“At Wolf Point High School in rural Montana, Native American students face the same neglect Native students across the U.S. do as they navigate a school system that has failed American Indians.” E L. Green and A. Waldman, The New York Times
The faint scars on Ruth Fourstar’s arms testify to a difficult life on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation: the physical and emotional abuse at home, the bullying at school, the self-harm that sent her rotating through mental health facilities and plunged her to a remedial program from the honor roll. A diploma from Wolf Point High School could be a ticket out of this isolated prairie town in eastern Montana. Instead, Ms. Fourstar, 17, sees her school as a dead end.
The tutoring she was promised to get her back on track did not materialize. An agreement with the high school principal to let her apply credits earned in summer courses toward graduation fell through, Ms. Fourstar said. The special education plan that the school district developed for her, supposedly to help her catch up, instead laid out how she should be disciplined. Her family fears that she will inflict the pain of not graduating on herself. ‘I’m just there,’ Ms. Fourstar said. ‘I feel invisible.’
Her despondency is shared by other Native students at Wolf Point and across the United States. Often ignored in the national conversation about the public school achievement gap, these students post some of the worst academic outcomes of any demographic group, which has been exacerbated by decades of discrimination, according to federal reports. The population is also among the most at risk: Underachievement and limited emotional support at school can contribute to a number of negative outcomes for Native youths — even suicide. Citing these factors, in 2014, the Obama administration declared Native youths and their education to be in a ‘state of emergency.’ While the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Education runs about 180 Native-only schools, more than 90 percent of Native students attend integrated public schools near or on reservations, like Wolf Point.
In June 2017, the Tribal Executive Board of Fort Peck filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights requesting a federal investigation into the tribe’s contention that the Wolf Point school system discriminates against Native students…According to the complaint and to interviews with dozens of students and families, Wolf Point schools provide fewer opportunities and fewer social and academic supports to Native students, who make up more than half of the student body, than to the white minority. The junior and senior high schools, which together have an enrollment of about 300, shunt struggling Native students into a poorly funded, understaffed program for remedial and truant students, often against their will…One of the few places where Ms. Fourstar has flourished at the high school is the Opportunity Learning Center, an ‘alternative’ program with more than 50 students — about 95 percent of them Native. They spend a couple of periods to most of the school day there.
Cookie Ragland, the program’s director and only full-time staff member, is white and grew up just west of the reservation. She has devoted her career to students who ‘don’t fit into mainstream, traditional educational classrooms’ and was drawn to Wolf Point in 2003 because it had the only alternative program in northeastern Montana.
For her classroom, Ms. Ragland procured a refrigerator, which she stocked with sandwich supplies, and a washer and dryer for students who did not have homes. She allowed Native students to earn a biology credit for going fishing and bringing back their catch to dissect. She spurned worksheets and encouraged students to do research papers on topics that interested them.
In recent years, though, the school administration has given Ms. Ragland ‘little financial or other support,’ according to the tribal board’s complaint. It has ordered her to stop developing Native-centered curriculums and taking students on field trips. At one point, it required learning center students to enter the school through a back door.
Because she considers the school ‘toxic,’ she said, she encourages some Native students to take a nontraditional path to graduation, such as a training program called Job Corps or the Montana Youth Challenge Academy. Ms. Ragland’s approach has been criticized by parents who say that steering students toward outside programs can set them back even further, and by some Native students who say Ms. Ragland appears to have lower expectations for them. ‘I’m not saying I’m a miracle worker,’she said. ‘I’ve lost students, and there are students that aren’t happy with me. I try to be consistent and fair, but I’m not perfect.’
Over her grandmother’s objections, Ms. Fourstar wants to complete her high school education at a Native boarding school in Oregon. She sees the faraway school as the only way out of Wolf Point and the issues plaguing her community.”