Nearly 11 percent of Native American students in the Rapid City Area Schools district dropped out of school last year, compared to 2.4 percent of their peers.
The same year, just under 52 percent of Native students in the district graduated from their school — a drop from 54 percent in 2009. The rates are an improvement over 2007, when graduation rates for Native students were just 40 percent.
The numbers paint a discouraging picture not only for the dropouts themselves but for South Dakota as a whole. High school dropouts are more likely to live in poverty, be incarcerated, become single parents and be unhealthy, according to a report by Civic Enterprises, a Washington-based public policy firm.
All of those situations pose a potential burden on society, both socially and economically. Nationwide, one in every four students drops out of high school before graduation. If every student who should have graduated in 2011 had done so, the economy would have seen a benefit of $154 billion in additional income during their lifetimes, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. In South Dakota, dropouts from the class of 2008 will cost the state $653 million in lost wages over their lifetime.
“It’s one of those ‘Where do you start? Where do you begin?’” Roger Campbell, director of the South Dakota Office of Indian Education, said.
The Rapid City Journal analyzed records from the South Dakota Department of Education on dropout and graduation rates of students, broken down by Native American versus non-Native American students. What the Journal found is that the Rapid City district scores poorly in Native graduation rates and dropout rates compared to other districts of similar size. In Sioux Falls, 6.2 percent of Native students dropped out in 2011 compared with Rapid City's 10.6 percent. In Aberdeen, 5.3 percent of Native students dropped out in 2011.
Even Shannon County, a district located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, had a lower dropout rate than Rapid City in 2011 at 6.2 percent. Todd County, inside the Rosebud Indian Reservation, had a dropout rate higher than Rapid City at 11.5 percent.
Statewide, the graduation rate for Native American students in 2011 was 57.1 percent compared with 85.9 percent for all students. The dropout rates are 6.6 percent for Native students and 1.8 percent for all students. That's 1,003 students who dropped out of school.
Tom Morth, management analyst with the Department of Education, explains that graduation rates and dropout rates are calculated in two ways by the state and are not “additively” related to one another. In other words, just because a graduation rate is 90 percent doesn't automatically calculate that the dropout rate is 10 percent, Morth said. Graduation rates are calculated on a four-year average using a formula created by No Child Left Behind. Some students who drop out of high school go on to attain their degrees in other ways, including GED diplomas and completing their schooling through extended learning programs in the summer.
No matter how the numbers are calculated, however, they are startling.
Campbell said Native American student dropout rates have long been a focus of his office but have risen to the forefront of late. As a result, Campbell will be in Rapid City in August for a Native American education "summit” to look for answers.
Organized with the Rapid City district, the summit will bring together schools in the state that have had success with improving both the rates of graduation among Native students, but also decreasing the achievement gap, said Jr. Bettelyoun, director of Indian Education in Rapid City.
“Sometimes we take for granted our students are dropping out for reasons beyond our control,” Bettelyoun said. “I also think there are some things we can do within our school environment to help keep kids in school.”
Campbell said schools with large Native student populations will be invited to bring their success stories to the summit. Hopefully, districts can benefit from each other. “We will be gathering some of those best practice models that are making a difference,” he said.
During the summit, educators will also address the challenges of improving the rates, something that can't be discussed without acknowledging the complex socioeconomic challenges those students face, Campbell said.
Probably the biggest challenge for Native students is poverty, he said.
An estimated 41.7 percent of Native Americans in the United States live in poverty, according to the National Congress of American Indians.
“The social repercussions of poverty” play a role in the dropout rates, Campbell said. A child without basic needs such as food and housing faces greater challenges in general than a more economically privileged student. How do they get to school? How do they concentrate if they are hungry? Do they have a home to go to at night?
Social pressures also come into play. If a student faces racism or feels disconnected at school and unsupported by their community and family, will they see the relevance of school?
So what are the answers?
