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Disproportionately hit by COVID-19, Native families unenroll from RCAS to homeschool or learn in other districts

As more than 650 parents in the district responded to a survey that they don’t want their kids in school buildings this fall during the COVID-19 pandemic, many Native American families in the Rapid City Area Schools system are considering homeschooling pods or partnerships with different districts as alternatives for their kids’ education.

Native families are weighing their options before a district-wide Monday enrollment deadline. Arguments to keep kids at home include health concerns, like the fact that Native people are overrepresented in Pennington County’s COVID-19 cases.

On the other hand, some families say they’re concerned that keeping their kids at home this fall won’t improve the district’s statistic that 30-40% of students didn’t engage in remote learning this spring.

Amy Sazue, advancement coordinator at NDN Collective who recently ran for the Area 4 school board seat, said the RCAS district has not taken enough perspective from Native families into the back-to-school plan.

“Advocating on behalf of our families and children is different in Rapid City Area Schools,” Sazue, who is president of the parent advisory committee for the Indian Education Program, said. “I’ve reached out numerous times during the planning of the Together Again plan and voiced my concerns for the lack of outreach.”

Sazue created her own survey and distributed it among Native families, separate from the district’s handful of surveys to families. With 160 responses, Sazue’s survey showed 57% of Native parents polled were considering learning remotely. Another 42% of parents said they’re considering unenrolling their kids from RCAS.

“I know four people personally who are just taking (their kids) out of (RCAS) because they felt like this wasn’t an equitable process. We were shocked” at the survey results, she said. “There was no needs analysis or study done in the district to figure out what the gaps were.”

Homeschooling pods

A new homeschooling group, Lakota Oyate Homeschool Co-op, already has 60 parent members ready for the fall. Heather Thompson, an organizer of the group, said the group will be led by parents who are volunteering their expertise on certain subjects to teach a variety of classes to homeschool students.

Students can take Lakota-specific classes on culture, language, songs, geology, history, tribal law, traditional arts and beadwork, wildlife, science, water, ethnobotany, math and more from the volunteers.

“As parents, we were extremely frustrated not only on this online option but the fact that we’ve been asking the school district for generations for this curriculum to be integrated so that our students will feel more included and more engaged, and frankly perform better,” Thompson said.

Thompson estimated that Native students in the district are performing worse than their peers during the pandemic and over time, which she said is a “crisis.”

“If it was a different demographic, the board and the rest of the district would be up in arms,” she said.

Some of the families in the Co-op may still enroll with RCAS, and the co-op classes would augment the online classes they take with RCAS or other districts, Thompson said.

Jean Roach, 60, is an artist who helps take care of her grandchildren. Roach said she’s concerned with how pandemics have affected the Native community in the past, and doesn’t think COVID-19 will be any different.

“Our children are sacred,” Roach said. “Why would we want to put our children into a situation where they could possibly be sick?”

JoLynn Little Wounded, 52, has three grandkids at North Middle School and said she’s happy there’s a safer option for her family than going to school in-person.

Lorraine Nez said she’s glad her third-grader will be able to learn about Native history in the homeschooling group.

“With the whole online at-home thing, I’m a single parent and I know I’m going to have to make some changes,” Nez said. “I’m pretty excited to go forward” with the homeschooling group.

A group homeschool option will allow students to work together at home with a mentor overseeing them during the day to complete the online portions of their work, Thompson said, noting the parents could oversee the cleanliness and CDC guidelines of their homes better than they could within the school setting.

“This is what the Native community does best,” Thompson said. “We use our creativity and our culture to help each other and we find ways to pool our resources together.”

District partnership

A group of parents struck a deal this week with the Oglala Lakota County school district to offer classes to Rapid City families based on Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and Lakota language online.

Sarah Pierce, director of education equity for NDN Collective and lead facilitator of the South Dakota Education Equity Coalition, first reached out to the district for the partnership, which she said is important for “school choice.”

“For once in a long time, parents in Rapid City have an opportunity to choose a virtual option that fits our needs both culturally and linguistically,” Pierce said, noting she would promote other community members to do the same. “We’re all entitled to a choice, especially when it comes to serving the best interests of our students and our children.”

Pierce has four kids in the RCAS district who she will withdraw from their schools and transfer to the OLC district to learn from home this fall.

Although the district is nearly 90 miles from Rapid City, parents said their students will still feel more connected to the courses because they’re Lakota-specific, which may help engage the students more personally even while they take the classes online.

Tamera Miyasato, whose son is in fourth grade, said she and her other family members are certain they’ll enroll their kids with the OLC school district to learn online this fall.

“Culture and language is not only important for our learners in the Rapid City community, especially indigenous learners, but it’s critical,” she said. “Having access to Indigenous educators is one step that pushes them a little bit more towards trust.”

Nancy Bowman, who has been an educator for 16 years and has grandchildren and many Indigenous relatives in the district, said she’s glad to have that “school choice.”

“The more options you have, the better because not every learner learns the same way,” Bowman said.

A group of Rapid City Native parents will host a virtual learning enrollment fair on Wednesday for families interested in enrolling through the Oglala Lakota County public school district.

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