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Listen to an episode of Native America Calling on Native students’ high school experiences during the pandemic

-Produced by Monica Braine

When Marcus Jake, 18, first approached his teacher Guila Curley about taking her “college success” class last fall, she was hesitant. “Are you sure you want to do that?” she recalled thinking.

Jake, then a junior at Newcomb High School in Newcomb, New Mexico, was a good student, but Curley worried because the college-level class was online. Jake, who, like Curley, is Navajo, lived up a remote mountain road with no cell phone service.

Newcomb High School is a public school located in the Navajo Nation, around 70 miles south of the Four Corners Monument where New Mexico meets Arizona, Colorado and Utah, in a school district that spans almost 3,000 square miles. In addition to Newcomb itself, the high school serves seven different Navajo communities, the farthest of which is around 30 miles away, although some students travel even farther to get to the school. All of the 266 students enrolled at the high school are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a federal measure of poverty.

To log onto his online class at Newcomb High School in Newcomb, New Mexico, Marcus Jake had to drive half a mile down a rocky dirt road to get cell phone reception. Credit: Randy Curley

Curley told Jake she’d love to have him in the class, which covered topics such as study skills, but he needed to promise to upload his assignments every week and come to the live Zoom session every Monday morning. Jake agreed. “I wanted to take [the class] just to like, push myself and to further my education, and also to get ready for college,” he said.

But halfway through the semester, Jake was failing. The house he lives in with his grandparents has no cell service. To get online, he drove half a mile down a rocky dirt road and tried logging in via a school-provided hotspot from the cab of his truck. But the connection was slow and Jake quickly grew frustrated.

Curley, Newcomb High’s college and career readiness coordinator, saw many stories like this in the past year. When education went online, she struggled to get into contact with students and help them meet college application and financial aid deadlines. College became less of a priority for students who were struggling just to log into class or who were worried about having their basic needs met, she said.

“We just weren’t prepared to handle the loss of the school as an Internet hub”

Guila Curley, college and career readiness coordinator, Newcomb High School

Prior to the pandemic Curley estimated that up to 40 percent of the school’s graduates enrolled in college. Curley, who attended the high school where she now teaches, said that number dropped significantly for both fall 2020 and fall 2021, as students struggled not only to get online but, in some cases, watched as their relatives lost jobs or became sick or even died from the coronavirus. Fears of contracting the virus on college campuses also kept some students from applying.

“We were all trying to survive, whether that was physically trying to not catch Covid, or mentally and emotionally,” Curley said. “We were just trying to get through.”

National figures tell a similar tale. Even before the pandemic, American Indian and Alaska Native students had the highest high school dropout rate and lowest college enrollment rate of any U.S. racial group. In 2018, just 24 percent of Native Americans age 18 to 24 were enrolled in college, compared to 41 percent of the overall population in that age group, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Guila Curley, who is Navajo, is the college and career readiness coordinator at Newcomb High School. When education went online, she struggled to get in contact with students and help them meet college application and financial aid deadlines. “We were all trying to survive, whether that was physically trying to not catch Covid, or mentally and emotionally,” Curley said. “We were just trying to get through.” Credit: Andi Murphy for The Hechinger Report

Then, in fall 2020, the number of Native students attending college for the first time fell by nearly a quarter, compared with a 13 percent drop for all first-year, first-time students, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Experts worry about the long-term economic impact on Native communities if students continue to forgo college in large numbers.

“It is going to affect our tribal economies, it’s going to affect the health and wellness … of our tribal people,” said Diana Cournoyer, executive director of the nonprofit National Indian Education Association and a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe. Native college graduates often come back to their communities and work in schools and health clinics, which had trouble attracting enough people to fill these essential jobs even before this past year, she said. 

But while the pandemic exacerbated the barriers that Native students already faced in getting through high school and into college, it also demonstrated the lengths that some students, and their teachers, will go to learn with the hope of improving their lives and those of their families.

Related: Schools bar Native students from wearing traditional regalia at graduation

As soon as Covid hit in March 2020, Curley recognized how difficult it would be for her school district to transition to remote learning. She estimated that only around 10 to 15 percent of her students had internet at home. “We just weren’t prepared to handle the loss of the school as an internet hub,” she said.  

She spent last April trying to secure technology for students taking Advanced Placement exams. When hotspots and laptops weren’t available because of supply chain issues, the school broadcast its WiFi to the parking lot so kids could log on to take the AP tests on their phones while sitting in their cars. Early in the pandemic, school staff also printed out homework packets and delivered them by bus, or asked students to come to school once a week to pick them up. Some educators also dropped off packets at home for students who lacked transportation, said Bill McLaughlin, the Newcomb High School principal.

Read the series

This story is part of a series on college enrollment and retention among Native students that was supported by the Education Writers Association. 

