MISSION, South Dakota — Half a dozen elementary school children gather on the stoop of an Ace Hardware store, bikes in hand, as older students and family members sit along the storefront.
There aren't any shopping malls here, nor theaters. When you ask locals what people do around town, they hesitate and respond with a shrug.
Chatter about the new school year and about the evening's festivities spills out on the streets while the smell of sizzling meat fills the air from a nearby grill.
Tonia Marshall and her youngest daughter Tianni Arrow, 17, drove over 40 miles to attend the block party, a first of its kind, held by the Sicangu Youth Program.
Arrow is a senior at Todd County High School, just down the road. While in high school, she said she has been involved in basketball, volleyball, track, theater, cheerleading, band and was recently inducted into the National Honor Society.
During the week Arrow lives in a set of dorms near the high school where out-of-district students stay — she's done so since first grade. Arrow then goes back home to Norris, an unincorporated community of a little more than 150, on the weekends.
"It's hard to process I'm a senior now," Arrow said. "My classmates feel the same way that I do — they can't believe that they're seniors."
Arrow said she is set to be one of the 102 students to graduate from Todd County High School this year — the first group to graduate a class of over 100 students in the history of the school.
Typically, the school district graduates classes of roughly 80, said Richard Bordeaux, Interim Todd County Superintendent.
"Of those 80, I would think 30 of them have plans to go off somewhere for college," Bordeaux said.
Roughly 2,100 students attend the Todd County School District, which covers roughly a 30 mile by 60 mile area, according to Bordeaux.
The district is made is made up of eight elementary schools, two middle schools, two high schools and a juvenile detention center — with roughly a 95 to 98 percent Native American student population.
Schools across the district appear on the national Title I funding school list — the program, a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, provides financial resources to schools with high percentages of children from low-income families.
The federal funding is designed to assist local school districts in ensuring their students meet state academic standards.
"We get probably 25 percent of our budget from Title I," Bordeaux said. "The education part of the system has to accommodate what we have to do to keep the [state] happy."
The district also receives a major portion of their funding through federal impact aid — the same federal funding which some military schools receive, Bordeaux said.
The funding has improved with Trump's administration in office and its push to increase military funding, he said.
"Some of that comes around to the education side," Bordeaux said.
Federal Impact Aid is designed to assist local U.S. school districts do not gain funding from property tax revenue due to federal tax-exempt property.
Todd County receives 53 percent of their funding from the federal government, 40 percent from state funding and seven percent from local funding, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
As Todd County moves along with one of their largest graduating classes to date — there are still unique challenges which the district faces.
Roughly 10 percent of students met proficiency standards in English and 6.4 percent of students met proficiency standards in math during the 2016–2017 school year, according to the South Dakota Department of Education.
Data was later compiled in 2017 from various sources, including test scores and interviews with stakeholders at Todd County, White River and St. Francis Indian school districts — the three school districts serve most of the youth on the Rosebud reservation, the Sicangu Scribe reports.
55 percent of Native students who attend Todd County High School graduate and 53 percent of Native students at the neighboring White River district graduate, according to the report.
Todd County was found to have a 37 percent attendance rate among Native students, according to the report.
"Our data shows as [our students] get into high school, their attendance gets worse and worse," Bordeaux said. "We can't make them come to school but we can ask if there's anything we can do to help."
Marshall said students not finishing high school is a big problem on the reservation and she "doesn't see students getting enough encouragement."
"Parents don't really talk to their kids about the importance of finishing school," Marshall said. "For some people, [school] just phases out of their daily routine."
Bordeaux said community groups have been meeting to have discussions on how to help the youth while pushing past the adversities on the reservation.
"It goes to having discussion [on] poverty issues in the reservation and all of the bad things that happen with families because there aren't jobs — there aren't successes that the students can see," Bordeaux said. "We have to battle that in our system — it's a big challenge."
Understanding their students
Bordeaux said, as educators, they strive to connect with the students by reassuring they understand where they're coming from and are ready to help.
"We have an objective to help students with their social and emotional health," Bordeaux said. "We are trying to train our staff to respond to those needs — teaching them how to observe things in the classroom."
