A boost to American Indian education

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 17, 2010 - 7:20 AM

Organizers hope that a four-year, $1.2 million federal grant will help more Indian students succeed in Minneapolis schools.


The original Nokomis movie house.

Photo: Minnesota Historical Society

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Across Minnesota, many American Indian students struggle to leave high school with diplomas in their hands.

Peggy Flanagan knows those struggles firsthand.

With a 1.75 grade point average coming out of St. Louis Park High School, the Minneapolis school board member barely graduated herself.

"We're trying to overcome generations of challenges," said Flanagan, a White Earth Band of Ojibwe member and director of Native American Leadership for Wellstone Action.

"It takes time, but there's hope there."

But the situation is dire in her backyard, the Minneapolis School District. Last year, the graduation rate for Indian students here was 44 percent, roughly 20 percentage points less than graduation rates for blacks and Latinos.

The statistic forced people looking to shrink Minneapolis' achievement gap to seek out resources for another, largely unnoticed, population.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Education came through, awarding Minneapolis a four-year, $1.2 million grant to help more Indian students graduate from high school.

The grant will fund College PREP (Personalized Resources and Education Pathways), a one-on-one academic mentoring and social service support program for the 105 Indian students in the district's Class of 2014.

"There won't be a single kid who drops out of school and people don't notice," said Danielle Grant, the Minneapolis school's director of Indian education.

Wrap-around services

Grant is a third-generation Indian educator.

Her grandfather served as superintendent in the Cass Lake School District in north central Minnesota.

But her mother, longtime Minneapolis principal and administrator Donna Grant, advised her to break the tradition. Donna Grant's reason: Working with her people would be complex, sometimes heart-wrenching work.

The specter of boarding schools, where Indian students at times had their language and culture literally beaten out of them, still haunts families generations later. In some circles, distrust for formal education still lingers.

"In our community, education can be a really negative thing," Grant said.

Despite the warning and challenges, Grant took the job in Minneapolis two years ago. When she wrote the grant application, she set a lofty goal for the class of 2014: Boosting that graduation rate to 80 percent.

Grant has the windfall and the support of four agencies -- MIGZI Communications, Division of Indian Work, Little Earth of United Tribes and Minneapolis' American Indian Center -- to back her up.

Mentors make a difference

Throughout school, Flanagan struggled with her heritage. She didn't have an Indian teacher until her sophomore year of college. When she did, she blossomed.

The freshmen at Minneapolis' seven traditional high schools and three contract alternative schools won't have that concern. The program will pair them with mentors several times per week, if not daily.

Some mentors sought out students long before the grant. A four-year-old partnership with Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors designed to improve education for students has also helped; the deal is up for renewal.

It takes more than schools

"Schools don't do this alone," Grant said.

For Flanagan, 31, a high school diploma offered her the chance to make history. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Minnesota and, before her 10-year high school reunion, became the first Indian to serve on the Minneapolis school board.

During her time on the board, Flanagan has fought to help propel more Indian students, such as South High School's Aaron Thompson, to higher education and beyond.

Since his family moved out of south Minneapolis, Thompson commutes from Dakota County for South High's popular "All Nations" Indian program, where his courses include Ojibwe language.

Thompson, an honors student, wants to study business and accounting in college. With the help of College PREP, the 14-year-old has no doubt he'll get there.

"All of us are wrapping our arms around these students and not allowing them to fail," Flanagan said.

"Sometimes all it takes is one adult saying, 'I believe in you.' "

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491

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    Faithful readers of the Dateline column may remember just over a year ago Dateline visited the onetime Nokomis movie house on Chicago Avenue, where an eager group of artsy activists were leading a drive to create the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center in a space most recently used by a body shop.

    Dateline dropped by one recent evening to look over the space, and the first thing that greeted us just inside the doors was the 1915 theater's name in tile on the floor, uncovered during the building's renovation.

    The lobby space now hosts a gallery where four artists are showing works for sale, ranging from $10 ornaments to a $7,500 stained-glass floor screen. All use heat to shape their works, hence the center's name. Farther inside the building, the banging of hammers and the whine of a grinder announced that a class was learning welding and other metalworking techniques.

    The nonprofit space still is raising money for additional rehab and plans a fundraising event on Friday from 6-9 p.m. at 3749 Chicago Av. S. for a minimum donation of $25. Bring your own earplugs.

    For those looking for holiday gift ideas, the gallery will be open today and Thursday from 6-9 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. More information is available at www.fireartscenter.blogspot.com .

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