Federal grants help struggling Red Lake schools

Red Lake, Minnesota (AP) September 2010

Officials on the Red Lake Chippewa reservation are using millions of dollars in federal grants to turnaround two of the state’s lowest-performing schools and shake off the lingering effects of a fatal school shooting nearly five years ago.

Minnesota Public Radio News reports teachers began work three weeks before students were set to arrive for classes on Sept. 7 and are using the time to speak with the parents of each of their students.

Patty Stomberg, a teacher at Red Lake High School, said engaging parents will increase attendance and help prevent dropouts – two areas where Red Lake schools have struggled for years. Some of Stomberg’s students will be the first in their family to graduate from high school.

“A lot of the children that are now in high school, their parents were part of that high dropout rate,” she said. “So they’re very intimidated by the high school.”

The additional preparation time is one of several changes made in the district after the high school and an elementary school in Ponemah were designated early this year as two of the 30 lowest-performing schools in the state.

The district also plans to add 20 minutes to each school day, extend the school year by eight days and require teachers to form teams that will take a comprehensive approach to helping every student succeed.

The district’s reform plans are being funded by more than $2.3 million in federal grants. But getting the money meant district officials had to make difficult choices from a short list of reform options that included firing high school principal Ev Arnold, who was described by many as popular and effective.

“At first I think, I can’t believe they’re going to do this,” Arnold said of his dismissal. “Over time ... I had time to reflect and think about the impact. It’s hurtful, because we’ve grown in leaps and bounds, but it’s the right thing to do.”

The district rehired Arnold as its turnaround officer, a new job that was required by the grant, and he’s now charged with overseeing reforms.

Turnaround efforts will be complicated by the histories of the schools. Like many other Indian reservations in the state, Red Lake is poor. Past generations of Native Americans were forced into boarding schools and residents still look on education with suspicion.

There is also the more recent trauma at Red Lake High School. In March 2005, a 16-year-old student killed nine people before killing himself. Most of the deaths happened at the school. Arnold said the district is still recovering.

“Because of the tragedy, there was so much anxiety,” he said. “You’re not going to thrive academically, so it was into a survival mode. And there was lots of deviant behavior.”

Suspensions and expulsions each year following the shooting reached as high as 550. Now, those numbers are down to about 150. Graduation rates back then were about 30 percent. Now, it’s 42 percent – an improvement but still far below the state average of about 79 percent.

Superintendent Brent Gish said the measurements the state used to create the underperforming schools list didn’t capture the progress that has been made.

Nonetheless, Gish said teachers are committed to the latest turnaround effort.

“Once we got past the anger of being identified and just said, ‘All right, anger isn’t going to solve this thing,’ it caused us to look in the mirror and really reflect – are we doing the right thing here? We believe that many of our initiatives are right on.”