Superintendent Brave Heart reflects on the past, looks to the future

posted on February 21, 2012

“I am grateful for the opportunity that I’ve had to work in the schools of the Red Cloud Indian School system. It has been my true privilege and honor to serve in the capacities that I have served in thus far.” So reflected Robert Brave Heart, Sr., as he discussed his twenty-six years of working at Red Cloud. When Brave Heart talks about the capacities he has served in, he is referring to a very diverse set of positions. Originally starting work as an elementary school teacher in 1986, Brave Heart coached sports, became the elementary Athletic Director, and then moved up to the position of Principal of the Middle School. This was followed by a seven-year stint as High School Principal, three years as director of the High School Spiritual Formation Department, and finally, nine years in the Superintendent’s chair.

Brave Heart is now getting ready to move on from the job that he has occupied the longest at Red Cloud, but he is not leaving his alma mater behind. Instead, he has accepted the newly created position of Executive Vice-President. In this capacity, Brave Heart will be responsible for oversight of day-to-day on-site operations, not only for the different schools, but also for the parishes and the Heritage Center. Therefore, he will have full involvement in all aspects of the Red Cloud Indian School system, and oversee all division heads, Vice-Presidents, and the Superintendent’s office. Brave Heart says that he is looking forward to a new role in the organization, and a new professional context, having been school-based for nearly his entire professional life.

Brave Heart spoke of the job of Superintendent as one that was very rewarding, even though it could often be, as he put it, “life-consuming.” He took his greatest satisfaction in seeing Red Cloud being successful as an overall school system. It was a source of pride to see Red Cloud students graduate, go on to college, and complete post-secondary education. Other high points of the past nine years that Brave Heart identified included the large number of students receiving Gates Millennium Scholarships, the “Hope.Alive.” capital campaign and renovation of the high school building, and the implementation of the Lakota Language Project and collaboration with the American Indian Studies Research Institute at the University of Indiana.

Alongside the many highlights of his work as Superintendent, Brave Heart was candid about the fact that the challenges have been many. These have included dealing with local politics, asserting Red Cloud School’s status as an independent school when there have been challenges to the school’s autonomy, and a staff turnover of 20-25 positions on average each year. These will all be issues that the new Superintendent will need to be prepared to face head-on.

Despite these complications, however, Brave Heart felt strongly that the school has come a long way in the last ten to twenty years. Technology has revolutionized learning in many ways, and opened up doors for the students that would have been unthinkable not that long ago. Admission standards have improved, and the academic quality of the current students are much higher on average than they were even a decade ago. Along with this improvement has come a rise in teacher qualification, particularly with a much larger percentage of the volunteers holding teaching certifications. Lakota culture and language programs have been strengthened, particularly through the Lakota Language Project. Overall, the school seems to be on a consistent path of self-improvement.

As for his successor, and the qualities that will make him or her efficacious in the position, Brave Heart has this to say: “I think we need somebody who believes in our mission, [and] who will support and carry on the Lakota-Catholic traditions that we are rooted in…somebody who is familiar with Jesuit educational ideals and Ignatian pedagogy; somebody who has vision…somebody with new ideas; somebody who can provide new leadership for the schools.” Brave Heart himself embodies these qualities, but also understands the importance of a position changing hands and getting new blood. He declared, “I’ve made my contributions to the schools, and now it’s time for new leadership. And I welcome the opportunity for that to happen. I look forward to new challenges, and a whole different set of opportunities to serve Red Cloud Indian School.”

In his new capacity of Executive Vice-President, Brave Heart has an overarching goal. “What I’m hoping to do is to increase collaboration [and] increase communication,” he said. “I think we could be a lot stronger in the way we communicate, and the way we work together.” The foundation for this has been coming together for the past several years, as Brave Heart and others have worked to bring the school system together into a cohesive whole. In fact, Red Cloud was the first Catholic school in the U.S. to receive district accreditation through the NCA / AdvancEd accrediting organization. Now Brave Heart’s sights are set on broadening collaboration and communication to include all of the disparate parts of the Red Cloud system, including the parishes and Heritage Center.

In the end, though, Brave Heart has not lost sight of the students, who are at the center of the school’s mission, and its reason for existence. Looking ahead to the future, he said, “I hope that we can continue to build strong leaders for the future, that the students who leave our school system will continue to become educated, and will hopefully come back to the reservation to make a difference in the life of the people here. Maybe some of them might even complete the circle and come back to work at Red Cloud, taking leadership positions. Because of the quality education we’re providing, those graduates down the road are going to play a significant role in the betterment of reservation life in the future.”

In reflecting on what makes Red Cloud’s program so strong, Brave Heart had this to say: “The three pillars of the educational program, to me, are the academic excellence, Lakota studies focus, and spiritual formation…We’re not just about a secular education, or simply about academics. We’re also about helping build a positive identity as Lakota people in our students, and building character and spiritual values.”

Having been a Red Cloud student himself, and spent many more years working within its walls, Brave Heart sees the effects it has had on his own personal development. “Red Cloud has made a tremendous difference in my life,” he maintained. “It has made my life, and who I am as a person, so much better, beyond what I ever imagined.” This is the gift that Red Cloud hopes to impart to all whose lives it touches.