South Dakota’s Race to the Top proposal will feature an unprecedented effort to foster higher academic achievement among the state’s American Indian students.
Race to the Top is a federal program that’s designed to encourage and reward states that lay the groundwork for improved student success. A limited number of states will receive money for the initiative.
The South Dakota Department of Education is applying for Race to the Top funds that are available through a competitive process under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
“We have an extraordinary opportunity to impact a student population that merits our attention,” said Gov. Mike Rounds. “The U.S. Department of Education has called for innovative, ambitious and transformational ideas to improve education, and we believe our proposal meets all of those criteria.”
South Dakota’s plan for Race to the Top funds is based on a model with a proven track record in the state. The American Indian Institute for Innovation has run an honors program since 1992 that targets mainly American Indian students and prepares them for the rigors of postsecondary education. In recent years, the program has been known as GEAR UP, or Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. It is funded by a federal grant.
The special honors program has demonstrated outstanding success. According to Stacy Phelps, who has directed the effort since its inception, 100 percent of the program alumni have graduated from high school. Eighty-seven percent have pursued postsecondary education, and nine percent have joined the military. Sixty-five percent have graduated from college or are still enrolled.
A significant focus of the state’s Race to the Top proposal is an outgrowth of the successful summer program that has evolved in South Dakota’s GEAR UP.
Under the Race to the Top proposal, partners would establish a year-round, residential school for grades 9-12 and two years of postsecondary education. The educational experience would concentrate on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The focus specifically addresses the nation’s need for scientists and engineers.
Additional efforts will include providing prescriptive interventions aimed at increasing the number of high-quality leaders and teachers in schools that have high numbers of academically struggling students.
“Our plan engages young people with rigorous curriculum and relevant real-world experience to develop professionals in the STEM and health-care areas,” Phelps said.
The initiative creates an environment that encourages academic achievement and also infuses Indian culture into the experience. “Ultimately, we hope that many of our students return to the reservations to become role models and provide the essential personnel necessary to fuel tribal economies,” Phelps added.
Advocates say a strong mentoring component and tie to the tribal community is integral to the plan’s success.
“Extended family is such an important part of Lakota, Nakota and Dakota culture,” said Keith Moore, chief diversity officer at the University of South Dakota. “It will be tough for these students to be away from home – tough on the kids and their parents.”
That’s why the plan purposefully weaves family and culture into the academic program, Moore said. The plan calls for establishing partnerships with tribal communities. The focus of these partnerships would be on supporting students with mentoring, internships, research experiences, and cultural guidance.
Planners foresee students going back to their tribal communities on a regular basis to complete academic and research projects, provide community service and maintain those all-important ties with family, friends and neighbors.
“Unlike the boarding school experiences of the past, this new venture will focus on developing specific relationships with tribal communities and have tribes support students with cultural, community and professional mentors,” Phelps said. “The families of these students will be included in the educational process from start to finish.”
The Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, which includes all of South Dakota’s nine tribes, has endorsed the concept of the residential STEM school.
“As Chairperson of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Group and as President the Oglala Sioux Tribe, I am very supportive of the state of South Dakota’s decision to prioritize these competitive grant funds to create additional educational options for our young people and our families,” said Theresa Two Bulls. “At a time when many of our young people are struggling, it is important to increase the number of supportive opportunities and safe environments that are available for them. Focusing on creating more scientists and engineers who are tied to our communities will only help our Tribes to manage our natural resources and to improve and expand the antiquated and underdeveloped public infrastructures.”
A state’s Race to the Top application must be signed by the Governor, chief state school officer, Attorney General and state Board of Education president.
The deadline to submit an application is Jan. 19, 2010, and the competition is expected to be fierce, according to South Dakota Secretary of Education Tom Oster.
“We’re hearing that only a few states will be funded this first round,” Oster said. “But we believe our plan hits many of the criteria federal officials are looking for, including demonstrating significant progress in closing the achievement gap.”
“I commend Stacy Phelps and Keith Moore for their dedication to improving outcomes for American Indian students,” Oster said. “They’ve been developing this dream for several years, and we are excited about the potential it has to impact the lives of many young people in our state.”
The U.S. Department of Education expects to announce the winners of the first round of Race to the Top funding next spring.