After years of “empty promises,” Rapid City Area Schools is taking action on the achievement gap between Indigenous students and their white counterparts. An Indigenous Education Task Force formed in February to address the educational experience, learning environment, and academic outcomes for Indigenous RCAS students.
The idea for the Indigenous Education Task Force at the end of the 2019-20 school year was at the behest of the Title VI Indian Education Parent Advisory Council. The task force will continue meeting until fall 2022, when a final report and recommendations on how to improve Indigenous education in Rapid City will be given to the Superintendent.
Valeriah Big Eagle, chairperson of the Title VI Indian Education Parent Advisory Council and the task force’s co-facilitator, said the task force is a culmination of educational disparities that have been going on for decades. She said there have been discussions historically between the school district and the Indigenous community about addressing the achievement gap, but “we get a whole bunch of empty promises and no actions.”
So the Parent Advisory Council wrote into a grant application requesting a task force to address long-neglected issues. The findings will inform the next iteration of the District’s Strategic Plan, meaning whatever the task force comes up with will likely be implemented.
The task force is comprised of District administration, school board members, IEPAC members and an attorney. School board President Curt Pochardt is on the task force; he said the school board acknowledges the achievement disparity and that something needs to change.
“I believe the issue is deep-seated and has existed literally for generations, so success will likely not come overnight. But there has been good energy in the room, and I believe we will make progress,” Pochardt told the Journal.
The State Department of Education updates data on school and district performance as part of a “district report card.” In RCAS for the 2019-20 school year, only 47% of Native American students graduated from high school on time, compared with 83% of white students graduating on time.
Student performance metrics show 28% of Native students demonstrated coursework readiness (compared with 66% of white students), 25% demonstrated assessment readiness (compared with 65% of white students), and only 15% demonstrated college or career readiness (compared to 53% of white students).
Native students are also outperformed by other students in specific subject assessments, but no data was available on the DOE website for the 2019-20 school year as assessments were canceled due to COVID-19.
Big Eagle said these are indicators that the educational system is not working for Native students. The graduation rate needs to improve, but the task force also seeks to explore ways to help Native students score higher in individual subject assessments.
Part of the way to do this, she said, is to incorporate Indigenous ways into the education system and have more Native representation among school personnel.
The task force’s first priority is developing a Lakota language immersion program for Canyon Lake Elementary School kindergarteners, set to start this fall. The kindergarten class will be a total immersion into the Lakota language. Eventually, Big Eagle said the program will expand to blended immersion (Lakota and English) for grades 1 through 5.
The task force’s second task will be evaluating the impact of the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings, which are accredited teaching standards in the state, to determine how many of the lessons are taught currently, what the impact is like, and developing metrics to evaluate effectiveness.
The task force will also look into the District’s hiring practices to ensure the recruitment and retention of more Indigenous staff. Big Eagle said creating exit interviews would help the district identify problems causing Indigenous staff to leave.
Indigenous school staff, which includes teachers, principals, administrators, and other school workers, “don’t need to write a lit review to be able to provide a cultural way of being because we are Native. We need that representation in the district,” Big Eagle said.
Currently, the task force is circulating a survey for Indigenous parents and students to give their input on what changes they would like to see the District make. Big Eagle said the task force will be doing more community outreach as well as gathering input from RCAS staff, the Oceti Sakowin Education Consortium, and holding focus groups with Indigenous youth.
The discussions have been challenging, but Big Eagle said the members have been good about keeping open hearts and minds during meetings and that Superintendent Dr. Lori Simon has been following through on her promises so far.
“We start off every meeting in prayer. It grounds us to remember why we’re here. We’re coming together in a good way to think of solutions [to the achievement gap], and prayers have helped us move forward,” Big Eagle said.
Pochardt agreed that the task force has been progressing in its mission.
“Anytime a group of thoughtful people can focus diligent efforts on serious issues, there is an opportunity for positive results for the community. I believe that is the case with the Indigenous Ed Task Force,” Pochardt said. “I also believe there is a commitment shared by members serving on the Task Force to tackle problems and not shy away from them.”