Over the last two weeks, Indian Country Today Media Network has examined discrimination in South Dakota school districts. This week, the focus will be on the Sisseton School District.
Discrimination in education is not always cut and dry. The Rapid City School District instituted programs to ensure Native students are in a school they can call their own. Lakota language, culture, role models, after-school programming, and community support are thriving in the city’s schools. Not yet problem-free, Rapid City schools, as well as the Winner Schools, struggle with other challenges.
The American Civil Liberties Union states that many schools in border towns have an alarming high arrest rate of young Native students, Rapid City among them. The Winner Public School District overcame the “Pipeline to Prison” model of discipline, but still resists implementing role models and cultural programs.
But sometimes the problems are harder to discern, as in the Sisseton School District, which claims sincere efforts for the success of their Native students.
Sisseton School District School Board President Leroy Hellwig said school attendance is close to 100 percent, “Because if they don’t come to school, we go get them.” Since transportation is a challenge for many Native families, that may be a welcome approach.
Hellwig also said Native graduation rates were 100 percent in 2012, which is higher than many other schools in the state. However, according to statistics provided by the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe, that rate is skewed because so many students drop out before they reach their senior year.
“Retention drops three to four students a year,” said Sierra Wolcott, a parent and Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate employee. “This year there are 76 percent American Indians in K-5, and that is roughly typical. But by high school, it’s about 55 percent. Last year, there were 13 American Indian seniors, but the year before there were 23 American Indian juniors. That is pretty standard.”
Dr. Sherry Johnson, Dakota, tribal education director of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, filed a complaint with the Department of Education, which has been accepted for review. Johnson, who is only in her fourth month in the position, said, “I jumped into the middle of an Impact Aid battle, and they won’t let us into the school for anything.”
Impact Aid is federal funding for public schools that lack a strong tax base, either because of the number of military families or Native Americans. The Sisseton School District insists that the tribe should not be involved in budgeting Impact Aid funds or developing Indian Policy and Procedures. However, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the tribe is entitled to actively participate in those decisions.
The Sisseton School District’s legal team wrote, “The tribal council is a political entity, and a public school cannot report to that political entity, much the way the school superintendent does not report to the Republican Party.”
The new multi-million dollar sports stadium is a bone of contention in the Impact Aid battle. “Did we need to spend millions of dollars on that when we have kids who can’t afford lunch and they are letting the teacher’s aids go?” wondered Chad Ward, assistant to the tribal vice-chairman.
The Sisseton-Wahpeton Tribal Education Department has been asking for a Native American Parent Committee to be involved in developing curriculum as test results show that white students are faring far better in school than their Native counterparts.
The current focus on Native curriculum takes place specifically at the middle school in Sisseton, and Johnson noted they do a very good job at that level. But when Hellwig was asked if the district includes contemporary culture in the high school, he stated, “Culture… these kids have to learn to read and write, and we can’t step backwards. Some people think culture is the only answer, but we have to make sure they learn.”
In previous years, the school taught Dakota language and parents proudly reported seeing Native and non-Native students conversing in Dakota. However, the teacher left a few years ago, and has not been replaced.
Discomfort between the school and tribe is also evident. The school administrators do not attend tribal educational events and the Native community is not comfortable in the school setting, either. At a recent school picnic, only four Native families signed up for an activity, while 42 signatures were obtained at a Native picnic for the same event. Johnson said, “The administration wonders why that is. Our parents just don’t feel comfortable, they don’t feel valued in the schools. We can help that.”
The school board assumes low attendance by Natives at meetings is due to a lack of interest. But Wolcott said that is not so. Describing herself as a very involved parent, she signed up to help in her son’s classroom. When she got there she was ignored by the other mothers. “I just sat in the back by myself.” Wolcott struggled for two years to keep her son in the public school, which was just around the block from her house. But by second grade, she pulled him out.
When Wolcott tried to help the school board see how they were alienating the parents, one school board member reportedly “threw back her head and laughed. She said, ‘It’s a school! How could anyone feel uncomfortable.’”
Wolcott recounted, “They ask why parents don’t attend meetings and conferences, and then when we tell them, they laugh. If they are going to ask a question, they have to at least respect the answer.”
Johnson notes there are very few Native employees, teachers or administrators in the school. Native education experts like Nicole Bowman of Bowman Performance Consulting say having Native role models in the school is critical. In assessing a school, Bowman said, “I look for Native American employees. I listen and observe interpersonal and communication styles, cultural knowledge, a contemporary programming policy as simple as having elders or traditional teachers work side by side with the non-Native staff.”
The district employs non-Native teachers who have worked in tribal schools, noting that those teachers will be more sensitive towards Native students, and that Native teachers have not applied for teaching or administrative positions. The response to the complaint does not say they recruit Native teachers or administrators, as the Rapid City School District does.
In sports, most teams consist of 35 percent Native students, which is impressive compared to many other South Dakota schools. Still, Johnson notes that doesn’t reflect the 55 to 60 percent Native enrollment in the schools. “Until Native Americans are more fairly represented on the school board, they will never get Native American culture in the school,” said Cory Christofferson, school board director of the Warwick Public School in North Dakota.
The district says the last time they attended cultural training was in 2005.