FORT HALL — The stated mission of the Lillian Vallely School is to help Native American children in grades K–5, build a bridge to their future success educationally, socially, and spiritually through a quality education consisting of academics, Shoshone/Bannock cultural preservation, and basic Christian values.
Its measure of success is to expand a student’s ability to navigate Native and non-Native cultures, to compete academically, and to become a constructive influence at home and in the community.
The president of the school’s eight-member board of directors, Douglas Eddington, feels strongly that the school has more than lived up to its mission, and it continues to do so every day.
The school is a private non-profit elementary day school serving Native American children who live on the Fort Hall Reservation in southeast Idaho. It was begun in 1997 by then Idaho Episcopal Bishop John Thornton and his wife Jan, at the request of a group of elders led by Lillian Vallely, a Shoshone woman and Episcopal deacon.
It’s gone from its start in an old brick building on the Fort Hall Reservation where some of the elders, including Lillian, attended school, moving to a 60-acre farm in 1999 at 350 S. 700 W. on Blackhawk Road, where it presently sits, thanks to a large grant from the Laura Moore Cunningham Foundation, Inc., along with several other gifts.
Lillian’s daughter, Colleen Blaylock, is the board secretary.
The school has an enrollment of 31 students with an 11:1 student-teacher ratio, which gives it quite an edge in helping students develop at an early age through more individual instruction.
Eddington sees the three main components of the school — academics, the students’ native culture, and the basic moral and spiritual values taught at the school — as being essential to the school’s success.
“In 1998, I saw kids going to school and too many outcomes were not good,” Eddington said. “We want a different outcome. These children need to be taught that their culture is okay, and like anyone they need to be taught right from wrong.”
Eddington said there’s been time when almost no one in the area knew what was going on at the school. He compared it to the school being like a “doughnut hole.” Over the last two years, leaders have been trying to get the word out.
When it comes to the quality of the academic content, Eddington said, students have been scoring above the national average in key areas, he added.
“It’s easier to succeed than it is to fail,” Eddington commented. “The outcomes and the way of doing it are important. We stress academics, but we also stress the culture. We teach these students that you can value your culture, and that’s made a big impact. The students end up feeling like they fit in. They shut down if they don’t feel like they fit in.”
The goals include building self-confidence, enabling the students to feel their value. The school has a waiting list to get in, Eddington said.
“There’s a specialness about this place,” he added. “These kids want to be at school. They’re not busting to get out of here at the end of the day. To them, it doesn’t feel like a typical day.”
The school may only go up to the fifth grade, but the founders felt it was better to give students a better foundation earlier rather than later, Eddington said.
He feels the three main components the school emphasizes have a catalytic effect.
“If you take one out, the other two would suffer,” Eddington said. “Members of the tribes talk to the students about Native American culture, spirituality — no matter how it’s taught here — is vitally important. It all fits together. This is not a shrinking item. It’s a seed bed of good things to come.”
Eddington said a lot of people in the area — business leaders included — are starting to go to the school to look around and see how they do things, and they are coming away impressed.
Funding for the school has been “nip-and-tuck” since it started, he added, and further help is always needed.
“Businesses have a lot to gain by the work being done here,” Eddington said. “You always benefit when you feel you’re part of something larger than yourself. When you go into the early part of a child’s life with the values and education provided here, the return on investment is much higher.”
Eddington said his own views on providing this type of education to Native children changed with having six adopted Native grandchildren.
“You just need to get outside yourself. Don’t close your eyes.”