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Relationships, hard work get credit for Cloquet's high Native American graduation rate

Jolisa Henagin (left) and Brina Rilea crack up when Henagin realizes the Ojibwe history quiz question she's asking the class didn't have the answer written on the card. Students were asked to look up questions and answers for an upcoming quiz bowl competition. Henagin then read them out loud during Ojibwe language class at Cloquet High School on Thursday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 4
Shirley Miner, Indian home school liason (left) and known to the students as "Keezer" (her maiden name), looks over photos on her computer with Drakkara Day, a junior at Cloquet High School who stops by regularly at the American Indian Education room. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 4
A sign proclaiming "Boozhoo," the Ojibwe word for "hello," greets students in the American Indian Education room at Cloquet High School. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 4
Shaylen Reynolds (left) and Brady Petite work together using "The Mishomis Book" about Anishinaabe culture and an Ojibwe dictionary to come up with questions for an upcoming quiz bowl competition during Ojibwe language class at Cloquet High School on Thursday morning. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 4

Joe Fineday eats lunch in the American Indian Education room at Cloquet High School most days.

He gets help when he needs it, but it's also a quiet place to plug away on homework. The 18-year-old member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa already lives on his own and is set to join the welding program at St. Cloud Technical and Community College next year. What drives him?

"The diploma," he said, during lunch last week. "And I want to make my little brothers feel proud."

Fineday is part of what will likely be another high graduation rate for the school's Native American students. The 2016 four-year graduation rate was nearly 96 percent, while the state average was 52.6 percent. The district's rate as a whole for that group is 71 percent, including the students who attend an alternative program.

Shirley Miner, a member of the White Earth Nation, is a home/school liaison in the American Indian Education program at the high school in Cloquet. She works with families, and with students who drop by the program's room throughout the day for a snack, a conversation or help. She tries to bridge the long distrusted education system with the native world, she said.

"Our ancestors have gone through so much for us to be here today," Miner said, and she instills in students the importance of building on that strength.

"We talk about college, careers, culture and values; how all of that can intertwine and you can still grow as a person being in the two worlds," she said.

That distrust stems from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, when many Native Americans were forced to attend federal boarding schools that worked to strip them of their languages and cultures, and where kids often were abused.

Some forced into boarding school never made their own children go to school, and when those kids had their own children, they maybe followed suit, said Miner, who has had to work through her own mistrust of schools.

"It trickles down," she said. "We help the parents understand that it is important for (kids) to be in school if they want to succeed."

Strong relationships

Educators, parents and students had a mix of answers on why a population of students that historically has low graduation rates statewide and nationally has in the past several years earned diplomas in high numbers in Cloquet.

People touted afterschool programs, additional district investment beyond state and federal funding, involved parent committees, tutoring, Anishinaabe culture and language threaded through the curriculum beginning in the elementary grades, and Native American employees in the schools.

A strong relationship between the school district and the Fond du Lac Reservation exists, and has for some time, said Dan Danielson, a member of Fond du Lac, a parent and a Cloquet School Board member.

"We are one community," he said, "and I think we are unique in the strength of that."

Principal Warren Peterson said that all cultures are respected, but expectations and standards are the same for all students. When that happens, he said, "people will rise to it, instead of isolating, separating and dividing."

Holly Pellerin, better known to her students as "Grandma," is the Ojibwe language teacher at Cloquet High School. Bob King / DNT

A drive to succeed

New this year, American Indian Education staff members looked at students' grades in December — earlier than usual — to see who might be at risk for not graduating. Plans were formed to get struggling kids on track, and that work is in progress.

"We spend a lot of time checking in," on attendance, grades and with parents, said Teresa Angell, director of the American Indian Education program.

There are emails, letters and phone calls home, or "stopping (students) out in the parking lot or in public giving them a little elbow and saying, 'Hey, I didn't see you in class today,' " Angell said, noting some kids are working to help support their families or have to stay home to watch younger siblings. Nearly half of Cloquet students take part in the free and reduced price lunch program.

"We understand that some will have struggles that will be roadblocks. We're pushing every day," she said. "But all the tools you need are right here."

A first-hour 8:15 a.m. Ojibwe language and culture class enrolls 35 students, a mix of native and non-native kids. The time of the class has improved first-hour attendance, because it's such a popular course. The teacher, Holly Pellerin, has a strong following for her informal and familial structure.

"We call her 'Grandma,' " said senior Jolisa Henagin.

About 12 percent of Cloquet's students are Native American, and 5 percent of its teachers are Native American.

Seeing people they can relate to in school and in positions of power is important, said history teacher and former Ojibwe teacher Wendy Waha, a descendent of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

For example, she said, students have seen former Fond du Lac Band chairwoman Karen Diver do great things, and it makes success feel "accessible."

Middle school principal Tom Brenner said success starts in the youngest school settings, crediting the work done by the American Indian Education team in the two elementary schools.

"Students are well-rounded, well-versed, right when they come to us," he said.

New curriculum is vetted through the American Indian Education team and, for a recent social studies upgrade, through the Fond du lac Ojibwe School.

The high school isn't perfect, Waha said, and has had some "growing pains with making sure we're looking at things like institutionalized racism. But we learn and grow from our mistakes."

At a time in her teaching history when Native American families rarely came to school conferences, Waha made an effort to meet parents on the reservation. The level of parent engagement has risen since then, she said.

Credit needs to be given to students, Danielson said.

"Our students are hardworking," he said. "You can't get where you are without kids wanting to succeed and learn."