Curley said many of her best students failed dual enrollment classes at the local community college when it abruptly transitioned to remote learning. She received an alert from the college letting her know that she might want to check on a student who didn’t have electricity at home. That’s not uncommon: More than a quarter of the 55,000 homes in the Navajo Nation lack electricity. “What do you want me to do?” Curley recalled thinking. “I can’t give her electricity, but you can give her an extension.”

“At the end of the day, who cares about college if you don’t care about living?”

Guila Curley, college and career readiness coordinator, Newcomb High School

Many students used the school shutdown to spend more time working. Last fall, McLaughlin and other staff members started driving to the nearest McDonald’s, more than 30 miles away, to drop off homework packets because so many students got jobs there. “We would go through the drive thru,” McLaughlin said.

Eighteen-year-old Colby Benally, who is headed to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, in the fall, summed up his senior year at Newcomb succinctly. “It sucked,” he said, a sentiment shared by many of his peers. “We’re just trying to do our best to get through today without getting the symptoms of Covid.”

Benally said that most of his close friends aren’t thinking about college. “To them, it’s always been actually going to work right after high school,” he said.

Related: How one Minnesota university more than doubled its Native student graduation rate

Curley said the pandemic hampered her ability to keep students on task when it came to applying for college. Normally, she would have ensured that every graduating senior had, at a minimum, applied to the local community college to preserve the option of going to school in the fall. But this year, as she struggled to get in touch with students, “a lot fell on the kids’ shoulders,” she said. Fewer applied to college this spring; some of the students from last year’s graduating class who had applied, didn’t enroll, while others from the class of 2020 left college mid-semester.

For Jake, when learning went online, school started to recede from his mind. He lives with his grandparents, Juanita and Allen Bryant, who raised him because his parents weren’t ready to have kids, he said.

His grandmother works as a housekeeper at a casino more than an hour away, so Jake spends a lot of time alone with his grandfather, doing chores, cooking and feeding their 22 horses.

Marcus Jake, who is Navajo, lives in the Navajo Nation with his grandparents Juanita and Allen Bryant. This fall he’ll be a senior at Newcomb High School in Newcomb, New Mexico. Credit: Randy Curley

“When I was at home there was a lot of stuff that I had to do around the house to help my grandparents, so school wasn’t really on my mind,” Jake said. “I want to focus on home and help them out, so I can be there for them and help them out the way they helped me out when I was a kid.”

Like Jake, many Native students have family responsibilities – to help financially, or care for younger siblings or grandparents – that keep them close to home. The pandemic made some Native families even more reluctant to send their kids away to college, Curley said. In the past, she’s had parents get upset with her for suggesting their children apply to far-flung colleges.

“I have had a really hard time trying not to just be like, ‘Don’t listen to your mom and dad,’” she said. “It’s already scary to try to go out on your own.”

“It is going to affect our tribal economies, it’s going to affect the health and wellness … of our tribal people”

Diana Cournoyer, executive director of the nonprofit National Indian Education Association

Many of Curley’s students lost family members to the virus. At the beginning of last summer, she said she shared GoFundMe campaigns every other week to help cover funeral expenses for students’ relatives or other community members who had died from the coronavirus. At that time, the Navajo Nation had one of the highest per capita infection rates in the United States.

“It was just so scary and frustrating and sad,” she said. “Within the span of this year, we’ve had kids who have dealt with all of that, some of them who’ve dealt with it multiple times.”

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Newcomb staff started calling students to check on their wellbeing. “It really helped us stay connected with our kids,” McLaughlin said.

Newcomb High School is a public school in Newcomb, New Mexico, located in the Navajo Nation. The high school serves students from seven different Navajo communities, the farthest of which is around 30 miles away. Credit: Guila Curley

Before the pandemic, Native teens had the highest suicide rate of any population group in the United States, and experts worry the pandemic and social isolation of the last year could make it worse.

Curley said that mental health will always take priority for her. “At the end of the day, who cares about college if you don’t care about living?” she said.

But as hard as the last year has been, Curley said it has also demonstrated her community’s resilience. “I think the focus here with our [Native] students was on all of the bad things — how much our kids were suffering, how much our communities were suffering. And it was all true, but there [has been] no focus on how hard some of our kids were working,” she said.

As for Jake, he eventually found a way to get to Curley’s class. His aunt bought him a better hotspot, and he started logging in and salvaged his grade. Affording the $45-a-month fee for data was sometimes difficult, he said.

But, he added, “It made me feel good about myself that I could come back from F and bring it up to a C+ and pass the class.”

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting HELLO to 741741.

Monica Braine, who is Assiniboine and Hunkpapa Lakota, contributed reporting.

This story about Navajo Nation was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, with support from a grant from the Education Writers Association. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Charlotte West is a freelance journalist who covers education, criminal justice, housing, and politics. Her work has appeared in national publications such as The Hechinger Report, the Washington Post,...

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