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Waubun High School helps native students connect to their roots

Waubun, Minn.-The afternoons used to be a time for watching television, chatting on the phone and scrambling to ward off boredom.

But some teens here have shaken things up this semester - by sticking around at school. On their to-do lists: Learn Ojibwe. Perform the American Indian remix of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" on a hand drum. Find out

why growing your own medicinal tobacco beats buying the chemical-packed commercial stuff. Make a dream catcher.

The new after-school program at Waubun High, on the White Earth Reservation, blends after-school staples, such as homework and tutoring, with some less common activities. Helping the school's American Indian students explore their cultural roots is among the best strategies educators can think of to narrow the district's gaping achievement gap.

For native students, who make up 70 percent of the high school population, the program brings alive a heritage they fear faces extinction.

"We're losing our old people," says senior Jesse Barrientez. "The younger generation needs to step up because otherwise we'll be no more."

Beyond homework

Last Wednesday afternoon, Barrientez taught a group of younger students how to play a moccasin game. He likened it to a native version of poker, but with only pine sticks changing hands. To the accompaniment of native drumming and song, one player hides a small rock under one of several moccasins; the other needs to find it.

Some adjustments had to be made. For lack of moccasins, the students used jean pockets to hide their rocks. When Barrientez took song requests, a kindergartener asked for "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," and Barrientez came up with a wistful native version.

The after-school lineup starts with a gym session led by Julie Smith, school counselor and "workout girl." As students do biceps curls or run on treadmills, she tries to shift their focus from losing weight to feeling good about themselves.

On Monday, students take Ojibwe lessons. On Tuesday, they talk history and customs in Sons or Daughters of Tradition circles. On Wednesday, they have a drum and dance group, and Reading and Beading, during which they delve into work by Native American writers and do crafts.

Last year, the 650-student district scored a $67,000 Success for the Future grant from the Department of Education's Indian Education Office to start the program. The money allowed, among other things, to expand evening bus service in the 440-square-mile district where many students skip extracurricular activities because they can't get home. (The grant also pays for field trips to colleges in the region.)

"We're in a high-poverty rural area where there aren't a lot of things for the kids to do after school," says Principal Helen Kennedy, noting 60 percent of students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches. "It just made sense to extend our school day."

The goal at the heart of the high school project is closing an achievement gap that widens as students get older. On state reading tests, for instance, more than 80 percent of both white and American Indian students in the district are proficient in third grade. By grade 10, 80 percent of white and 40 percent of native students pass.

The Waubun approach reflects an understanding among educators that a narrow focus on academics hasn't worked for the state, where 65 percent of American Indian students graduate from high school compared to almost 95 of their white peers.

Extensive studies show native students invested in their cultural heritage do better at school. Says Morgan Brown, assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Education, "The research is strong that for American Indian students, having that cultural connection is very much a motivating factor."

Catch up on culture

Since moving to the White Earth Reservation from Detroit Lakes, Minn., some three years ago, ninth-grader Lera Hephner missed taking part in a drum and dance group. She practiced alone at home, but that didn't match the sense of belonging she's regained after joining the new Waubun group.

"Dancing for me isn't just exercise," she says. "It's a way to connect with my culture and my people."

Students and teachers say many youngsters on the reservation have little exposure to native traditions. The majority have only learned some cultural basics this semester: when to sit or stand during a powwow, what the role of women in matriarchal native communities was and what the native concept of respect - for elders, for peers and for oneself - is about.

Gina Boudreaux, who serves on the Indian Education Parent Committee in the district, didn't start learning about her Ojibwe heritage until she moved onto the reservation more than a decade ago. She's still learning. Boudreaux recently spoke to the after-school group about the sacred uses of tobacco and the importance of growing the plant instead of feeding the coffers of Big Tobacco.

"Bringing in the cultural piece draws our children in," she says. "They love it."

A handful of white students have tried Beading and Reading as well. "Before, a lot of it was you either did the white thing or the native thing," says Smith. "They've crossed each other in a healthy way."

School officials say they aren't satisfied with attendance, at about 12 to 20 regulars. They say sports and the novelty of the program have kept students away.

But students say some of their peers aren't there because they're aware the ways of native tradition and self-destructive behaviors don't mix. Says Hephner, "So many young people are getting into drugs and alcohol and turning away from tradition."

Barrientez says the after-school program suggests an alternative: "We're bringing our culture back. We're getting stronger physically, mentally and spiritually."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

After school in Minnesota

According to the Afterschool Alliance, a national advocacy group, the roughly 957,300 school-age children in Minnesota can use more after-school programs.

- About 35 percent of school-age children have no adult supervision after school.

- Only 8 percent of Minnesota's K-12 students are able to participate in after-school programs.

- Nearly 35 percent of those students would likely participate in after-school programs if those were available.

- 75 percent of parents in Minnesota are extremely or somewhat satisfied with the after-school program their child attends.