Christina Rose
Students of all nationalities attend Rapid City Central High School, which has seen an improvement in race relations over the last 10 years, but there is still further to go.

Taking Racism Out of South Dakota Schools, Part 1

Christina Rose

Indian Country Today Media Network will be examining how discrimination is being addressed in three South Dakota school districts.

Racism is most tragic when it affects children, and for many years, the schools in South Dakota were noted for problems. At least three school districts in South Dakota, including Rapid City, Winner, and Sisseton, are exploring ways to counter discrimination.

In Rapid City, School Superintendent Tim Mitchell is putting new plans into action. Some changes have already been instituted and he is always exploring others ways to make the school a better place for all children, and especially, a place where Native children feel welcome and want to stay. Based on his past success with the Chamberlain School District, he expects to succeed.

When Mitchell started in Rapid City four years ago, he polled a diverse group of parents, students, and staff of all cultures, to determine the problems as well as the strengths. “We are looking at what we need to do, looking at the cultural aspects, to make sure all kids learn at high levels in this district,” he said.

Programs like the Odyssey Credit Recovery Program allows students, particularly those who have trouble getting to school, to make up past work rather than fail. Atayapi is an after school role-model program, and the Oceti Sakowin Program was developed by the Oglala Lakota and teaches culture and oral traditions through videos of elders rather than text books.  

At Central High School, backpack programs help young students with school supplies, but there was nothing for the high school students who were financially disadvantaged. Students developed a nationally recognized program to help other students who can’t afford food, transportation or school supplies.

Mitchell has put an emphasis on early education, which education experts say is the key to long-term success in school. The district now provides pre-school scholarships for 3 and 4 year olds. “When I came here, we cut a lot of programs, but we expanded to all-day kindergarten—drop out prevention starts at the pre-school level,” Mitchell said.

Striving to strengthen relationships between staff and students is a big part of Mitchell’s plan. Cultural training for the staff takes place each week, all year. According to Jr. Bettelyoun, Lakota, director of Indian education, “I think we are seeing a positive change with staff wanting to learn more about Native culture and traditions. We offered a series of five Saturday workshops last spring presented by Dr. Craig Howe [Lakota] and we had more than 100 teachers interested in participating. With this type of training, a better understanding and appreciation for the culture and traditions is a very important step in the right direction.”

Mitchell paints a realistic picture by saying, “I believe there are less racial tensions now than 10 years ago.”

Some of that may have to do with Central High School’s Principal Michael Talley, Standing Rock Lakota. Mitchell agreed that Talley has been a positive influence. He said, “Now I walk through the hallways and it seems to be a nice climate, the kids are getting along. We still have accusations that discrimination happened, or we have to deal with bullying, or kids say things that are racial in nature, and we have to deal with it. I just don’t see it as pervasive as it was in the past.”

While big changes are underway, sometimes it’s the simple things that make a difference. In the Chamberlain, South Dakota School District, Mitchell raised the academic proficiency rates of Native students from 25 percent to 75 percent. But this past spring, the Chamberlain schools suffered racial tensions when they would not allow the Honor Song to be played at graduation.

RELATED: South Dakota School Won't Allow Native Honor Song at Graduation

In Rapid City, the decision to allow the Honor Song was made before Mitchell arrived, however, he supports it in the school.

With clear affection, Mitchell said, “Steven Yellow Hawk, he’s such a great kid.  He sings the Honor Song, and it is such a beautiful song. He sings it so beautifully and he is so sincere. Everyone knows he is honoring each and every one of those graduates. Some schools get hung up thinking it’s a religious song, but no, it honors all of the students. Everyone here now understands it’s about honoring the diversity of your population.”

Mitchell has also been trying to recruit more Native administration through the Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation. “We talked to their professors about what they need their students to know, and in that process we are now starting to hire more Native American educators throughout our system,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell is intent on making certain all students feel at home in the school and no one feels excluded or minimized. He has brought role models into the school, and made certain the curriculum reflects the Native population. But not all schools make such changes willingly.

Part 2 will examine the changes made at the Winner School District, where in 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the school for harsh discipline and other negative and punitive tactics. It will also discuss how the school has, and has not, changed since then.