North Dakota woman says education for Indians is important

By Kelly Smith
Fargo, North Dakota (AP) May 2010

The odds of graduating from high school were stacked against Melody Staebner.

Her abusive stepfather taunted her, telling her she was worthless. She fell into the “wrong crowd” and often skipped school.

“One day, I just got sick of it,” she said of the day she moved out of her home. “I wanted to prove him wrong. I thought, ‘I want to be somebody.’ “

Now, at 33, she’s a “somebody” to 500 Fargo and West Fargo American Indian students who stand in similar shoes, trying to prove society – and a statistic – wrong.

In Fargo and nationwide, American Indians on average are more likely to drop out of school than receive their high school diploma. With high rates of truancy and mobility, low graduation rates are status quo.

Staebner is working tirelessly to change that.

As the Fargo School District’s Indian Education coordinator, she oversees a program that supports both Fargo and West Fargo’s American Indian students.

“We’re just an extra service to keep kids on track and encourage a positive outlook on school and education,” she said.

Ten monthly clubs bring in American Indian speakers, traditional games and crafts. It not only promotes students’ culture but may help keep them in school.

“I think it helps a person be a full person to know their roots,” Staebner said. “It gives them more self-identity.”

The program also pairs 60 students with tutors who help with everything from homework to applying for college scholarships to planning their futures.

“If they don’t feel that connection (at school), they won’t stick around,” she said.

In North Dakota, 55 percent of American Indian students graduated in 2009, according to state data. In Fargo, about 50 percent or fewer graduate.

In the class of 2007, 16 of Fargo’s 29 American Indian students dropped out, and 13 graduated.

It’s difficult, Staebner said, to pinpoint exactly why graduation rates are so much lower for American Indians than other groups.

For some students, it’s the effects of mobility as families trek between reservations and the metro area or even just across Fargo to different schools.

For others, they’ve simply fallen too far behind.

For Shanae Cote, it was depression and an inability to concentrate at school that almost caused her to drop out of West Fargo High School last year.

Getting C’s and D’s, the 18-year-old had seen three sisters drop out of school.

“I was so close,” she said. “Then I just realized there’s no point in dropping out. Suddenly, this year, I realized I am smart and I can do it. I wanted a better life.”

Working with a tutor from the Indian Education program not only helped the senior catch up in classes – she made the A honor roll – it motivated her to make it to graduation.

“It feels like someone is there for you,” said Cote, who plans to study massage therapy after she graduates in May. “It’s been a hard few years. Graduating – it’s exciting.”

This year, there are more students like Cote beating the odds.

Graduation rates among American Indian students in Fargo and West Fargo are up – a hopeful trend Staebner and her staff say is a reflection of the program’s success.

“Our numbers may be small, but even without our program, the numbers would be smaller,” she said of graduation rates.

A recent graduation picnic honored May’s graduates. Five of eight Fargo American Indian seniors received diplomas while seven of 10 West Fargo students graduate.

Ricky McGrady will be one of them.

The senior credits his parents and friends for pushing him to do well in school. Being on West Fargo’s baseball team has also held him accountable for keeping up his grades.

“If the parents don’t care, chances are the kids don’t care,” said the 18-year-old, who plans to enter the U.S. Air Force next fall.

He said that especially when he lived in rural New Town, N.D., school wasn’t valued among his American Indian peers.

“It wasn’t cool to do homework,” he said.

Reversing that mind-set, he said, and having parents push teens to succeed could help tackle American Indian dropout rates.

Cote added that schools need to better reach out to American Indian students to ensure they feel valued at school, especially because they aren’t respected by all school staff, she said.

Both teens credit the Indian Education program for filling in some of the gaps.

In Staebner’s seven years leading the program, it’s grown slightly in resources and staff – three people, including her. However, now its future is in limbo.

A grant ending next year could end one of the positions, and if that happens, Staebner said she’ll have to cut back on services, impacting the students she helps.

“We are spread pretty thin,” she said. “Hopefully the district will get on board.”

“We’re trying to show them right now this is the impact our program has on individual successes,” she added about the students they work with. “We may be their only hope.”