Sixteen years ago, Ruth Good Thunder started work at the Redwood Valley school district’s Indian Education department.
At that point the department was one room for all students from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Today, the district’s Indian Education program has separate rooms for elementary, middle, and high schools.
“Our main focus is to increase the Native American graduation rates,” said Jackie Probst, who works in the high school’s department. “We also act as a liaison between the school and the families.”
And is the program working?
Pete Nez, of the middle school staff, pointed out last year the majority of Native American sixth graders made the honor roll.
Currently 65 students participate at the high school level, 71 in middle school, and over 100 at Reede Gray Elementary School.
Probst said the program really began informally in the Morton high school. Elders from the Lower Sioux Community would attend classes to translate texts into Dakota to help pass the language to the next generation.
Today, five full-time staffers are divided among the three schools.
Dorothy Neis works with the Native American students at Reede Gray Elementary School.
“I work mostly with the third and fourth graders, with the ones who need it most,” she said. “I’ll do what the teachers request, and we do the after school programs.”
Nez, originally from the Navajo tribe in Arizona, was going to college to major in physical education in Colorado when he met Matt Pendleton, of the Lower Sioux Community.
After accepting a position at the community’s rec. department, Nez transfered over to the middle school four years ago.
“I did a lot of tutoring math in college, and heard they were looking for someone to help with the math and reading tutoring,” Nez said.
Although the rooms are open for any kind of studies, the Indian Ed. department also offers a one-semester Dakota Studies class. Open to any high school student, the class currently has 22 students.
Students who want tutoring before or after school can also come into the rooms for one-on-one attention. The rooms are especially busy during lunch times, and when students are taking tests.
“We offer a safe environment for the kids, a homey environment where they feel they belong,” said Loretta Leith.
“They can come here with they need someone to talk to, when they need a hug, or help with their homework,” said Good Thunder. “If (Native American) students have issues, they can come to us. I think they appreciate if students can see us in the community, see us outside of school.”
Page 2 of 2 - The enlarged department has been around long enough now that former students come back to visit.
“If students have been out of school for five or six years, they’ll come back to tell us about their new jobs, or to show off their babies,” laughed Probst. “If they’re having an obstacle, and they feel they can come back to us, that’s a good feeling.”
Nez said, “It’s like when coaches have student players who come back to jump in and say hi.”