Principal Sean McDonald is on a quest to understand the Pascua Yaqui culture and home life of Guadalupe’s high school students.
He’s attended church in the small community west of Tempe a couple of times with his wife and three kids. He makes it a point to eat at Guadalupe’s restaurants. He wants his face to become a familiar one as he works to gain the trust of parents, tribal members and town staff.
His visits are part of the Tempe Union High School District’s efforts to keep young Guadalupe residents in Tempe high schools — and get them to graduate.
Tempe Union has 620 Indian students, including 353 living in Guadalupe.
McDonald, principal of Tempe’s Compadre High School, meets every Friday with the district’s two full-time employees who work directly with these students, providing home visits, school supplies, transportation and any extra help they might need.
Ten years ago, the dropout rate for Guadalupe students was 30 percent. Last year, it fell to 5 percent, said Valerie Molina, the district’s Indian education coordinator.
Despite that, Lenny Dempsey, the community liaison for the Pascua Yaqui tribe’s education division, said more needs to be done.
“If students have a Guadalupe address, they are pigeonholed into English as a second language classes,” Dempsey said. “The district needs to continue working with us and visiting our community. We need more partnerships with input from our native kids. I think the district could also do more support in terms of culturally relevant materials in their curriculum.”
Dempsey said options should be available to teach Yaqui or other native languages in school, because the language is fading fast. Less than 100 people in Guadalupe speak Yaqui, he said.
However, he admits the district is trying.
“Although they mean well, it might be misdirected from what works for our students,” Dempsey said.
The need to help Guadalupe students became more urgent last year after Tempe Union took over operation of Guadalupe Regional High School for at-risk youths from the Maricopa County Regional School District. Tempe Union replaced Guadalupe Regional with a Compadre Satellite school in Guadalupe, but the school was closed in May after only a handful of students remained.
“We developed some mistrust after the district closed the campus,” said McDonald, who is in charge of the Guadalupe Satellite Transition Program. “We’re trying to be around more to gain back the parents’ trust. We need to build relationships instead of walls. Building relationships will be the key.”
Some of the 60-some students at the Compadre Satellite were sent to other Tempe high schools because they required special attention, such as adult education or special education programs. Some of the students just weren’t coming to school or had behavioral problems.
At the end of the second semester, 16 students remained. Since then, four of those have graduated, three are going to Marcos de Niza High School, and nine are at Compadre, Molina said.
Each of these 16 students has an individual learning plan which details courses needed to graduate. Molina or Ray Delgado, the district’s Guadalupe liaison, meets with the students every other week, and they both work closely with the Pascua Yaqui tribe, Molina said.
Delgado, who is new to the district this year, still lives in Guadalupe. Molina was born and raised in Guadalupe and graduated from Marcos de Niza. Her family still lives in Guadalupe and she is a member of the Pascua Yaqui tribe.
Because many of the Guadalupe students have socioeconomic challenges, Tempe Union helps out with school supplies, class fees, lunches, tutoring and transportation. The students are exposed to college campuses or technical schools, Molina said.
If students don’t come to school, Molina or Delgado go to their homes and speak with their parents. They meet with their counselors.
Students who have to work and help out their families are given the option to go to Compadre for their half-day classes.
The district also provides free summer school. Last year, five students graduated after attending summer school, Molina said.
“We find ways to make sure they graduate,” Molina said. “For some parents, this will be the first generation to graduate from high school.”
Guadalupe mother Lydia Gastello has two children, a senior and freshman, who go to Marcos de Niza.
“I’ve worked with the Guadalupe liaison and that seemed to really be beneficial to our kids in Guadalupe because he was able to keep on top of their needs,” said Gastello, a claim representative for State Farm Insurance.
Meanwhile, the Compadre principal continues to visit the town at least once a week, and plans to attend Guadalupe’s Easter festivities. He took his high school staff to attend cultural awareness training taught by the Pascua Yaqui education group.
“We need to make parents comfortable,” McDonald said.
But the comfort level isn’t quite there yet.
In August, McDonald helped put together an education fair in the town with a free dinner, to get the word out about resources and programs available in Tempe Union district. Although he went around town and personally invited families, only five parents and four students came out.
But he remains optimistic about the district’s efforts to reach out to Guadalupe families.
“It’s a start,” McDonald said. “I don’t think things will change overnight.”