky? The organization could rent district space at full price, at a cost of over $1,000 a week, UNEA board members estimate. (When asked to verify the figure, the district sent a pricing guide.)

But Sense-Wilson says renting doesn’t guarantee the space every week, and would force significant cuts. The organization received $384,000 over the past year, she said, most of which funded supplies and contractors for Clear Sky programming, its Native Warriors basketball team and youth conferences. It was a boost from the previous year’s revenue — about $155,000 according to tax documents — but Sense-Wilson said the cost of rent would still cause the program to collapse.

The families are pinning their hopes on a legal petition to overturn the district’s decision.

The land around the Eagle Staff school site matters not just for practical reasons, but for its significance to the community and the Duwamish Tribe.

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The tribe derived minerals from the springs on the site for religious and medicinal purposes, including the iron oxide in red paint that most Puget Sound tribes used for spirit dancing, said Speer, the historian who served as an elected board member of the nonprofit Duwamish Tribal Services.

It was also the site of social gatherings, he said. Families from across the region came for the resources there.

Now, parents still travel far for community in Licton Springs. Skyway resident Analisa Zahne leaves her house at 6:30 a.m. daily for a two-hour bus commute with her three kids to Licton Springs K-8. Clear Sky keeps them there after hours.

“I have very strong feelings about teaching my kids their culture,” said Zahne, who grew up taking Navajo language classes at Indian Heritage. “When they’re in that area, and that site, it’s worth it.”