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"Something big's gonna happen" — Three alumni of Minneapolis South High's All Nations program reflect on graduating
Micah is overwhelmed. Michelle is happy. Juana is sad. Less than a day before, they crossed the stage at the Minneapolis Convention Center, concluding four years at South High’s All Nations American Indian magnet program.
“She was about to cry,” Michelle said, nodding to Juana.
“You were yelling at me, saying, ‘Shut up, don’t cry!’”
“I was about to laugh,” Micah said. “Crying faces are so funny.”
“I don’t have a funny crying face!”
“Oh, okay. You just sit there and go — “ Micah gazes up and traces a finger down his cheek. They all laugh.
“I guess so,” Juana said.
Of 50 American Indian students who started the All Nations program four years ago, eight walked Thursday. Some of the missing switched schools, some had credits to make up, and a few dropped out.
Nonprofit MIGIZI Communications staff person Cynthia Ward, who has worked with the All Nations graduates since they started high school, pointed out that many students who don’t walk on graduation day do finish high school. “They do graduate. It just takes a lot of them longer than the traditional four years,” she said. Still, walking across a stage with the class you grew up with is a powerful achievement for those who get there.
There’s no cut-and-dried answer to why some students graduate on time and others don’t. Indeed, distinct pathways led Juana, Micah and Michelle to graduation day. One common thread: close relationships with friends, parents or teachers who encouraged each of them to finish high school on time.
Michelle LaGarde’s mom was the first in her family to get a college degree, and Michelle said her mom made it known that she expected the same from her daughter.
Micah Hill said graduating should mean more to him than it does. A lot of people in his family never met the milestone. But going to class was always just what Micah did. He struggled to think of anything about high school that was hard.
A lot of people Juana Espinoza knows tell her they look up to her. She started freshman year with a six-month-old daughter, whom she delivered when she was 14. Her dad told her she would never graduate. This year, she juggled two jobs, a three-year-old, school and a demanding science project that took her to the international science fair in Pittsburgh.
A combination of rebellious determination and supportive friends carried Juana through school. “I proved [my dad] wrong, basically,” she said. “The friends I chose were the smart kids. We did study groups and stayed after school, basically helped each other out.” Junior year, when Juana met a boy and stopped showing up to classes, it was Michelle who told her to “get her butt back in school.”
It was a “mom” role her friends said Michelle played often in the group, giving them all kick in the rear when they needed it. “I just wanted them to walk together,” she said.
In 2010, fewer than half of Minnesota’s American Indian students graduated on time. Poverty, family issues, a contentious history with public education and, some argue, low expectations by educators all contribute to keeping Native kids from walking.
South High’s All Nations program aims to be a buffer against some of those odds. During students’ first two years of high school, they take most of their classes together. Biology, social studies and English classes incorporate elements of American Indian culture. Juniors and seniors take classes with other South students but stay connected with the program through events, All Nations elective classes and All Nations counselors.
“It was like a family. We could all relate, and we’re all Native Americans,” Juana said. “If we have a bad day, we can talk to an All Nations teacher, and it’s all better.”
“It’s all fried rice,” added Michelle.
“It’s all wild rice,” Micah countered.
This year all three of them made it to the American Indian Science and Engineering Society’s science fair in New Mexico. Juana’s project, titled “Factors contributing to the success of Native American teen moms” qualified her for the international science fair in Pittsburgh. She surveyed 36 adults who had had children when they teens. Based on their college degree, attainment of at least a low-paying job and a score of 7 or 8 on the happiness scale she created, Juana categorized five moms as successful.
Michelle and Micah also went to Pittsburgh, as alternates, for a project in which they developed a formula making it easier for scientists to determine the health of wetlands.
Unfortunately, Juana’s project lost to a robot hand.
None of the three were sure exactly what it would take to get more students to graduate on time. The moms Juana interviewed for her science project said they thought tutoring, better transportation, counseling and better daycare might have helped them.
Ward asked Juana why she thought so few of the 50 students who started in All Nations freshman year stayed at South.
“I guess the work was too hard for them,” she said.
“Do you really think it was too hard, though?” asked Ward.
“I don’t know. They didn’t have the oomph,” Juana replied.
Next year, Juana will go to Hennepin Technical College and work towards becoming a car mechanic. Michelle is off to the University of Minnesota Morris to study biology. And Micah is still deciding among the U of M Moorhead, Minneapolis Community and Technical College or Dartmouth. He wants to be a zookeeper.
In his first week as a graduate, Micah plans to gamble away all his graduation money at Mystic Lake. Michelle has to go to Morris to register for classes. Juana will sleep. The others agreed that they will do that, too.
“Class of 2012!” Michelle said. “The world is gonna end.”
“Did you know that the Mayan calendar was supposed to end like 30 years ago?” said Micah. “The Mayans were supposed to take into account leap year.”
“We’re not going to die or anything,” Juana said. “Something big’s gonna happen though.”
© 2012 Alleen Brown