Bettelyoun said the first step is getting students to use the programs already in place.
Bettelyoun lists several district programs that focus on improving the educational outcomes of Native American students, including a program called Credit Recovery. Started as a summer program in 2011, the program will now be incorporated year-round, he said. The online program allows students to finish classes they may have fallen behind in, without retaking the entire course.
“(It) takes them where they're at and moves forward,” he said. “They don’t have to go back and rehash.”
Bettelyoun said the district also plans to place 10 people in schools beginning with the 2012-2013 academic year to work as tutors to at-risk students. Rapid City Central, which has a Native dropout rate of 10.3 percent, also incorporated smaller science classes specifically for Native American students.
The district has a Beyond the Books program that connects students with employers in the community for internship opportunities as well as the Rushmore Program, which helps students return to school after going through treatment programs. And Bettelyoun said there are always the district's alternative programs — Jefferson Academy, Lincoln Academy and the Career Learning Center.
“We have all kinds of alternative programs for our kids to tap into,” Bettelyoun said.
Retired teacher Jackie Swanson believes that many of the programs within the district, excluding the smaller science classes, simply aren't working.
Swanson, 2009 Teacher of Year for the district, has worked in grade school, middle school and high school, ending her career at Central High School last school year as director of the Solutions program.
Solutions, part of the district’s Learn and Service program, was designed to give Native students a voice in improving graduation rates in the district. The Central High School program won the National Educational Association Minority and Civil Rights Award in 2011, and Swanson, along with five of its members, presented as the key note speakers at a recent dropout summit in Bismarck, N.D.
Swanson believes that a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality by the district is hurting Native students and that turf battles have led to decisions that are not in the best interest of those kids. She points to an attempt by Solutions to improve transportation opportunities for students by utilizing city buses. The district initially agreed to give the plan a try before pulling the plug on it, she said.
Swanson said Solutions students repeatedly tell her that situational transportation issues plays a role in missed classes and drop out decisions.
“We’ve got to take our personality out of it and do what’s best for kids,” she said.
Swanson believes programs like Solutions should be bolstered within the district. Bettelyoun said that since Swanson’s retirement, Solutions has been revamped and will now include all students at all Rapid City high schools.
Swanson also believes that the district's move toward larger classroom sizes hurts teachers' ability to connect with students — a critical element in keeping kids in school. At-risk students need to feel connected, she said. When they are one of 30 students in a classroom, that's less likely to happen, no matter how good a teacher is, Swanson said.
“The leadership needs to really take a look at what they're doing,” she said.
Campbell agrees that bigger classrooms and bigger schools are not helping at-risk students.
“I do think that is affecting those at-risk students,” he said. “They get lost in the numbers if you will.”
Bettelyoun disagrees. He said it’s not the number of students in the classroom that matters; it’s the relationships that are made within that classroom.
“Kids have to build relationships among themselves as well as with teachers,” he said. “I can’t say enough about the need for that relationship.”
Swanson said teachers are stretched so thinly with large class sizes and added responsibility that building relationships is becoming more and more difficult. “I believe that the teachers are doing all they can,” she said.
Ione Gayton, a Rapid City grandmother raising her granddaughter Aries Martinez, believes Native students feel alienated from the district. Gayton attended Central when she was one of just 10 Native students.
Even with that number, Gayton believes many Native students there don’t feel included.
“It's getting harder and harder for them to stay in school,” she said. “I don't know if they're really encouraged that much to be a part of the school, or if they're just tolerated.”
Swanson challenges the district to lead the way in changing attitudes about Native American students and to do more listening to Native students about their needs. Native students do want to succeed, she said. “I don’t believe any of these kids want to be statistics,” Swanson said.
Bettelyoun believes that the district is on the right track, especially with new programs on the horizon. He hopes the August summit will result in even more ideas but he warns that change doesn’t happen overnight.
“It just takes time,” Bettelyoun said.