Courtesy Andrew Morrison
Murals by Andrew Morrison were moved from the old Indian Heritage High School to the new Robert Eagle Staff School.

Seattle’s New Middle School Will Be ‘Like a Water Fountain in the Desert’

Richard Walker

Seattle’s newest middle school, named for a beloved Native American educator of the 1980s and ’90s, is scheduled to open in time for the 2017-18 school year.

Robert Eagle Staff Middle School is being built on the site of the former American Indian Heritage High School. Licton Spring, which is important to the Duwamish people, flows through this site. The school features Native-themed wall murals by artist Andrew Morrison, Apache/Haida; the walls were saved from the school that was torn down to make way for the new school. The middle school will also house a K-8 program that will focus on Native culture and social justice.

Native education advocates hope the middle school will house a resurrected Indian Heritage High School. Eagle Staff, Lakota, was principal of Indian Heritage School from 1989-1996, when he walked on, and led the school to a 100 percent graduation and college-attendance rate.

But after Eagle Staff’s passing, the school district let the site fall into disrepair as maintenance funds were directed to other schools. To many Native families and students, the neglect meant the school district didn’t care. Many students left for other schools.

Natasha M. Rivers, Ph.D., demographer for Seattle Public Schools, wrote in an Enrollment and Student Outcomes Report that: “All students can succeed, but they need highly effective teachers, exemplary curriculum and materials, and appropriate academic and social support—resources that are often missing today for students of color.”

By 2009, the graduation rate for Native American students was 54 percent, 20 percent lower than the district average and 30 percent lower than white students, according to a district report. In 2013, 53.3 percent of Native American students met state achievement standards in reading and 46.3 percent met state math standards.

In 2014, Indian Heritage School was merged with another program, renamed and moved temporarily to another site. It is now a K-8 program.

The Urban Native Education Association, which moved its Native youth programs from the former Indian Heritage School site to Nathan Hale High School while the new school is being built, plans to return to Eagle Staff when it’s completed.

UNEA Chairwoman Sarah Sense-Wilson, Lakota, fought to save the old Indian Heritage School program and site. She said UNEA is in the planning stages “for rolling out a revised proposal for Indian Heritage [High School] and establishing [Robert Eagle Staff] as a hub for Native education and community gathering place.”

Supporters for resurrecting Indian Heritage High School started a Facebook page, in which they call for Seattle Public Schools to “honor [its] promises and Bob Eaglestaff's legacy: Indian Heritage School at our sacred Licton Springs.”

According to the Facebook page, supporters want to establish a “Robert Eagle Staff Indian Heritage School and Cultural Learning Center, a comprehensive K-12 program for peoples Indigenous to Turtle Island in the Seattle area, with special recognition for the Duwamish and other Tribes within the boundaries of the State of Washington.”

As planned, Eagle Staff Middle School (some family members spell the name as one word, some as two), will have room for 850 students; a portion of the school will be set aside for up to 150 students from the former Indian Heritage School program, now called Licton Springs K-8. In its heyday, Indian Heritage averaged 150 high school students; Licton Springs K-8 has a current enrollment of 116, according to a district enrollment report.

Murals by Andrew Morrison, Apache/Haida, are installed at the new Robert Eagle Staff Middle School in Seattle. (Courtesy Seattle Public Schools/June 2016)

In a December 2014 letter to UNEA, available on the district website, Superintendent Larry Nyland wrote that projected enrollment wasn’t yet at a level that warranted resurrecting Indian Heritage High School. At his previous school district, which serves students from the Tulalip Tribes, a similar program “required a regular, sustainable enrollment of 90-100 students,” he wrote.

“To offer a basic program required both Tulalip Tribes and the school district to provide an additional 4 FTE [full-time equivalent] in staffing. My understanding is that our Native students are widely dispersed throughout the city, making it difficult to generate a sustainable enrollment of 90-100 students in a single school. And I am not aware of outside funding sources that might contribute 2.0 FTE to establish a Native American High School.”

Of 53,000 students in Seattle Public Schools, nearly 3,000 identify “Native American as a primary racial identity,” according to a Licton Springs K-8 committee report.

Morrison, the artist, believes Eagle Staff Middle School will be, as UNEA hopes, a hub for Native education and a community gathering place.

“The fact that the district named the school after Robert Eagle Staff, the fact that they saved the murals, the fact that the site is designated as a landmark [by the city] … I can almost say with certainty that they will return,” Morrison said August 29 from Baltimore, where he is studying for an MFA degree at Maryland Institute College of Art.

“Now that it has those elements, it’s going to be like opening a water fountain in the desert. It will be a source of strength for the Native and non-Native communities. By taking what Indian Heritage struggled to be in the 1980s and 1990s, and remembering [Eagle Staff’s] name in a positive way, I definitely think people will gravitate back to that.”

Seattle’s newest middle school, named for a beloved Native American educator is scheduled to open in time for the 2017-18 school year, and is expected to look like this. (Courtesy Mahlum Architects)

Native Education Programs

Several indigenous nations have ties to Seattle, including the Duwamish Tribe, the Muckleshoot Tribe, and the Suquamish Tribe. Of 92 public schools in Seattle, only four have indigenous names: Leschi, the mid-1800s Nisqually leader; Sacajawea, the Lemhi Shoshone interpreter and guide for the Lewis and Clark Expedition; Chief Sealth (an anglicization of Si’ahl), the mid-1800s leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish nations; and Eagle Staff.

The school district’s Huchoosedah Indian Education Office, led by Gail Morris, Ahousaht, is working to engage Native American students and close the achievement gap.

“Since Time Immemorial,” the state Native American curriculum, is now available to all district teachers. The curriculum, which teaches Washington’s indigenous history, culture and government, is required under state law and the state education department provides free training.

Huchoosedah oversees seven after-school programs for Native American students and arranges student summer internships.

Huchoosedah obtained $150,000 in new funding for an intervention and mentoring class at Chief Sealth High School and Denny Middle School, which have the largest number of Native American students. Cultural training was provided for all staff at Ingraham High School.

Huchoosedah also organizes activities and lesson options for Indigenous Peoples Day in October, which replaced Columbus Day, and Native American History Month in November.

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