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Graduation gap huge for Native Americans at F-M high schools

Fargo North High School senior Kolvyn Hopkins, 17, has lived in the Fargo and West Fargo area for 15 years. He was born on North Dakota's Fort Berthold Indian Reservation near New Town and plans to attend a college in Colorado.David Samson / The Forum1 / 4
Fargo South High School senior Lavender Upshaw, 18, was born in Arizona and identifies as Navaho and Apache, She attended elementary and part of middle school in Joseph City, Ariz., before moving to Fargo and attending Fargo School District schools. She plans to attend North Dakota State College of Science for two years and transferring to a four-year college or university to get a degree. David Samson / The Forum2 / 4
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FARGO - Kolvyn Hopkins is a determined young man.

The 17-year-old senior at Fargo's North High School is laser-focused on becoming the second person in his family to get a high school diploma.

Born in New Town, N.D., on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, Hopkins has lived 15 of his 17 years in Fargo and West Fargo with his mother, who is a single parent. His mother has a high school diploma, but didn't go to college.

"We grew up really poor. She always told me that when I grow up, not to live like her," Hopkins said. "She always motivated me to do well in school."

Graduating high school hopefully will pave the way for a college education and the life Hopkins hopes to lead. He's balanced school with two jobs as he saves up for tuition at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo.

"I'm just trying to graduate and get a career and live a life without stress," he said.

Getting a high-school degree is an accomplishment, and a key step to future success, that's too rare for Native American youth in Fargo-Moorhead, where four-year graduation rates for native students hover barely above 50 percent.

At the metro area's three large school districts, the racial and ethnic breakdown of graduation rates follow a similar pattern. White students are more likely to graduate on-time than the student body as a whole, while students of color have far lower rates. Native American graduation rates are typically lower than those for black and Latino students.

In the Fargo School District, 87.2 percent of high-school students graduated within four years in 2015-16. Among whites, the rate was 89.2 percent. Native American students had a 53.3 percent on-time graduation rate last year, but in 2014-15 it was 29.2 percent.

West Fargo had an 88.1 percent graduation rate in 2015-16, with 88.9 percent of white students graduating on time. Native American students had a 61.1 percent on-time graduation rate in 2015-16.

In 2015-16, Moorhead's overall graduation rate, including students at the West Central Regional Juvenile Center and the Red River Area Learning Center, was 74 percent. Seventy-eight percent of whites graduated on-time, compared to 62.9 percent of blacks, 51.6 percent of Hispanics and 50 percent of Native Americans.

Low graduation rates for students of color are not unusual, a national education expert said.

Dr. Russell Rumberger, who teaches at The Gevirtz School in the graduate school of education at the University of California-Santa Barbara, said the gaps are typical of those seen around the nation. And they are difficult to overcome, he said.

"It's a school, family and community problem," Rumberger said. "Any one intervention will never eliminate a gap like that. To really eliminate these disparities will take a range" of interventions.

"They cost money, that's always the issue. Is there the political will to do it? Do taxpayers want to pay the extra money?" he said.

Indian education

Melody Staebner is the Indian Education Program coordinator for Fargo and West Fargo schools. She said some Native American students feel isolated in the metro area and without a strong cultural identity.

The program she runs provides mentoring in grades six through 12 to help students improve attendance, set goals and work toward graduation. They also provide home visits to work with families and cultural events to bring the Native American community together.

"We provide a lot of family support as well. We are connecting with parents, too," about the importance of attendance and education and creating positive study habits, Staebner said.

One student who has benefited from the program is Lavender Upshaw, an 18-year-old senior at Fargo's South High School.

Upshaw grew up and went to school in Joseph City, Ariz., and has lived in the F-M area since the middle of eighth-grade, she said. School in Fargo "was definitely more work. In Arizona, it was more lenient," she said.

But Arizona was also a more difficult living arrangement. She lived with her grandmother, with nine to 11 people in a house trailer.

Now she's on the softball team and is a member of the Key Club service club, though there were times she had to force herself out of bed or stare down her homework until it was done.

Her parents both keep tabs on her schoolwork, using the district's Powerschool software to track her academic progress.

"They'd see something and say, 'What is this?'" she said. "I'll get a text from my mom."

Upshaw's plan is to attend the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton "just so I can get the feeling for college," then transfer to a four-year college or university.

