Educating the Whole Child: Student-Athletes Shine at Red Cloud

posted April 21, 2017

Red Cloud senior and student-athlete Mariah McGhee ’17 knows the meaning of hard work. Each day of her high school career, she has followed the same routine: she wakes early, works hard through her classes, practices her sports, lifts weights in the gym, completes her homework, and gets right to sleep to prepare to do it all again the next day.

Mariah says that balancing both sports and academics doesn’t leave room for much more in her schedule—but that it’s kept her strong and focused on her goals. She’s never touched drugs or alcohol and has remained resilient in the face of new challenges in her life. In addition to having some of the highest grades in her senior class, Mariah has led Red Cloud’s cheerleading and volleyball teams as their captain this year. And all her hard work is now paying off: she just learned that she earned a full-ride scholarship to Arizona State University.

“Being a student-athlete, and managing both school and sports, can be really hard,” said Mariah, smiling. “But it’s pushed me in really positive ways and helped me become more confident and prepared for the future.”

At Red Cloud, education isn’t just about what happens inside the classroom: the goal is to provide holistic support that nurtures each student’s mind, body, and spirit. Student-athletes like Mariah say that being involved in sports makes them stronger—not just physically but also mentally and emotionally. They learn about hard work and discipline, and what it means to be a part of a team. For many, their experiences on the field help them excel in other parts of their lives.

“We really try to educate the whole student and our athletic department plays a crucial role in that work,” said Clare Huerter, principal of Red Cloud High School. “More than two-thirds of our students are participating in a sport throughout the year, and it’s amazing to watch how much they grow during each season. They develop really meaningful, supportive relationships with their teammates and coaches—and that provides another source of support they can draw on to overcome the challenges in their lives.”

Christian McGhee ‘08, Red Cloud’s athletic director and head basketball coach, knows that experience first-hand. As a student at Red Cloud, he excelled on the court and later achieved his dream of playing sports at the college-level at Chadron State College. And when the opportunity to return to Red Cloud came up, he jumped at the chance. Today he spends his days working to improve athletic programming and to update the school’s aging equipment and facilities—all in support of the next generation of student-athletes.

“What’s really exciting to me about this role is working to provide our student-athletes with more updated equipment and new opportunities to improve,” said Christian. “When I was a student here, we often had to use old basketballs and machines for the gym. So we’re doing whatever we can to bring new athletic resources to our students to help them succeed on and off the field.”

As a coach, Christian plays a powerful role in the lives of his players. Red Cloud senior Will Garnier ’17 starting playing basketball—a sport followed with passion on the Pine Ridge Reservation—at only five years old. He has played for Christian all four years of high school, and they’ve developed an extraordinary bond over the course of his education.

“I see Christian as a role model,” said Will. “He’s helped me progress as an athlete in so many ways—not by forcing me but by reminding me that if you want to win, you have to work hard and put the time in. Off the court, I can always call him if I need help or advice. Even outside of basketball season he checks in with me to make sure I’m doing well and staying on top of my grades. He just really wants all of us to succeed.”

Christian feels that same connection to the student-athletes he works with each day.

“Here on the reservation, when you’re a coach, you’re not only that. You’re a father figure if kids don’t have one, a brother, a counselor, a teacher,” he said. “My job never really stops, but that’s what I love about it. When the kids are engaged and excited and doing well, and when they stop to say how much they appreciate my help—that’s the greatest reward I could ask for.” 

Red Cloud staff know how critical it is for even the youngest students to be physically active. Several years ago, Assistant Principal Ann Marie Amiotte, who works in Red Cloud’s elementary school, recognized there was a real need for more organized athletic programming designed for students from kindergarten through fourth grade. She decided to create a soccer program open to students from schools across the reservation so as to provide younger children with more opportunities to run, play, and stay healthy.

“This is the time in their lives when they are learning about the connection between their minds and their bodies, and learning how staying active will make them stronger students and healthier people,” said Ann Marie. “It’s also a critical time for building good habits—to avoid the diabetes and obesity that really plague our communities on the reservation. It’s a joy to see these kids play together, and it’s so good for them physically, mentally, and spiritually.”

Through a partnership with Oglala Lakota College and lots hard work, the soccer program has taken off. Ann Marie and other organizers have been able to get uniforms and some basic equipment for students who want to play—and Red Cloud created a separate field for elementary school games. Ann Marie also kicked off a series of “Soccer Saturdays,” with multiple games for children of varying ages. And while resources are still limited, she knows this program is meeting a very real need. Out of approximately 110 students in Red Cloud’s kindergarten through fourth grade, over 70 have joined the soccer program.

“During Soccer Saturdays, we’ve seen the entire community come together—300 or more people, including kids, families, and relatives, all gathering to watch the games and be together,” said Ann Marie. “We need to expand and create even more opportunities for our younger students to play and stay active. Being involved in a sport as a young child is an experience they will take with them through the rest of their education—and through the rest of their lives, too.” 

As they look back at their time at Red Cloud, Mariah and Will both recognize how being student-athletes has truly shaped their lives. Mariah hopes to continue cheerleading in college—and to pursue a business degree so that, someday, she can open a gym of her own. And while Will is still deciding whether or not he’ll play in college, he knows the experience he gained on the basketball court will stay with him forever.

“For a lot of kids here, playing basketball and other sports is a kind of escape from all the negatives we face. And all our coaches help us grow and mature as people, not just on the court but in our everyday lives,” he said. “When you play basketball here you learn that you always have to put the work in—that applies to every part of your life. I try my hardest at everything I do now, and I learned that from basketball.”

Photos © Red Cloud Indian School


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