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Red Cloud’s Teachers - Opening Windows of Opportunity

October 4, 2017



 

Each new school day, Red Cloud alum Lyle Jacobs ‘12 walks into the same bright fourth-grade classroom where he himself was a student over 15 years ago. Two years ago, after earning a degree in psychology and education from Duke University—on nearly a full scholarship—Lyle returned to Red Cloud to fulfill his longstanding dream of becoming a teacher. And today, as he begins his second year at Our Lady of Lourdes, one of Red Cloud’s two elementary schools, he is exactly where he always wanted to be. 

“All the way through high school and college, I always wanted to be a teacher. And I always wanted to teach Native American kids, here in the place where I grew up,” he said. “On the reservation, we don’t have a lot of young, Indian, and especially male teachers. So I hope I’m a role model for them in some way—I try to be.” 

For Lyle, teaching at Red Cloud is more than a job—it’s a calling. Growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, he saw exactly how a high-quality education can transform a life. With the support of his own teachers and counselors at Red Cloud, as well as his family, he recognized that he could not only go to college but to the college of his dreams. 

Today, as a teacher himself, Lyle has pushed his own students to see that the challenges they face do not have to define them. He’s watched them discover their passions—whether that be science or art or language—and to dream of their own future careers. That experience, he says, is a gift he hopes he never has to give up. 

But teaching on the reservation—and at Red Cloud—also comes with its own challenges and hardships. It’s something that Red Cloud’s new superintendent, Moira Coomes, who has worked for the last five years to update and refine Red Cloud’s curriculum, knows all too well. Teachers on Pine Ridge work with fewer resources—while supporting students who grow up affected by the extreme poverty surrounding them.

 

 

“Native students have the lowest graduation rates than any other minority group—and research tells us that part of the problem is lack of access to key supports and high-quality teachers,” said Coomes. “Our students here on the  Pine Ridge Reservation face extraordinary challenges, and they need the stability of strong, supportive teachers to guide them forward. To show them that they can, in fact, do anything they set their minds to.” 

But to hire and keep the best teachers is a constant challenge on the reservation. Pine Ridge sits in a designated federal Teacher Shortage Area: the pool of qualified candidates is simply more limited. As a nonprofit, Red Cloud has struggled to keep up with the salaries offered in public schools across the region. And the lack of available and adequate housing prevents teachers from staying or moving into the area to serve local communities.  

“Our teachers play such an important role in students’ lives. Teachers have the opportunity to open students up to new worlds. They give them windows into their future.”
– Maka Clifford ’05, Red Cloud Graduate and Director of Curriculum and Assessment


Despite those challenges, Red Cloud’s teachers are achieving extraordinary things. While the high school graduation rate for Native American students statewide is less than 50 percent, more than 95 percent of Red Cloud’s students go on to college. Moira and her fellow administrators are set on honoring the role teachers play in that story. 

Over the last year, Red Cloud has created a new initiative entirely focused on recruiting and retaining the best possible teachers. The goal is to keep teachers like Lyle rooted at Red Cloud for years and even decades to come. 

To start, this year Red Cloud provided teachers and other staff with a boost in compensation, to move toward a more level playing field with other local and regional schools. That boost came with significant improvements in health benefits. And just from those initial first steps, the reaction has been eye-opening for Moira and other administrators.

 

 

“This pay increase made a big difference in our teachers' lives. One teacher who will now be able to get orthodontic braces for her son, teared up when I told her that no, this was not a mistake on her contract,”  said Moira. “It’s been wonderful to see, but we have to keep striving. The pay increase is wonderful, but the gap between what we pay and what the public schools pay continues to be a problem.” 

Now, Red Cloud is exploring ways to support teachers even more. In the years to come, administrators hope to be able to expand compensation and benefits even further, ensuring sustainable growth in wages over time. In addition, they are working on plans to construct new, on-campus housing for teachers and their families. 

“We know that education can transform individual students’ lives. Those students, in the long run, have the power to contribute to the communities as well,” said Moira. “The changes we can make here are boundless, but we need great teachers and the resources in order to support them in order to make that happen.” 

While Lyle isn’t focused on money for himself, he wants those resources in place to ensure he can be the best teacher he can be. 

“If I were to teach at another reservation school, I don’t know if it could replicate the family atmosphere we have here. I would say, in addition to the kids themselves, that’s the thing that keeps me coming back.”

Make a difference in the lives of our students by supporting our extraordinary teachers!

 

Photos © Red Cloud Indian School


 

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