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May 12, 2013 6:01 PM by Laura Wilson- MTN News

Program working to keep Native American kids in school

BROWNING - The 2013 Building a Grad Nation annual update shows that more than one-third of Native American high school students drop out of school.

"Attendance is a very big issue. You can only teach the kids who are there, and we have a lot of transient populations - kids that start their career at one school, but move from school to school," explained Ronan School District Indian Education coordinator Leslie Caye. I think that's another issue that really does drive at the heart of the total graduation rate number."

"My parents got divorced when I was nine or 10. From there, we moved continuously from year to year. That was hard. It was frustrating and exhausting," recalled Jane Ironshirt, who is a senior at the Blackfeet Learning Academy in Browning.

Twenty-six communities across Montana have joined in on the Graduation Matters initiative, in an effort to combat such problems.

Browning High School, which has the largest Native American student population in the entire state, is one of those schools - and administrators say the program seems to be working.

"Early intervention is the key. We get those students into night school and we get them into summer school. If a student starts school in October, we want to have a place for them to get in and work on their solid classes and then transition into the high school at semester," Matthew Johnson, a counselor at Browning High School told us.

Even though the high school dropout rate is high in Browning, so is the graduation rate. That's thanks to alternative school programs in the district that target those dropout students and get them engaged and enrolled again in high school classes.

The Blackfeet Academy has graduated 135 high school students from Browning - most of whom were dropouts - in just nine years, with 13 more on track to graduate this year.

"It's not uncommon for a student to drop out several times, but still graduate. A traditional school model didn't work for those students. The Blackfeet Academy is more flexible in hours and curriculum, and has a lot of different approaches," Johnson said.

"I was in a relationship for four years, and I got pregnant. I decided to come here because they're more understanding and you get more one-on-one time with teachers," senior Celeste Garcia explained. "I think it's really important to have a place like this because it lets kids like me know that there's somebody there that's still trying to help them.

"What we try to do, is [to] identify any of their barriers and just remove them. A lot of our students have multiple barriers. They're young parents, or they're from single parent homes," Blackfeet Learning Academy Student Advisor Nikki Hannon told us.

"Some of them don't have homes. So when you ask them 'Where is your math homework?' and they say 'The dog ate it,' it might not be a story, because it's just so chaotic [at home]," she continued.

"It made me not want to go to school. It made me want to miss [school] and do things that I shouldn't be doing, or just not even come, because what was the point of coming?" Ironshirt said.

Staffers at the academy say that graduation is about much more than a diploma for many of these students.

"There is life beyond high school. It can be on the Rez, or it can be off the Rez, but there is a light at the end of high school," Hannon observed.

"I realized that I'm here because it's for me. I'm graduating because it's for me to further my education somewhere else," Garcia said.

Celeste and Jane both told us that they have plans to leave Browning and attend college in the fall.

"I've seen, literally, lives change. I've seen them start setting goals and dreaming that they could not just help themselves, but help others," said Johnson.

Browning High School has seen its graduation rate climb from about 50% to 80% in the last several decades, but teachers say it will take the entire community to raise that percentage even higher.

"We can all affect the dropout rate. It's not just going to be fixed by the administration or by teachers. All of the staff and the whole community need to get together to own the problem and own the issue," said Johnson.

"We're done redefining the problem and talking about everything that's going wrong. We want solutions," he added.

"Despite the history of education for Indian people, we have to recognize the importance of academics and education, and the role it's going to play in the future survival of our tribes," Caye pointed out.

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