LOWER ELWHA KLALLAM RESERVATION — Fourteen-year-old Roger Tinoco-Wheeler jumped at the chance to be back with friends twice a week at his Port Angeles middle school in January.

But when it comes to learning, he’s grown to love an environment much closer to home: surrounded by extended family members in a small, salmon-colored building just down the road from his house, where tutors and adults in his tribe have taught him since last fall.

At the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s learning center, tucked in the tribe’s reservation on the Olympic Peninsula, Roger and dozens of other students get support with online schoolwork and relief from long days spent at home. A tutor there helped raise his math grade from an F to a B in just a few weeks, and shares his love of anime. The mandatory device-free time liberated him from distractions on his phone. Trail walks around the reservation, and trips to the recreation center, helped fill the void of not playing sports.

After experiencing how health measures transformed the way his school operates in person, where meals aren’t eaten together and some group activities are paused for social distancing, this tight-knit pod feels like more than a temporary solution while school buildings were closed.

“I feel like if this was our life until whenever, I’d be OK with it,” said Roger, his dark brown curls spilling out from his hat. “This actually feels more normal than school.”

This normalcy is what leaders of the Lower Elwha Tribe and Port Angeles School District sought to restore when they met to brainstorm last summer and came up with the learning center, a place for kids and teens in the tribe to get internet access, a predictable schedule, close support from adults and physical activity they lost after schools closed. 

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Leaders from larger school districts around the state, including Seattle, had visions of creating these go-between spaces for students while school buildings were closed. Within the span of a month, the tribe and district in this small community managed to create one, and there are plans to keep it open beyond the pandemic.  

The center, which opened in September, serves around 45 students — many of whom are cousins — who attend on different days depending on their grade level. The space, which used to house the tribe’s now-relocated child care center, was already equipped for kids. There are three classrooms, and students sit at long plastic tables working on their computers while wearing over-ear headphones. It has the look and feel of a very large portable, with student art and educational posters hanging on the walls.

The school district pays for their meals and transportation to and from the center. Adults employed by the school district and tribe keep tabs on the students’ academic progress and stand ready to help kids with anything from homework to getting on a video call. And for about 45 minutes a day, they learn the Klallam language from one of the tribe’s certified language instructors.

“We’ve seen the kids’ spirits come up because they have that interaction with one another again,” said Frances Charles, the tribe’s chairperson. “This has been a dark time for some of them.” 

The learning center added another dimension to the relationship between the tribe and the Port Angeles district. For decades, the two entities have collaborated on cultural and academic initiatives to improve education for students in the tribe, who make up much of the Native American enrollment in the 3,300-student district. 

A contract between the two parties requires them to meet regularly about the academic progress of Native American students, and paved the way for various cultural and linguistic programs.

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Students at the district can study under Klallam language instructors including Jamie Valadez and Wendy Sampson, who have created curricula around the language. High school students can take a Native American history class.

There are also tribal liaisons in three schools, and the district employs Native American interventionists who have helped students find housing and other essential needs. On his first day of work three years ago, the Port Angeles Superintendent Marty Brewer’s very first meeting was with Charles. 

When schools closed last March, leaders from both the district and the tribe worried about seeing students lose access to these resources. By summer, the tribe’s leaders had started to see signs of the pandemic wearing on children. 

Child welfare and domestic violence calls saw an uptick last summer, according to the tribe, which has about 1,100 members. The pandemic had a “heavy” impact on the tribe’s revenues, forcing temporary layoffs of employees, Charles said. Families reported depression and self-isolation among kids, and falling motivation to complete schoolwork. And internet access to complete assignments could be spotty on the rural, mountainous peninsula. 

The learning center was born out of this concern. 

“If all those things aren’t there to help students with the online learning environment, we have to find something that can,” said Tia Skerbeck, the tribe’s chief operations officer. 

As Port Angeles reopens its schools, students readjust to routine
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The center has evolved this year as Port Angeles progressed through its reopening stages. (The district now offers in-person instruction to students in all grades.) At the beginning of the fall, much of the staff’s energy was consumed by helping students get adjusted to their tech and routines, said Marci Do and Lacey Haller, who co-lead the learning center. On the fly, they worked to create a schedule that mirrors school, coordinating bus arrivals, twice-daily temperature checks and video call times. Now students have breaks built into the day to take walks and trips to the recreation center, which the tribe recently reopened.

“We’re trying to find that balance of teaching independence and providing support,” Do said. “It’s forever changing and evolving.”

The district and tribe haven’t quantified whether the learning center has had a positive impact on students yet. But the anecdotal success stories have impressed those responsible for its creation. Recently, a tutor began plotting out the academic progress of all the students in his charge. 

“There were several middle schoolers who have said they would not be passing classes otherwise,” said Michelle Olsen, assistant superintendent of the Port Angeles district. “For them to feel that peace and support — that’s powerful.”

The center has only had one case of the virus since it opened. An employee tested positive and the facility shut down for a week in October. 

Charles and other leaders of the tribe are discussing ways to keep the center open long-term and add more offerings. And in the short term, there is still a need: Some kids attend the center even though their parents haven’t enrolled them for school in-person.

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“They have a place to go with people that they know and they trust,” Haller said. “They know Auntie Marci and Auntie Lacey will be there.”

The center has also had a positive influence on adults: Do and Haller are starting out their careers as educators, and the tribe was able to rehire some of the employees it laid off at the outset of the pandemic. 

Jonathan Arakawa, a former tutor at the learning center, got a jump on his goal of teaching the Klallam language full-time.

He created a curriculum for the students to learn basic, everyday phrases in the language, and led them through vocabulary and writing drills. 

On a recent day at the center, Arakawa demonstrated one of his lessons. He walked quietly into a room of fourth and fifth graders and beckoned students’ eyes away from their screens. Standing behind the rows of distanced desks, he shuffled through papers with Klallam phrases for “Good evening,” “How are you?” and “Wash your hands” printed on them, holding each one up like a flash card for them to recite.

The kids knew all of them.