Her advice to other Native students.

"You can do it!" and to remember that that they "are not less equal to other people in the school."

Staebner said the Native American Essential Understanding Project being implemented statewide in North Dakota will help teachers understand native culture and history and help them to integrate those lessons into classrooms.

Kirsten Baesler, superintendent for North Dakota's Department of Public Instruction, believes the initiative will have a direct impact on graduation rates for Native American students. Staebner predicts it will create an atmosphere that fosters more pride among Native American students.

Factors at play

During Hopkins' elementary school years, the family moved at least one time per grade. He attended Lincoln, McKinley and Kennedy elementary schools in Fargo, and South and L.E. Berger elementary schools in the West Fargo.

"It was hard each time. You had to start over and over," Hopkins said.

Being able to stick with Fargo's Ben Franklin Middle School and North High School has made life easier. He's been able to settle in and make friends.

The impact of regularly moving schools is one of the issues Fargo Superintendent Jeff Schatz pointed to as dragging down graduation rates.

"When your mobility rate gets over 10 percent of your student population, that gets to be a factor in my mind. In a year, we'll have over 1,200 kids that will come and go" out of a student population of about 11,200, Schatz said.

Even in mid-May, with two weeks left in the school year, students are being registered or withdrawn from classes, he said. Students who move often don't get a chance to fully absorb the curriculum, Schatz said.

Schatz also cited poverty, importance of education to the family and individual motivation as playing a role in whether a student will graduate. Public schools must "work with students as they come to us," he said.

He also pointed to research that has made clearer the effectiveness of pre-kindergarten education.

"So that's huge. We know that by Grade 3, if a student is behind grade-level reading, that they are now at risk. And if we can't get them caught up to grade level by ninth grade, which is the first level of credit-bearing courses that you need for graduation, the struggle is on," he said.

The whole idea of considering four years the benchmark for graduation may also be outdated, Schatz said, as research has pointed out that students learn at different rates. In particular, English Learners must acquire language before they can do well academically, and special education students may need more time to master skills.

Homelessness also comes into play. Fargo School District has 161 students who don't have a stable place to live, he said.

"If we have homeless that don't go home to a stable environment, night after night different places ... that impacts a student's ability to be effective in school and to get their work done and to truly engage in the schooling experience," Schatz said.

West Fargo Superintendent David Flowers said the common denominator among obstacles to learning is poverty, which has been increasing in his district. Thirty percent of students there come from families eligible for free and reduced lunches, he said.

"And that brings with it myriad things" that requires support, he said.

Programs in place

All three of the large districts locally have programs aimed at connecting with students who are struggling, keeping them on track in school and on the path toward graduation.

Fargo has introduced Student Wellness Family Facilitators, with two workers working at each pair of north, central and southside secondary schools.

The SWFFs help struggling students and families find help for issues that can't be met by the schools, Schatz said. That may include finding help for drug, alcohol or mental health issues. Or perhaps the family needs help working with social services or the medical community. They may also help students transition to the district's alternative high school, Woodrow Wilson, or into adult education classes, Schatz said.

Both Fargo and West Fargo use a strategy called the Multi-Tier System of Supports. Educators identify kids who are struggling academically or behaviorally, then figure out how to assess where they are at educationally, and provide interventions and strategies to address shortfalls in learning, Schatz and Flowers said.

Moorhead School District is also tackling the graduation gap, says Missy Eidsness, assistant superintendent for school improvement and accountability.

Moorhead schools use a "check and connect" mentoring program to support students K-12 and keep them on track for graduation, she said.

Like West Fargo, Moorhead also has implemented the Advancement Via Individual Determination program to support students and guide them toward being college or career. The program provides mentoring, career visioning, tutoring, and learning skills such as resume writing and tackling college applications.

In addition, the district's Indian Education Committee will be adding a liaison position for at-risk families with children in grades kindergarten through four. There is also a liaison for homeless students and their families, and two liaisons for English Learners, Eidsness said.

Despite all of those programs, the classroom teacher still plays a major role in reaching students, Flowers added.

"The foundation has to be good teaching" and keeping students engaged, he said.

And the community must also address mental health issues and poverty, Flowers said.

"I don't think schools can do it alone. Schools are a reflection of our community," he said. "We all have a responsibility, parents, the community, the schools, together."

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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