Making it to graduation day

Carol Berry, Today correspondent
5/11/10

DENVER – An epiphany may not be a bad thing to experience in high school, even if you’re not exactly sure what it means.

An epiphany may have religious connotations, but it can also simply be an insight into the essential meaning or reality of something, according to the dictionary and also according to Adam John, 18, Diné.

“I don’t know – it’s like I had an epiphany and understood what I needed to do. I guess I just grew up. To this day I can’t explain it,” he said at a May 6 ceremony.

It happened in his junior year of high school. Whatever “it” was propelled his grades from D’s in his first year to B’s and “sometimes A’s” by the end.

“The obvious for student success is family support and strong academic skills. There are students who form relationships with someone outside the family (generally) who provides them support, encouragement. … this is the resilient student.”

-Rose Marie McGuire, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, Indian Education Program manager, Denver Public Schools

If school officials could capture it, it might improve Native high school graduation rates, usually at or near the bottom of the scale in comparison to other target groups or the mainstream.

John’s parents, Miriam and Danny John, “would always tell me to go to school and do my best to get passing grades,” but he didn’t do well the first two years until the moment when “I realized I wanted to get my act together and graduate.”

He wasn’t in gangs or into being a real troublemaker, he points out, but he “ditched” school regularly, just didn’t take things seriously, and looked to be headed in the same direction as a lot of his friends, more than half of whom “got expelled or changed schools and then dropped out,” although some would later get GEDs.

John thinks part of the problem for those friends was that “you’re pushed to go into school and college and probably most of them don’t want to go to college. College may be a good thing, but most people just aren’t cut out for college.”

His friends who dropped out probably wanted “more hands-on kind of training,” he said. John plans to join the Navy this month, assured of the Military Police training he wants. Afterward, if he doesn’t re-enlist, he plans to go to technical college in Wyoming for automotive training and management.

The Plenty Wolf Singers, a Denver drum group, honored Native students graduating this year in the Indian Education Program of Denver Public Schools. Parents, community members, and other guests attended festivities for the class of 2010, which did slightly better in terms of retention rates than in recent years, in part because of some special programs and alternative educational/school options with smaller enrollments. Statewide in Colorado, Native graduation rates were about 56 percent in 2009 and even lower in some Denver neighborhoods.

John said he, and he thinks quite a few others, learn best by hands-on training in which “people show you, and then you do it” under their direction and possible intervention.

Computer technician, automotive mechanics, geoscience, “If it’s something they like, they should do it and not what someone else tells them to do.”

For some, that may recall the discredited philosophy that American Indian students – no matter their individual aptitudes – couldn’t aspire to academic work but were “good with their hands.” It is compatible, however, with at least some current educational trends which stress the importance of post-high school education that doesn’t necessarily involve a four-year college.

About one-third of the class that John started out with didn’t graduate, though some students moved and attended school elsewhere for various reasons, moved and then left school, or just dropped out.

These current Native high school graduates in Denver have reason to be proud of their achievement. American Indian graduation rates across Colorado were about 56 percent in 2009, lowest of all race/ethnic groups, and in some neighborhoods in Denver they were even lower, especially among boys.

This year in most graduating classes in the Denver Public Schools system, where there are several Indian target schools, “the graduation rate has improved, but not significantly,” said Rose Marie McGuire, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, program manager for the Department of Indian Education at DPS.

She attributes the slight improvement to some special programs and alternative educational/school options where enrollment is smaller and there’s more individual support.

For those who do less well? “My impression is students who drop out generally do so early in their high school career (ninth – 10th grade) due to attendance and/or not earning the credits to advance in grade. These are indicators that are evident in middle school.

“The obvious for student success is family support and strong academic skills. There are students who form relationships with someone outside the family (generally) who provides them support, encouragement. ... this is the resilient student,” McGuire said.

Then there’s the good outcome – perhaps related to John’s encounter with epiphany – “for students who ‘turn around’ after experiencing challenges.”

Whatever the reason, the night belonged to the young Native people who made it, all 31 of them, from tribes that exemplified Denver as an Indian country crossroads – Northern Arapaho, Cherokee, Lakota, Mescalero Apache, Standing Rock Sioux, Zuni, Three Affiliated Tribes, Creek – and many more. Each was given a star quilt to honor his or her achievement, and a drum group sang an honor song. Teachers and students spoke, and everyone shared a meal at the Class of 2010 Honoring Celebration hosted by DPS’ Indian Education Program and Parent Advisory Committee.

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