Rapid City Area Schools is celebrating its largest graduating class of Native American students this year with 118 seniors throughout the district.
Whitnee Pearce, director of diversity, equity and outreach for RCAS, said this year’s graduating class is 15.7% larger than last year’s class. Pearce said the class size alone speaks to the resiliency of the district’s Native American students.
“Historically, our Native American students have had more barriers placed within their educational pursuits than their non-Native peers,” Pearce said. “Being able to have one of the largest graduating classes — particularly during the uncertainties and stress of COVID-19 — speaks to ... their perseverance to overcome any obstacle in life.”
Although these students did not get a chance to walk in a traditional commencement or have their feathering ceremony due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many families found creative ways to celebrate the historical achievement.
Each of the high schools did a social distancing commencement last week, which was pre-recorded for broadcast June 7 on Black Hills Fox. Central will be at noon, Stevens at 1 p.m. and Rapid City High School at 2 p.m.
In-person ceremonies are also set for late July and will be televised on KEVN. Rapid City High School’s is July 24 at 7 p.m.; Central is July 26 at 1:30 p.m.; Stevens is July 26 at 5 p.m.
A social distancing car parade is also planned for May 29 at 6 p.m. to honor the Native American seniors throughout Rapid City.
District staff also set up a time with families this week to visit their seniors’ homes and take photos of them in their caps, gowns and star quilts outside of their houses.
Mya Schad, a senior from Central High School, said she has plans to recreate her own feathering ceremony in the future.
Schad, 17, said she’s happy she could still wear her gown and beaded cap at the virtual graduation at Central.
“To be able to be part of the biggest class is amazing to me,” she said. “There’s such a diverse amount of students at Central, and it’s good to know we’re part of that.”
Schad was involved with the Cobbler to Cobbler mentor program in school, stayed busy with her summer job at Bear Country, and set up a winter clothing drive and food drive for Pine Ridge last year when the state was hit by flooding. Schad said her best memories of high school are from the theater department.
“It’s like a group of people you don’t expect to fit in with,” she said. “They’re all very welcoming and kind.”
Schad said she plans to attend the University of South Dakota in the fall as a sustainability major with a minor in tribal law.
“I care a lot about the environment. I see a lot of problems with that, especially on the reservation,” Schad said, noting she grew up in Eagle Butte before moving to Rapid City six years ago. “I just want to protect my homeland.”
Jayden Tuttle, 17, who will graduate from Central, said it’s an honor to be part of the largest graduating class of Native students yet.
Tuttle said his family will be busy cooking at home for a graduation celebration with family. He also said he’s thinking of going into the Marines after participating in ROTC for a while, and considering attending Oglala Lakota College.
“My mom is happy for me,” Tuttle said. “Everyone’s celebrating it. I’m excited about it.”
Wraygen Shouldis, 18, graduates from Central this year and said her best memories of high school are from the competitive dance team, sideline cheer and coed performance dance.
Shouldis said she’s planning to attend Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, this fall for business and multimedia studies, and hopes to own her own business one day.
“It’s definitely a good feeling to be part of this group,” Shouldis said of her graduating class. “We’re the generation that’s really valuing our education more than past generations, because we have more resources nowadays. I think it’s pretty special to be part of that.”
Shouldis said she knows her parents are proud of her and that she still has her star quilt and beaded cap to remind her of her success.
The class of 2020 seniors have had to balance home life, navigating new waters of online learning, and keeping the community safe and healthy, Pearce said.
“In the end, being able to come out on top through these struggles speaks volumes to the type of students, leaders and most importantly people each of these seniors are,” she said.