Nineteen-year-old Shawn Bower sits at a desk in the Circle of Life Academy on the White Earth Reservation, an all-Native American K-12 school. His young, troubled life shows in his eyes.
"It's been tough," he said, understating the trauma he has had to face growing up.
"I grew up with my dad always in prison and my mom not really being there," said Bower, who was partially raised by an uncle who went to prison, a grandmother who died, a cousin who took him in for a while and whole slew of random people who give him a couch to sleep on now and then.
"I lived with mom until I was 13, but my mom was really bad on drugs, so I didn't want to live with her anymore," said Bower. "So I ran away."
Bower says even back then he liked going to school, especially when the new Circle of Life Academy School was built four years ago.
"The teachers are good here; they really try to help you," he said.
But despite the good things going on inside the school walls, the family hardships outside of it won the battle, and Bower quit school at the age of 16.
"I begged him not to. I said, 'don't do it,'" said James Mulcahy, dean of students at Circle of Life. Mulcahy had taken it upon himself to try to mentor Bower, so losing him to "life" was hard.
"But he told me that he'd call me every few months so that I knew he was still safe and doing OK, and he did," said Mulcahy.
Meanwhile, a lost and alone Bower went down the familiar path he grew up with.
"I got into drugs - it was bad," he said.
Although he doesn't go into a lot of detail about that time in his life, Bower spent roughly two years in a life he calls "hell."
But while his life outside the school had seemingly won that battle, educators within the Circle of Life Academy would soon realize that they were still in the war.
"Shawn showed up this fall - he was 19 years old and enrolled himself," said Mulcahy, who jumped at the chance to rally around his old student.
Bowers, who had been gone from school for two years, had new reason to live.
"I've got a kid on the way," he said. "And I want to show my kid that there's something to live for - that there's more than the life I know."
Now taking 10th and 11th grade classes, Bowers says he struggles every day to make it to school. He's just gone through chemical dependency treatment and still feels the "want" of an addict. Every day he consciously makes the decision between the life he knew and the life he wants to know.
"I've seen the lifestyle that (some of his family members) have lived, and it's not what I want - it's not what I want my kid to know," said Bower. "I want to go to college, and I want to have a good job. I want a house that I actually own, that I pay on the loan every month with money that I earn."
His dream, for however hard he feels it is right now, is helped along by teachers and a school full of educators still fighting for him. But the staff knows they aren't just fighting for Shawn Bower, they're fighting for a whole school full of Shawn Bowers.
Picking their battles
The White Earth Reservation has had a long history of drugs, alcohol and domestic violence. A circular pattern of pain has plagued many families on the reservation and it's an issue that White Earth leaders, advocates and educators are continually squaring off with.
So when school officials at the Circle of Life Academy get the reports back on standardized testing, they're not typically surprised at the results. They've never really been good.
However, this past year was particularly low, and the Bureau of Indian Education stepped in.
"We were in the lowest 5 percent of all bureau schools in terms of literacy and math scores," said the school's new superintendent, Ricky White, who just took the job this fall. "We were 16 percent in reading and 13 percent in math in meeting or exceeding proficiency."
The school was deemed one "in need of improvement" and granted $2.4 million dollars to make those improvements.
The grant came with very specific "turnaround" instructions to go by and a lot of professional development training for the staff. Time has been added to each school day and students are now receiving an hour and a half of straight math and another hour and a half of literacy. Teachers have been going in on weekends for mandatory training to form a plan on how to boost those scores.
"I don't think any of us mind coming in, as long as the training is helpful, and it really is," said Ruth Rice, who has been a sixth grade teacher at Circle of Life for five years. She says the changes and intensity has been stressful for faculty but that it should be.
"Because we need to get this going, and I think people have always tried their hardest, but we've just never had the guidance we have now."
Rice says her students are all very aware of the low proficiency issue.
"They know their scores, but I also make sure they know that they are valued and they are just as smart as students in other schools - we just all have to work together on this," said Rice.
The spirit of "everybody working together" is exactly what White wants to culminate in his new school.
"There's something to be said about rigor, but there's also something to be said about the spirit of a place," said White. "And we can kind of get in the way of ourselves if we don't have a sense of community and pride and happiness; you can't equate those things on a scientific scale."
White says in only five short weeks, he has already seen this begin to come to fruition, as the school has now been placing more emphasis on mental health and chemical dependency programs right within the building.
"It's common knowledge that our community is suffering with substance abuse, neglect and alcoholism issues that are causing problems for our students - they are coming in to us wounded," said White, "and if we don't give them something else to do, they will end up on the side of the street, and we all know what they'll be into there."
White says this is why the school formed its first official football team, which played and won its first nine-man game earlier this month, which they also used as their homecoming.
"It was a glorious event; our boys had never played football in this organized way before," said White, who added that it seemed like the entire community came out to witness the historic event.
"I could see moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas in the stands crying and standing and cheering," said White. "It was a complete celebration that still gives me chills thinking about it, and now it's become contagious."
Not only did they have 30 boys out for football, but 30 girls went out for volleyball this year.
White says they've been having pep rallies and schoolwide Monday morning "celebrations" and believes The Circle of Life Academy Warriors are now getting a little taste of something called "school spirit."
And word must be getting out.
Enrollment has crept up by 55 students from this time last year, which has brought the K-12 school up to 180 students. Attendance rates have also gone up from 85 percent to 90 percent this year. It's a trend not typically seen with schools deemed "in need of improvement."
"We are rocking it at COLA (Circle of Life Academy)," said an enthusiastic White. "Not only is our enrollment the largest in our history, but we're creating a sense of belonging like never before, and our students want to be here."
White says they're also working with more families to try to get them more involved in the school and its programs.
"The tribe has opened up the floodgates to give us support, whether it's resourcing, providing in-kind financial help and telling us to 'put the pedal to the metal and do not let off when it comes to creating opportunities for our kids,' and that's exactly what we're going to do," said White, who says the school district will be working more closely with other community organizations to implement new programs and extracurricular activities and to better support the ones that already exist.
They're working on getting three-on-three basketball tournaments going and other "positive" programs.
"These kids are starving for this kind of stuff," said White, who is hoping that when it comes to school and community pride, if they build it, the test scores will come and eventually, so will the bright futures.
"We're not there yet," said White, "but we're going to get there." White said he doesn't want his staff to hang their heads over some low test scores.
"Look at us," he said. "We are championing this change; we are dominating the barriers that our students are facing, and we're doing this as a team."