Now that Gear Up is managed by Black Hills State University after the Mid-Central Educational Cooperative debacle, the state wants to quit on the Native American high school students the federal program aims to help.
In 2011, the state received a seven-year grant award from the Department of Education to help Native Americans prepare for college and the opportunity to escape the cycle of poverty that plagues tribal members, who are among the poorest in the nation. It ends in 2018 and state officials say they do not intend to seek an extension.
Most South Dakotans were unaware of GEAR UP until a Mid-Central official killed his wife and four children, set their home on fire and then took his own life in September 2015. In that aftermath of the tragedy, the revelations also have been grim.
GEAR UP funds were squandered in numerous ways and the state Board of Education’s oversight was inadequate even though some board members received consulting contracts for a program that never bothered to measure student progress.
Today, three Mid-Central employees await trial for felony charges, while a handful of lawmakers demand that state employees involved with GEAR Up be compelled to testify before a legislative committee investigating the affair. In fact, $1.4 million remains missing of the nearly $11 million the state received from 2011 to 2015.
Yet despite hearing concerns about the program's management and subsequent audits that raised questions about the nonprofit’s fiscal actions, state officials never publicly disputed the validity of the program before Mid-Central was notified in 2015 that it was losing its contract.
In the spring of 2016, the Board of Education awarded the GEAR UP contract to Black Hills State University, a logical home for a program that seeks to encourage students to attend college.
Since then, the new team of GEAR UP administrators has hired regional coordinators and school consultants to work with 26 schools in 14 school districts and on seven reservations to help students prepare for ACT tests and mentor youth who could be the first in their families to attend college. In June, a 21-day camp will be held at BHSU campus for students in grades 8 to 11. It will be “like practice college,” said Murray Lee, a program administrator. Last June, 101 students went to the camp. Mini-camps were held for students in grades 5 to 7.
But despite these early successes, the Board of Education has no apparent interest in continuing the program, which begs the question of what's changed?
Clearly, the same needs that existed in 2011 still exist today among the Native American population, and it is the federal government that is paying for a program utilized by 40 states. It is just as clear that the Board of Education fell short in its oversight responsibilities, which culminated in a tragedy that has brought additional scrutiny to its past performance. Is that the reason to walk away from it?
In a recent column published on this page, Gov. Daugaard wrote about his efforts to continue work started by Gov. George T. Mickelson, who declared 1990 a “Year of Reconciliation” in a bid to improve relations between Natives and non-Natives in this state.
If the Daugaard administration abandons this program without giving Black Hills State University the opportunity to make it meaningful and successful, it will be a step back from Mickelson’s goal while denying youth who did nothing wrong.