The Todd County School District outlines four wellness goals they have for their students — academic health, social/emotional health, cultural health and spiritual health.
The district pledges "all students will make at least one year's growth in literacy and math" and have the necessary skills to graduate high school along with building a set of social and emotional skills, according to the district's website.
Furthermore, the district's goals state students will find their purpose in life and understand and value their own culture, as well as others.
Todd County Middle School has taken initiatives to address their student's overall psychosocial health through wellness checks which students complete when they are at school.
"The wellness wheel is a visual tool [to] help students take a self reflection of 'this is where I'm at' and 'how can I improve," Sage Fast Dog, Todd County Middle School's Native American Achievement School Fellow, said. "It helps us break ourselves down as humans."
Educators at Todd County Middle School said they have seen positive results in how their students talk about and visualize the different aspects of their physical and mental health.
Sicangu Youth Program
While the situation may seem difficult in Mission, community efforts are slowly shifting the trajectory of the Lakota youth.
The Sicangu Youth Program, spearheaded by William "Bebe" Long IV with backing from the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council, provides development, through activities, in key life skills for the youth of the Lakotan subtribe — the Sicangu Oyate.
"The Sicangu Youth Program is committed to the development and success of our local youth through culture, education, life skills and sports," Long said.
While the program isn't an entirely new concept, it took the place of a similar program but was discontinued after director turnover and loss of funding.
The Sicangu Youth Program was started by the council in Spring 2018 and became active this past June.
"We changed the name and completely started over, from the ground up so to speak," Long said. "One of the main reasons Tribal council revamped this program is to restore hope and address the high number of suicides of our young people."
Long said he commonly heard people say "there's nothing for our kids to do" and now while operating full time, his organization hopes to change the perception.
"We have been active in the communities providing activities and other assistance to our youth," Long said. "We have been creating a stronger sense of community [and] I see kids from other communities showing up at our events."
Long said the Back to School Block Party, one of the group's inaugural events, started off as an idea.
"I was standing on Main Street in Mission one day looking down the block and I thought it would be good to have a block party and invite all the youth of the reservation," Long said. "As I spoke to more people about, I quickly gained support and just went for it."
While the program was not able to back the event fully, Long said several other tribal programs and businesses stepped up to help their mission.
"I wanted to show our youth that if we work together — anything is possible," Long said.
The Sicangu Youth Program is "vital" to the youth's success as they continue to grow into young adults, Long said.
"Through culture, education, life skills and sports, we can teach our kids how to be successful in life," Long said. "We will restore hope and make sure our youth know we care about them — they are sacred and they are our future."
Making a change in Native American education
Fast Dog was offered a Lakota Studies teaching position, but did not take the job right away.
"To be a Lakota Studies teacher, It meant that I had to be like my mentors — you had to live a Lakota way of life," Fast Dog said. "You have to be practicing the customs of Lakota — other than that, you would just have knowledge from books on what Lakota is."
Fast Dog said he realized there were many students who weren't being exposed to Lakota culture, language and customs in elementary school.
"I used to think the [students] would be fluent speakers but I realized it would take more than just one class and it would take a lot of hours and effort from the entire organization," Fast Dog said.
Adapting the ways of teaching to fit the needs of the students was a task taken early on Fast Dog said.
"I focused on a few phrases in Lakota and did a lot of history, philosophy and guidance," Fast Dog said.
Fast Dog, a graduate of Sinte Gleska University, wanted to fight stereotypes he had faced growing up — and not allow others to define what Native American culture is.
He recalls opening a textbook in fifth grade and only seeing five pages on Native Americans.
"There was a map on one page and on the next page — what stood out to me — was a half naked man with a bridge cloth and he had a scalp block in hand."
Fast Dog said he closed the book and told himself — "we are savages." He said he heard it on the playground from other students, from the people who didn't live on the reservation and the textbook.
"That's three things that are saying I'm a savage — the only ones who didn't were my teacher, my parents and my grandma," Fast Dog said.
Fast Dog said he reflects on his schooling growing up and what has changed in Indian Education.
"Knowing that part of history allows me to know about the society I'm working with," Fast Dog said.
