San Juan County holds two of Utah’s historical legacies: Mormon homesteaders, who came to Utah in the 1800s, and various Indigenous tribes, who have called the land home for thousands of years. In an effort to help teachers connect with students living on the Navajo Nation, the San Juan School District is launching a hiring initiative hoping to increase Native American representation on its teaching and administrative staff.

“We do believe that if our administrative and leadership positions increase in diversity, that will have a positive effect on the diversity of our teaching staff,” said Ron Nielson, SJSD superintendent. “I think this will improve our recruiting and retention efforts, and I think it’ll improve morale and the environment and culture of our school district.”

The San Juan School Board met on Jan. 20 and unanimously approved a resolution to develop a plan to create a more diverse administrative hiring pool, which will hopefully lead to an increase in Native American administrators across the entire school district. According to Nielson, Native American students make up approximately 59% of the school district’s student population, while only 35% of teachers are Native American.

The initiative aims to help current Native American teachers in the school district complete their administrative schooling through grant programs, as well as growing diversity at the teaching level. Two teachers a year from the district would be financially supported throughout a three-year program to get their administrator’s license. The total cost, Nielson said, would be around $98,000 to create the desired pool of ten qualified administrators.

In the past, Nielson said, “It hasn’t usually been a matter of a Native American candidate not being selected, but that there’s rarely a Native American candidate in the pool to be selected.”

This proposal is currently in its fledgling stages: Nielson has started to approach partners for funding and assemble a committee to work out the project’s finer details. But he hopes that by this fall, the program will be formally approved and the school district will have candidates taking classes towards their administrative certifications.

“We’re not prioritizing one culture over another — all students are lifted when any group of students are lifted,” Nielson continued. “We have a very diverse, unique county and school district because we have such an equal balance of major cultures coming together.”

“The bridges that we build and the collaboration efforts that we maintain and and build upon will only make the San Juan School District healthier and more successful,” he continued.

The school district has studied its diversity data for years, Nielson said, and has now determined practical steps to help school staff — specifically administrative positions — reflect the student population. Currently, 11% of the SJSD’s 27 district administrators are Native American.

“Our mission and our goal will be to end up with a more diverse leadership group” within seven years, Nielson said.

As a first step, Nielson has formed a committee to decide best practices for finding teachers, set a specific timeline and determine other details.

“Do we want to generally increase Native American representation, or specifically Diné, Ute Mountain Ute and Paiute representation?” Nielson asks as an example.

The committee will also answer questions regarding job security, whether potential program participants will have had to work a number of years in the district to be eligible and other qualifications.

“We do have a strong talent pool that could help us improve our diversity and improve our district,” he said.

Nielson is also focused on bringing in partners to assist with funding the program. He said the goal is to bring in between three and five partners, including the school district, to help with the costs of tuition and other financial support.

“With that many partners, that cost will be very doable,” he said.

Neilson has already spoken with Utah State University, Blanding and the Utah Navajo Trust Fund as potential partners.

The Utah Navajo Trust Fund was established by Congress in 1933. Funds are drawn from royalties earned from oil and gas on the Navajo Nation’s Aneth Extension and are meant to go toward the “health, education and general welfare of Indians residing in the Aneth Extension,” according to the Department of the Interior.

“We believe that our mission with this program aligns with many of these other organizations’ missions, so it’s a win-win situation,” Neilson said.

Nielson said that SJSD has long enjoyed a positive relationship with USU Blanding, located within the county. The college has already offered financial scholarship support for the program, which will help candidates from throughout the county access their administrative classes.

“These organizations prioritize education and helping serve students that have been historically underserved,” said Nielson. “We’re going to try to pull in as many partners as possible who would like to help us make a huge difference going forward for our district and for our students.”

The committee will work through these decisions over the next few months before presenting the program to the school board for official approval and implementation.

Nielson hopes that this diversity program will have a ripple effect throughout the school district, and even throughout the county as a whole.

“We’re not just talking about [increasing the number of Native American staff in] our schools on the Navajo Nation,” he said. “We’re talking about Blanding—we’re talking about everywhere in our district. We’d like to see the diversity in our leadership positions increase throughout the district as a whole.”

For the superintendent, this program is also a chance for SJSD to re-evaluate its recruitment practices — to ensure that the district makes the hiring process as straightforward and equitable as possible.

Examining what barriers may exist to deter Native American applicants will improve conditions for both students and staff alike, Nielson said.

He believes that when administrators share a cultural background with the district’s Native American students, all students benefit.

“In a perfect world, we would have a steady pool of diverse candidates, but right now, we’re not seeing it. So it’s time to take some strategic steps,” he said.

“We’re trying to move this district forward and benefit all those involved. I think this effort will permeate beyond the school district to the county,” Nielson continued. “It’s a very collaborative, healthy thing that will go a long way toward what we’re trying to accomplish.”