The Red Lake Nation Tribal Council has set its Native American youth a bold goal: 100 percent graduation rate for Red Lake students. The council wants all students to earn a high school diploma, whether they go to school on the reservation or in other school districts.
“We want our kids to succeed and this resolution demonstrates our commitment,” said Annette Johnson, Red Lake Nation tribal treasurer, who earned a B.S. in accounting from Bemidji State University in 1998 and a masters in tribal administration from the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 2013. “Education is critical and important for our youth,” she added.
Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki Sr., said, “We believe no young person should leave school without a diploma. This is a courageous initiative and I believe we are the first community in the country to make a commitment to a 100 percent high school graduation rate.” He graduated from Red Lake High School with honors, earned an associate’s degree from Rasmussen College and studied at the University of Minnesota.
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Last year the graduation rate at Red Lake Nation High School was 27 percent. This year, the school is on track to graduate 32 percent, “so we’re going in the right direction,” said Principal Tracy Olson.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the high school graduation rate for public high school students was 83 percent in 2014-2015, ranging from a low of 69 percent in New Mexico to a high of 91 percent in Iowa. The state of Minnesota, where the Red Lake Nation is located, had a graduation rate of 80 percent for that year.
The resolution was presented to the tribal council by educator and author John Eggers, who served as principal of the high school for seven years. “All kids are capable of graduating,” he said, a conviction shared by Glenda Martin, tribal council member representing the Ponemah District. “We have a lot of smart students here who need encouragement, focus and direction to say ‘OK, I can do it.’ We want them to get through high school and college too,” she said.
Raising expectations and providing support for students are not just the responsibility of the schools and parents, said Seki. “The community is creating a mind set and great things can happen. Kids will rise to our expectations,” he said.
Not everyone will meet the same requirements for graduation. Minnesota, like most other states, sets minimum graduation standards. Currently students must complete 21.5 credits distributed among language arts, math, science, social studies, arts and electives. School districts may impose additional requirements.
For special needs students, however, the course requirements may be met by classes specifically geared to their abilities and specified in their IEPs (Individualized Education Programs). So language arts credits, for example, may be earned by taking basic reading skills courses rather than English, literature or composition classes. In addition, federal law requires that special needs students be educated until they are 21, so they have an extra two to three years to complete their high school graduation requirements.
Olson thinks the tribal council’s resolution will have “a really positive affect” on students, but other efforts to increase graduation rates have already been implemented. The school loses a lot of kids between 9th and 10th grade, so the school is focusing on 9th graders to give them more support. “We’ve created a sheltered system where kids have the first hour and last hour of the day with the same core teachers, who are also their advisors. We’ve also hired a school counselor for freshmen and sophomores,” she explained. Red Lake Nation High School serves 284 students, with another dozen or so served by an Alternative Learning Center.
“We’re trying to create responsive environment with rigor and high expectations. We want to be sensitive to specific issues and we are a trauma-informed school, equipped to deal with historical trauma, abuse, violence, drugs and alcohol,” Olson said.
The school serves a tribe of about 12,000 people, about half of whom live on the reservation. Olson said they are also aware of the people they missed along the way. “We have a new beginnings program where we encourage people to come back and get their degrees and retraining for job skills. We do a lot of outreach, including on Facebook, and we try to identify and deal with the barriers people face in coming back,” she said.
Eggers says the next step is to let people know about the resolution and to garner support from superintendents from the other school districts that educate Red Lake Nation youth as well as community leaders and parents. “If everyone gets on board the graduation rate will go up,” he said. “It becomes a mind set and people just do it.”