The youth of South Dakota’s Native American schools face extra obstacles to success. Pick a statistic: Natives rank last in school attendance and last in four-year graduation rates.
But this isn’t that story. You’ve heard that story.
This story outlines a program that offers a hand up to ambitious students at Native schools willing to work hard. It’s about what came after the wreckage of South Dakota’s former GEAR UP program — a disaster revealed by the September 2015 murder/suicide of its Mid-Central Educational Cooperative administrator.
Here’s what happened next.
“It’s the whole idea of hope, grit, perseverance,” said June Apaza with the new GEAR UP program at Black Hills State University. GEAR UP — Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs — is a multiyear federal grant program intended to help students from lower-income households succeed.
“They (students) have obstacles to get over. We can’t take the obstacles away,” Apaza said, but the program can foster the self-belief necessary to shrink them.
In the wake of scandal, the South Dakota Department of Education decided it would not renew the seven-year grant scheduled to end in fall 2018. The federal contribution to the program for its final year is $2.3 million.
The department’s decision doesn’t guarantee GEAR UP will end in South Dakota. It’s simply another obstacle that current program directors hope to overcome.
Little more than funding came with the wounded program when it moved from Platte to Spearfish in November 2015.
“If there were records,” Apaza said, “we didn’t see them.”
School districts are required to sign annual partnership agreements to join the program, but most agreements hadn’t been renewed for five years. In some cases, principal partners had moved.
The first task for new directors Peg Diekhoff and Murray Lee was to survey the districts’ interest, which was cautious at best.
That first year, 26 schools in 14 school districts across seven of the state’s nine Native reservations joined. Diekhoff and Lee were able to hire and place regional coordinators and school consultants by spring. Coordinators and consultants serve in flexible ways depending on the needs of individual schools — anything from ACT prep to student tutoring.
The main GEAR UP events happen in June. Students from member schools in grades five to seven can apply for one of the five-day academic minicamps held locally. Students in grades eight to 11 can apply for the rigorous 21-day camp held on the BHSU campus. That’s the big tamale.
“It’s like practice college,” said Lee.
In year one, GEAR UP was mostly about setting up for the first summer camp, and it had tough lessons for both students and directors, Diekhoff said. That next year, directors front-loaded camp preparation and increased the rigor of the writing instruction.
The goal of the second summer camp was to help students begin seeing themselves as scholar leaders, an effort that fell short in year one.
Changing a student’s internal narrative is key to continuing their growth after camp ends.
Sleepy students gather every morning at 8 a.m. for prayer circle, for smudging and for insight from a Native elder. Of the 101 students who enrolled this past year, 68 showed up for the first day. Homesickness would further reduce their ranks to 55 before the 21-day session ended.
“These students are young,” said Urla Marcus, the fourth and last program leader.
High achievers and those who aspire to join them comprise the participants. Camp tests them.
Between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., except for 40 minutes dedicated to lunch, groups of students rotate through sessions on language arts, computer programming, Lakota studies, college prep, and science and math.
The course load crams nine to 18 weeks of academic progress into 15 grueling days of classes.
Nights are spent with guest speakers, in trips to the park or with inflatables on the campus green. Weekends bring outings to Devils Tower, Bear Butte and other cultural sites, plus time for laundry and cleaning dorm rooms. Supervision is constant.
Camp gives students a sense of what college could be, absent the common distractions known to derail freshmen.
The objective is to propel students onto a career path beyond high school, whether it be a university, technical school or even the military.
“It’s a program that builds hope,” said Diekhoff, “that lets kids see what they can accomplish.” It allows students to explore their interests and find out who they are.
“In general,” Apaza said, “these students haven’t seen a pathway to a career or to college.”
The program teaches them the steps for entering college and provides awareness of the tuition assistance available. Comparisons among camp students are discouraged. It doesn’t matter how far behind the others somebody is, provided they begin working to close the gap.
“Every kid who comes on campus has an opportunity for post-secondary education,” Apaza said.
A strong emphasis on math and science during the first summer camp pleased organizers, but they saw a need to lift the writing requirement.
The second summer camp stressed the skills necessary to craft a college essay. Students worked through multiple drafts with continual feedback to produce one solid piece of writing, learning that writing requires revision more than genius or magic.
What happens once camp ends?
That’s where regional coordinators and school-based consultants come into play, taking up the baton for the next stage of sprints.
Data makes for a solid grant application. Nothing beats measurable evidence of real progress to prove value.
The GEAR UP office at BHSU has a stack of evidence waiting for entry and analysis. Unfortunately, a single year of results can’t show the same progress possible from a successful seven-year program.
“It’s easy to get wrapped around the numbers,” Marcus said, and it often isn’t helpful.
“Our goal from the beginning,” Diekhoff said, “was to make this the best year yet.”
As program coordinators, they’re still learning, she admitted. Possibly, they’ll get the chance to perfect it.
The Department of Education has decided it will not apply for renewal once the next grant application process opens in January or February. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other options, Apaza said.
“There are different flavors of GEAR UP grants,” she said.
In addition to the state administered grant there is a partner grant. A partner could be a university or something else. “It’s way premature to say the program will end,” she said.
They’ve had less than two years, but they’ve witnessed student growth.
“The kids come out of their shells each year,” Diekhoff said.
“We need for this program to continue,” Lee said. “I get stopped in the mall by parents who say, ‘Thanks so much for helping my daughter grow as an individual.’ We’re working as hard as we can to provide a quality service that is also fiscally responsible.”
The driving force for everyone involved, he said, is a love of helping students and their families.
“We make a small difference,” Diekhoff said. “But I know we’re making a difference.”