Implementing new curriculum
In his roll, Fast Dog spearheads the implementation of new curriculum which incorporates Lakota culture, history and language into the classroom, with the help of a $590,000 state grant "aimed at improving academic outcomes for Native American students."
"These schools will be infusing Native American culture and language throughout their curriculum," said Mato Standing High, director of the South Dakota Office of Indian Education in a Dec. 2016 press release.
"Sometimes Native students struggle to feel a sense of belonging in our education system. It's hard to learn when you don't feel like you fit in," Standing High said.
The achievement schools have 2.5 years to implement their curriculum proposals with an official roll-out in Fall 2019.
The curriculum comes after the passing of the 2007 Indian Education Act, which "mandated the development of course content for curriculum and coursework in South Dakota American Indian history and culture."
Following the passing of the act, the the Indian Land Tenure Foundation awarded a 2008 grant to the South Dakota Office of Indian Education to develop the 2011 Oceti Sakowin curriculum project.
The Oceti Sakowin curriculum is aimed at incorporating content from a variety of experts in various Native American subjects such as culture and history.
Todd County Middle School is one of South Dakota districts quickly picked up on the Oceti Sakowin curriculum and now has only been able to further the development and implementation with the $590,000 grant.
On the edge of Mission, a red, yellow, white and black metal tipi towers over the treeline — the Lakota educational center at Sinte Gleska University.
Cheryl Medearis, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Sinte Gleska University, has been at the institution for 29 years serving in a wide range of roles after receiving her bachelor's degree and master's degree at the university.
Sinte Gleska University is a private four-year tribal college on the Rosebud Reservation, founded in 1975.
"The mission of SGU is to plan, design, implement and assess post-secondary programs and other educational resources uniquely appropriate to the Lakota people in order to facilitate individual development and tribal autonomy," according to the 2017 Rosebud Sioux Tribe Community profile.
Lionel Bordeaux, the university's president, is the 10th oldest serving university president and was part of creating the first fully accredited reservation-based institution of higher education at the bachelor's degree level.
Despite of what the public may think, the education system in Mission does not receive much, if any, money from the Rosebud Casino and students from the reservation don't always go to college for free, Medearis said.
"There are times that our accrediting agencies say that we do miracles on shoestrings budgets," Medearis said.
Medearis said she's seen a variety of changes in the educational system throughout the years due to expectations and the student population but serving the students remains at the center of what the university's mission is and "helping one child at a time."
"Our students are our best role models," Medearis said. "If you attend one of our graduations you can see that when someone walks across the stage, it's really their whole family that has earned that."
Taking the opportunity
Arrow said being involved has been helpful during her experience in the school system. She said the principal would call high-achieving students down and show the students different educational opportunities.
"I feel like school is really helpful — especially if you're trying to leave," Arrow said. "Just trying to be better than what goes around here."
Arrow is looking at studying paleontology or becoming a veterinarian. Her list of dream universities to attend include some in-state universities but also include Columbia and Brown.
She said their class adviser recently had them write letters to the freshman class telling them one thing they've learned in high school — she wrote about opportunity.
"The thing I learned in high school was how small reservation really was and how small the opportunities here were," Arrow said. "If you just go out into the world, you'll find more and it'll just be better overall — it's kind of overwhelming but exciting."
Marshall beams with pride as she listens in to her daughter talking about her future.
"She came here from the reservation and she has been to Washington D.C. twice — I've never been there," Marshall said. "She's done a lot of things in her short life that I haven't… I encourage her on everything that she does and try to support her to get her there."
Fast Dog said the community is made up of more than test scores and the public's assumptions about life on the reservation.
"You walk out in the hallway, you don't see students students sitting there and sobbing about poverty and their way of living," Fast Dog said. "They're running around — there are a lot of things going on in their lives."
Fast Dog said while there may be times of sorrow in the student's lives, there are many times of rejoice and happiness. Bordeaux shares similar sentiments — one of the things which makes the youth resilient "is having a sense of humor."
"There's more to us than what you may read or what you may have been told," Fast Dog said. "We're more than what you think."
Holly Piepenburg contributed to this report.