High up in the mountains of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, Delphine Gatewood teaches special education at the Crystal Boarding School. She's dreading this winter, like she dreads every winter, because temperatures can slip into the negative digits which the school building just can't handle.
"You have a boiler system that regulates heat at one certain temperature so you can't turn it down," she says. "It gets so hot in the classroom and you have to open the windows in the dead of winter."
The Crystal Boarding School isn't part of any local school district in New Mexico. It's overseen at the federal level by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education. As are nearly 200 other Native American schools nationwide.
In 2015, Arne Duncan, the secretary of education at the time, called the bureau "the epitome of broken." The federal school system has been around for more than 150 years, marred by a past of forcefully assimilating students, rock-bottom academic performance and a crumbling infrastructure.
That's why the Obama administration has been pouring resources into leading an effort with the bureau to change the way it serves the 50,000 students attending its schools nationwide.
The bureau has said it hopes to shift into a role that provides more support, rather than issue directives. In other words, shift away from being a direct overseer of schools and give local control to tribal communities.
Officials at the Bureau of Indian Education estimate that roughly one-third of their school buildings are in poor condition. To fix them, they say it'll take more than $1.3 billion. That's why a big part of the reform effort is to build new schools and repair old ones.
Delphine Gatewood is a both a teacher at Crystal and the grandmother of a kindergartner, first- and fifth-grader here. She says it's hard for her grandchildren to learn at such a run-down, neglected campus. Crystal is one of 10 bureau schools in line to get a brand new facility.
A new school should also free up time for the principal and other administrative staff to focus on student education, and less time trying to repair this 85-year-old facility.
"We needed to change the way we were doing business," says Tony Dearman, the new director of the Bureau of Indian Education.
Consider this: Right now fourth graders are scoring 22 points lower in reading and 14 points lower in math than Native American students in public schools.
"The system that we used to have at [the bureau was] one size fits all," he says, "and one size fits all in the tribal nations, that's not realistic. That doesn't work."
Dearman says they've got to do better — because when kids go through school without learning what they need to, it limits economic opportunity throughout their lives.
He says the bureau is encouraging more tribes to take control of their schools because he acknowledges local officials know more about the needs and cultural traditions of students than bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.
The Crystal Boarding School offers something state-run public schools on the reservation don't: immersive Navajo cultural education. Students learn the Navajo language and traditional songs and dances on a daily basis.
It wasn't always this way, though, points out Donald Fixico. He's a historian at Arizona State University. He says bureau boarding schools, like Crystal, were once a place where Native American children were sent to assimilate.
"It was really — save the Indian child but forego all the tribal culture and old ways and languages by the kids," he says.
That was the 19th and early 20th centuries. Back in the 1970s tribes were given more control over cultural education, and new changes take it even further.
Today Fixico says the bureau is a very different place, "because native people are in control of the schools. They're in control of the curriculum, how it develops, what needs to be taught, supplying the instructors. It's a whole different ballgame altogether."
Still, many tribal members across the country say they're skeptical the reform efforts, and all of the resources put into them, will make any real difference in student performance. And, the transition hasn't been without controversy.
One of those skeptics is Delphine Gatewood. She says she's hoping for the best, if only for the future of her grandchildren.
ALLISON AUBREY, HOST:
Arne Duncan, the former secretary of education, once described the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education as, quote, "the epitome of broken." The federal school system has been around in some form for more than 150 years, and it's had problems since the start. Today the system serves 50,000 Native American kids and is infamous for crumbling infrastructure. But the bureau says a drastic change is underway. Carrie Jung from the member station KJZZ in Arizona has the story.
CARRIE JUNG, BYLINE: Every year, Delphine Gatewood dreads the winter in this mountaintop area of the Navajo Nation. She teaches special education at the Crystal Boarding School, where temperatures can dip into the negative digits. And the school building doesn't have a functioning heater.
DELPHINE GATEWOOD: You have a boiler system that regulates heat at one certain temperature, and you can't turn it down. And it gets so hot in the classroom that you have to open up windows, even in the dead of winter.
JUNG: Gatewood's three grandchildren are in kindergarten, first and fifth grades here. She says it's hard for them - and all of the children - to learn in conditions like this.
GATEWOOD: I mean, that's not good.
JUNG: The BIE estimates roughly a third of their school buildings are in poor condition. That's why it's pouring more money than ever into replacing some of its oldest schools. To fix all of them, officials believe it would take more than $1.3 billion. It's all part of something called the Blueprint for Reform, big changes the bureau says it's making at every level in the system.
For now, Gatewood says she can look beyond the quality of the building here because Crystal Boarding School offers something that state-run public schools on the reservation don't, immersive Navajo cultural education. Some days, traditional songs like this fill the hallways.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in a Navajo).
GATEWOOD: They like singing. I think that they also like dancing. They like to try to pronounce the words. And when they go home, they're asking - what does it mean?
JUNG: But it wasn't always this way. BIE schools like Crystal were once a place where Native American children were sent to learn the ways of mainstream culture - to assimilate.
DONALD FIXICO: To kill the Indian but save the man within each child.
JUNG: Donald Fixico is a historian with Arizona State University.
FIXICO: And it was really to kind of save the Indian child but to forgo all tribal culture and old ways, and especially the languages spoken by the kids.
JUNG: That was the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today BIE is a very different place.
FIXICO: Now native people are in control of the schools. They're in control of the curriculum, how it develops and what needs to be taught, supplying their own instructors - everything. It's a different ballgame altogether.
JUNG: Starting in the 1970s, tribes were allowed by law to play a larger role in setting school curriculum. But that didn't fix everything.
TONY DEARMAN: We needed to change the way that we were doing business.
JUNG: That's Tony Dearman, the new director of the BIE. That change he's talking about is the Blueprint for Reform. Consider this - right now, BIE fourth-graders are scoring about 22 points lower in reading and roughly 14 points lower in math than Native American students in public schools.
DEARMAN: You know, the system that we used to have in BIE, one-size-fits-all-the-tribal-nations - that's not realistic. That don't work.
JUNG: So the bureau says it's set out to make some major institutional changes. The goals are ambitious, including encouraging more tribes to take educational control of their schools and streamlining bureau processes. Dearman says they've got to do better because when kids go through school without learning what they need to, it limits economic opportunity throughout their lives.
ALBERTO CASTRUITA: I'm going to take you behind here to the playground, and we're going to the dorm. You see how dilapidated some of these things are?
JUNG: Back at Crystal Boarding School, the principal, Alberto Castruita, says the first major signs of the reform effort will be in the form of a new school building. That means new dorms and no more faulty boiler. And he says the reforms also mean he can spend more time focusing on student education and less time trying to fix this 85-year-old facility. But all of these changes haven't come without their share of controversy. And many are skeptical the reform efforts will make any real difference in student performance.
Again, special education teacher Delphine Gatewood.
GATEWOOD: We hear about it. You know, we hear about that transition happening. When it's going to happen, of course, you know, it's just all a waiting game, if you want to call it, now (laughter).
JUNG: She says, for the sake of her grandchildren, she is hoping for the best.
For NPR News, I'm Carrie Jung reporting from the Navajo Nation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.