By Kevin Thranow
Last Thursday, Governor Kristi Noem paid a visit to Todd County Middle School, where students led her on a guided tour of the facility that included stops in several classes in progress, including the Lakota Language lab.
Also on hand were South Dakota Secretary of Education Dr. Ben Jones, Secretary of Tribal Relations Dave Flute, State Senator Troy Heinert, State Representative Shawn Bordeaux, and Rosebud Sioux Tribe Vice-Chairman Scott Herman.
The purpose of the visit was to speak with school officials about the many improvements at Todd County Middle School since it was awarded a Native American Achievement School Grant three years ago.
Sponsored by Senator Troy Heinert and Represenative Shawn Bordeaux, and passed by the South Dakota Legislature in 2016, Senate Bill 82 established the Native American Achievement Schools Grant Program, which provides grants to schools that demonstrate commitment to increasing student success through building cultural identities, encouraging academic perseverance, supporting the development of the whole child, and encouraging student leadership skills. TCMS was one of the inaugural recipients of the grant.
Principal Dana Haukaas said that it was staff member Sage Fast Dog who was responsible for inviting the Governor to see how things were going. While attending Tribal Affairs Day at the state capitol, Fast Dog had the opportunity to speak with Governer Noem and her Education Secretary, Dr. Jones. Fast Dog said that it was hard to describe the successes and changes taking place at the school - you had to see them for yourself. So Noem, Jones, and David Flute decided to visit in person.
After introductions, student guides led the entourage through the school corridors and talked about some of the programs in which students can participate. In the library, one of the tour guides, eighth-grader Leona Ritter, showed Gov. Noem a quilt that she is working on in a quilt-making class, which sparked a recollection by Noem how, as a youth, she’d get so enthusiastic about a project, such as making a quilt, that she wouldn’t quit until it was finished - often to the chagrin of her parents who would have preferred that she go to bed at a reasonable hour. She said that being a legislator and governor has given her a channel for that tenacity.
One of the stops was in Misty Novotny’s writing class, where students were learning narative structure and creating their own stories. The group also paid a visit to the classroom of teacher Steve Heinert, who was honored the previous week for 45 years of service at Todd County School District.
One of the highlights of the tour was a lengthy stopover in Lakota Language teacher Allen Wilson’s class. Wilson explained how he used a large picture of dozens of caricatures as a visual aid to teach descriptive works in Lakota. Noem introduced Senator Heinert to the students who spoke about the recent passage of a bill that designates Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota as the official indigenous languages of South Dakota. One student was more interested in whether or not the governor had any bodyguards with her.
After the tour, the lawmakers sat down with school officials for a idea session on what was working and how Noem and Jones, in their respective capacities, could provide additional support for the program to continue its success at Todd County as well as in other districts. Heinert stated that the school had been transformed in a few short years. Principal Haukaas stated that disciplinary suspensions had decreased by almost 75 percent in that time.
Haukaas also encouraged the policy-makers to look at program successes and see Todd County as a growth model. She said that standardized testing and measurements don’t always paint the whole picture. It’s better to recognize the amount of progress students have made even though many of them arrive at the middle school with below grade level performance.
Ultimately, Haukaas sees a vast improvement in student achievement and believes that kids actually like their school and enjoy attending classes. She knows that she and her staff do.