ARAPAHOE — At St. Stephens Indian School, the past is never far away for students. A graveyard from its Catholic mission roots, marked with crosses and adorned with colorful decorations, can be seen from the school’s front doors.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos drove past the graves on her way to the school Friday, her second stop on the Wyoming leg of a tour dubbed “Rethink Schools.”
St. Stephens is one of several schools on the Wind River Reservation. Its students are largely members of the Northern Arapaho tribe, with some Eastern Shoshone members.
The school is funded by the Bureau of Indian Education, but it’s operated by the tribe. Its boundaries extend across the reservation, unlike public schools serving reservation students.
The school has higher graduation rates than its neighbors for American Indian students, but its scores on Wyoming standardized tests are comparable.
DeVos, who briefly addressed students and didn’t take questions from press, made no sweeping statements about the school or its policies. But she consistently praised mentions of parent and student involvement in school planning.
“I’m thrilled to hear about your focus on really engaging all of the stakeholders,” she said.
St. Stephens Superintendent Frank No Runner said the school has shifted to focus more on positives than negatives.
“We don’t focus on why teachers are leaving; we focus on why they’re staying,” he said.
Reservation schools often struggle with teacher recruitment and retention, a situation that has improved in recent years at St. Stephens, No Runner said.
DeVos briefly met with school staff for an overview and introduction before observing second-graders practice subtraction using blocks of ones, tens and hundreds, and a high school science activity building a solar system scale model.
Politics were discussed only briefly, when Eastern Shoshone Business Council member Leslie Shakespeare noted that some tribal member disagreed with some of the policy positions of DeVos.
He noted public schools on and near the reservation, along with St. Stephens.
“All of these schools are very important,” he said. “We respect that you’re here to listen. That’s what education is all about, is listening.”
No Runner described St. Stephens as “a school of choice,” but larger school choice policies — of which DeVos has championed — never came up.
St. Stephens receives some funding from Wyoming, but not as much as public schools. Most funding comes from the federal government.
DeVos visited a Casper school earlier Tuesday. She’s slated to visit Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Indiana later this week.