By David Melmer -- Today staff
RAPID CITY, S.D. - Middle and high school students from many reservations in South Dakota recently spent six weeks in a college setting, living in dorm rooms, getting acquainted with other students and with accelerated academic work to get a glimpse of what college life would be like.
The South Dakota Gear Up program, operated by the state Department of Education, is designed to show attending American Indian students that they can spend time away from home and learn how to interact with other students in a college setting to achieve a higher level of academic achievement in hopes that they will have a head start when they return to high school.
Gear Up is operated under a federal $6.9 million grant over a six-year period with matching dollars that come from the state.
''It wasn't long ago that I felt like I was in your shoes sitting here with the other students; when I was your age, I never guessed I would be sitting on the left hand side of the governor of South Dakota working on Indian education issues - never, never would I have thought that.
''There is only one reason that I get to do that, and it's what you are fighting through now, struggling through and that's education. If I hadn't battled through and done the things that I sometimes didn't want to do, I wouldn't be standing here,'' said Keith Moore, Indian education coordinator for the South Dakota Department of Education. Moore is a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.
Moore did not paint a rosy picture for the students. He told them that getting a higher education was not all fun, and not easy; he also told them about the struggles and road blocks along the way to completion to achieve a degree.
''The benefit at the end of it was highly worthwhile. Remember that, please remember that,'' Moore said.
Statistics show that only 60 percent of South Dakota's American Indian high school students complete high school.
Gov. Mike Rounds congratulated the students at taking a big step toward not just staying in high school, but possibly continuing their education in one of the state's colleges or universities.
''The idea was to pique your interest a little bit in certain areas and to give you a chance to participate,'' Rounds said.
He told the students that they don't have to let others brag about them while they are humble, as their parents told them to be.
''Today, for just a little bit, be proud. This is a celebration day because this is one of those days in which you can look at what you are accomplishing and doing special.
''What you are doing is proving to yourself just how good you really are,'' Rounds said.
One of the goals of Gear Up is to show the students what they can do if they apply themselves. Just the simple task of leaving home for a few weeks can be a trauma for some students, and Gear Up is designed to show them what they can accomplish if they put their mind to it, the students were told.
An important goal of Gear Up is to convince the students that they need to stay in high school. Of the 40 percent of the American Indian students who drop out of the public schools, the majority is capable of
successfully attending college or technical schools, Rounds told the students.
''If you want to compete - and we all need to compete; if you want to compete with people from all over the world, then you have to have an education,'' Rounds said.
The governor reminded the students that if they do not have a high school education, they may not be able to make more than $15,000 a year, but with a high school diploma and college or technical school education the range would be in the $35,000-plus range.
''That's the goal: is to convince you that you need to take those steps now and be in a position to improve for yourself and for your families. You are taking the firsts steps and you should be proud of what you have already done.''
Rounds told the students that they come with a culture that is unique in the world, that they have a sense of art and of music that is special.
''You have gifts, every single one of you, that are unique to you; but if you are going to give back and if you want to be everything you can be, you have to develop them. You need to recognize how special the gifts are that you have to share with everybody,'' he said.
''Congratulations. Today be proud, feel good, and let your mom and you dad, your grandmother and grandfather and your aunts and your uncles know that you really have opportunities here that you intend to follow through with,'' Rounds said.
Students question the governor's staff
A select panel of students from the Gear Up class prepared questions for South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds; Keith Moore, Indian education coordinator with the state Office of Education; and for Roger Campbell, director of the office of Tribal Government Relations.
Statistics show that for American Indian college freshmen in South Dakota, the dropout rate is more than 70 percent.
One question was whether any efforts were being proposed that would improve the retention rate of American Indian students.
Rounds said that question recognized one of the problems.
''In many cases when individuals come from a very strong family unit, it is hard to go away and live in a different setting,'' Rounds said. ''We know that the challenge occurs with young people who might feel comfortable in a small community with family close by.
''That's one of the reasons for the Gear Up program. What you are experiencing, if you are here from a period of from two to six weeks, you've already done it, you have proven that you can make that work.''
Moore said the Gear Up program has made some efforts to work with the board of regents, the state and the tribes to change the retention rate. The board of regents is talking about the problem, Moore told the students. The regents are listening, he said, to the tribal colleges and the tribes to find solutions.
A question that concerns the Gear Up program and the newly formed Sanford Center for Scientific Research will be operated by the National Science Foundation at the closed Homestake Gold Mine.
Rounds said Gear Up and other students will be able to meet with some of the top scientists in the nation at the center and learn from them in workshops and seminars.
''I think one of the most important things at the science center is the opportunity for young people to get in and learn which parts of science and engineering they are most interested in,'' he said.
Another question: What opportunities can we expect after graduation to keep us working in South Dakota?
One of the ways is to increase the scholarship money to help high school graduates attend college, Campell said.
For employment after college, the governor said, there were opportunities in government - state and tribal - and in public service.
''Opportunities in public service are there today. Health care is a great example of a growing need. Not just off the reservations, but on the reservations as well. The Indian Health Service is a good example of something which truly could use a lot of help.
''And part of what we have to do is to have young individuals to go out and get an education in health care and are willing to come back to the reservations to participate and help make things better,'' Rounds said.
Today there are shortages of health care professionals, and many of the jobs pay well, Rounds said.
''In the private sector right now within the communities, finance, there is a clear demand. Many of the small communities will need people in financial institutions because banks in small towns don't have enough people because people don't want to stay in small towns. Financial services will be big.
''Science and technology, engineers, you can live any place in South Dakota where you want because you are all equal on the Internet. These computer-driven skills that we want you to learn now will serve you in any job you want,'' Rounds said.
Another question asked was: Some states are specifically targeting Native American students with scholarships to encourage them to attend colleges in those states. What is South Dakota doing to create scholarships in the state?
''One area of our state is the Hagen-Harvey scholarship and it's nowhere near a full books, tuition fees, scholarship program. We are nowhere near, what you asked, are we going to pay in certain areas, there are a number of states that offer full scholarships if you meet the criteria; we are nowhere near that in South Dakota,'' Moore said.
There are scholarships available and grants that can be packaged together to help a student with books, tuition and fees to near a full amount in South Dakota.
''We feel we can get you close to having your college covered. The state isn't ready to come forward and give you a full-ride scholarship in certain areas; this program is set up so we at least help you,'' Moore said.
''If you do your job and we do ours, we can get you three-quarters of the way to your college education.''
In 1969 there were 175,000 students in South Dakota; today, there are 120,000. The need for American Indian students, who represent a growing population in the state, to acquire an education, is directly related to the state's success and future, the governor and his staff said.