In Mahnomen, parents call for education on heritage
MAHNOMEN, Minn. - By Thursday, both sides of the debate over Mahnomen High School Principal Susan Ninham's contract nonrenewal agreed about one thing: Learning, not race, should inform that debate.
About 50 students heeded a call to walk out of their final class period Thursday to protest Ninham's impending departure. Standing on their football field, they listened to pleas by several district parents to demand more opportunities to delve into their heritage at school - and a suggestion that they stay away from classes to gain leverage.
"This is not about race; this is about you guys' education," said parent Damian Badboy. "You guys should know who you are."
Some residents have said the School Board's failure on Monday to rehire Ninham, a first-year principal who is Ojibwe, sprang from her advocacy for native students. Board members counter they acted on teacher complaints about her management style and drops in attendance, among other peeves with her performance.
Before Thursday's protest, more than a dozen district parents stressed Ninham's nonrenewal is not a race issue and expressed hope it won't irreparably divide a tight-knit community.
In the meantime, Mahnomen students - both American Indian and not, both fans of Ninham and otherwise - painted a more nuanced picture than most adults speaking on their behalf.
At the protest, Badboy and fellow parents spoke of the gap in achievement and graduation rates between white and native students and insisted the district try harder to keep American Indian students, almost 65 percent of the student population, engaged. They said students need more native role models and deeper knowledge of their culture and history.
In an interview before the protest, School Board Chairman Jim DeVries noted the district can't hire staff based on race and that a couple of native culture activities at the high school are poorly attended.
Badboy invited students to put pressure on the school by staying away from classes. He told them volunteers from the community would tutor them and help with homework.
After the protest, Ninham said she wants students to stay in school. But she relates to protesters' concerns: "I have mixed emotions about this, being the school leader."
For parents opposed to the protest, the call for students to stay away from school is one way in which some of Ninham's supporters have put their agenda before education in recent days. Some said if board members were racially prejudiced, they wouldn't have hired Ninham. They expressed pride in how the district serves all students and sensed that Ninham was simply not a good fit for it.
"For most of us, this is not a race thing," said Pam Vipond, the parent of two district students. "It's sad it's really dividing the community and the school."
After the protest, ninth-grader Faith Roy and her friends said some of the protesters' statements struck a chord. They said they are eager to learn more about their heritage at school and see a more diverse teaching staff. They said they get along great with white students but sometimes feel teachers too readily assume all native students blow off school, such as a couple of teachers they said only grant bathroom breaks to white students.
But they felt the school boycott idea was a bit extreme. They said there are better ways native students can make their voices heard. "I think more students should try to get on the student council because it's mostly white kids running it," Roy said.
Several council members, who didn't support the protest, watched it from across the football field fence. Ezra VanDenEinde, the council president, said racism is not a problem at the school and shouldn't figure in the Ninham debate.
"It's an unfortunate surprise," he said of all the race talk. "We all know it's not a race issue."
He and fellow council members said the protest infused tension into a diverse student body where students of all races have traditionally gotten along. But they also said both native and non-native students could benefit from more native culture and history in the curriculum.
"I've been living on this reservation my whole life, and I realize I've hurt myself by not learning more," said senior Jess Fraser. "It's a beautiful culture."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529