Principal Comes Home to Save School
NIXON -- Randy Melendez likes the music he heard as a kid.
The Turtles play their hits from the '60s on the tape deck in the late-model blue Ford Ranger that Melendez drives between Reno and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation.
It's a lonely commute, one hour each way.
"I pop in an oldies tape and I'm fine," said Melendez, 48, principal of the new Pyramid Lake Junior and Senior High School in the tribal headquarters town of Nixon.
The 165 students attending classes in the $10.4 million facility that opened Sept. 5 probably haven't heard of the Turtles. But they know Melendez. He's the reason many of them are in the school, which is operated by the tribe and funded by the federal government.
When Melendez took a two-year leave of absence from his administrative post in the Washoe County School District to become Pyramid's principal in June 1998, he had 17 students on a tiny campus of modular buildings.
Kids on the reservation didn't want to go to school there. Melendez changed that.
"As (parents) heard about him coming out, they were more encouraged to send their kids," said Carol Smith, acting head of the tribal school board, whose daughter Felina is a freshman at Pyramid Lake.
Melendez' first job, in the early 1980s, was at Pyramid Lake. He taught physical education and coached boys varsity basketball. His teams won state championships in 1987 and 1988.
"My parents are from here," Melendez said. "I wasn't a stranger."
Melendez faced a tough situation when he returned in 1998. His old high school was no longer a winner. There was administrative upheaval and plunging morale among teachers and students.
If Melendez was going to revive the school, he needed to do a sales job on the kids.
At Pyramid Lake, teen-agers have choices. They can attend Reed or Sparks high schools in Washoe County, or Fernley High in nearby Lyon County.
Melendez had to give them reasons to stay home. To get students interested, he offered a 1998 summer of classwork and basketball.
The high school was on a version of academic probation, with a below-standard evaluation from the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges. With few kids enrolled, there was a chance the high school would lose funding. The tribe also feared the new school wouldn't be built.
Things had fallen so far, Pyramid Lake didn't even field a boys basketball team in 1997-98.
Pyramid Lake teen-agers bought what Melendez was selling. Thirty kids showed up for the summer session class in the morning and basketball in the afternoon. Things got even better in the fall when enrollment reached an all-time high of 70 for the 1998-99 academic year.
Pyramid Lake saw its boys and girls basketball teams reach the state tournament last season, but sports wasn't all Melendez offered.
He added Internet curriculum, 10,000 hours of high school subjects kids could take independently by computer.
"He did a pretty good job of turning things around," Smith said. "He's enrolled in the tribe. I think that's part of the reason he worked so hard. He has tribal members watching him and he is a tribal member."
Harriet Brady of Wadsworth, who teaches Paiute and other American Indian history at Pyramid Lake, knew Melendez when he worked in the Washoe school district.
"When he was thinking about first coming out here, I encouraged him," Brady said. "He really had credibility established."
Now, the sales job Melendez must do is easier with a new school to offer.
The 43,000-square-foot classroom building has a capacity of 250 students, 15 classrooms, all with Internet connections, a gym, music room, library and computer room.
Outside athletic facilities include a football field, an all-weather track and tennis courts.
For the first time since 1985, Pyramid Lake has a varsity football team.
The students are better off at home, Melendez says, than going to school off the reservation.
"When you're not connected, you feel left out," he said. "Kids come here, they are the focal point of what's going on. Our kids are engaged."
Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe
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