Red Cloud made expensive jump into technology

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PINE RIDGE, S.D. - Despite having to raise $11 million dollars annually, with 98 percent of that coming from private donations, Red Cloud Indian School has invested more than a quarter-of-a-million dollars in computer technology over the last three years.

Fr. Tom Merkel, S.J., superintendent of Red Cloud's two elementary schools and one high school, believes it is a gamble the school had to take. "The jump into technology is expensive ? and our challenge has been the challenge of being private. We just don't get the funding that other schools have."

Merkel cited two factors that aided in the effort to become computer-current. While the school system has not received any money from the state of South Dakota, it has been able to develop partnerships with state-funded schools to receive group discounts negotiated by the state. Merkel said the savings in hardware expenditures amounted to more than $30,000. Also, the Department of Education, through a grant called Visions TECWEB, provided funding for technology training for Red Cloud's teachers.

As an example of how the decision to upgrade is paying off, Merkel points to Red Cloud Technology Coordinator John Brewer, and the initiatives he started at the school. Brewer, a tribal member, and a former science teacher in the high school, brought a partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) he helped to develop while employed at the Oglala Lakota College.

"A year before I returned to Red Cloud, we took a group of Lakota students to Washington, D.C.," Brewer said. "While there we visited the Goddard Space Center and saw a demonstration of the satellite imagery project."

A year later, Red Cloud High School had its own NASA satellite-based weather communications system.

The project is only the third such system to be brought online in any high school in the country. Describing its capabilities, Brewer said, "We have been able to really study, in real time, weather patterns all over the world: oceans, lands, tracking temperatures. Our students can sit down and learn how to enhance pictures and download them in a couple of classes. After that there are an unlimited number of projects they can do. It keeps them exploring.

Other projects made possible by the technology upgrade is a three-year study of indigenous plant life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Fr. Merkel said. The study, headed by biology teacher Wendell Gehman, includes having students identify the practical and cultural uses for the local plants. This requires the students to interview elders in their families and communities to discover the historical values of the plants. "It's a wonderful project," said Merkel.

Another project utilizing the new capabilities is a Lakota language project at Our Lady of Lourdes school in Porcupine. Lakota teacher Irmina Red Owl has her students use computer lessons for language instruction. The program concentrates on methods involving community immersion in both cultural values and language.