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Some Red Lake tribal members worry about fall enrollment

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The Red Lake School District loses hundreds of students to neighboring districts through open enrollment. Some on the reservation worry the March 21 shootings will prompt more parents to send their kids to school outside the district. (MPR file photo)
Commencement ceremonies are planned for Memorial Day weekend at Red Lake High School. District officials say a record 92 seniors will receive diplomas Saturday. It's been a difficult few months for Red Lake. Most middle and high school students never returned to classes after the March 21 shootings. But the Red Lake School District had problems even before then. Each year, hundreds of students leave Red Lake to attend school in neighboring districts. Now, some community members worry the shooting tragedy will prompt more parents to choose the state's open enrollment option and send their kids elsewhere this fall.

Red Lake, Minn. — More than 60 percent of Red Lake students didn't go back to school following the shootings. Three of those kids belong to Marlys Shoenborn. She's a single mother raising her teenage boys near Redby.

Shoenborn says her boys didn't want to go back to school after the shootings. They've mostly been hanging out at home, playing video games, sleeping or watching TV.

Shoenborn says she'll insist her boys return to school this fall but she doesn't want them back in Red Lake High School. She worries about security and thinks going back would be too traumatic for them. She says she has friends who feel the same way. Shoenborn says she'd prefer to enroll them in another district.

"I'm not really pressuring them," said Shoenborn. "If they don't want to go back, they don't have to. But I'm not going to send them back to something if they're not comfortable. It's never going to be the same over there, I know that for sure. If they want to, I was going to send them to a different school."

If more parents move their kids out of Red Lake, it will compound a problem that existed even before the school shootings. This year, Red Lake lost 262 students to neighboring school districts through open enrollment. And with each lost student goes thousands of dollars in state funding.

Some community members worry the number will grow this fall. Vickie Irons-Graves is a grant administrator for the Red Lake School District.

"I'd say we are in serious, serious crisis," said Irons-Graves. "I believe that since this terrible tragedy, more and more children will be taken out of the district. I think that at the middle school and high school level, this will be tragic. It will be so tragic come next fall, that the enrollment will be way down."

Irons-Graves says she and other parents are unhappy with the quality of education offered at Red Lake. Students typically perform far below the state average on standardized tests. Truancy is high, especially in the upper grade levels and Red Lake's high school drop-out rate is about four times the state average.

Irons-Graves is especially critical of Red Lake Middle School, where she says student behavior problems sometimes contribute to a chaotic atmosphere. She says it's not unusual to hear students swearing at teachers or behaving inappropriately with few consequences.

Irons-Graves is among parents who have chosen to enroll their children elsewhere. Though her four oldest kids graduated from Red Lake High School, her youngest will attend middle school in the Bemidji district this fall. She says her daughter will have a better chance of success away from Red Lake schools.

"(I'm transferring her) because I want her to have an education that will be meaningful," Irons-Graves said. "And do I think that the Middle School is going to give her that? No. We have problems with discipline. Serious problems with academics. So parents who have a vision for their children get them on a bus to go to wherever."

Red Lake school administrators have struggled for years to find ways to raise student achievement. They've experimented with a variety of curriculums and classroom programs. But their challenge is compounded by the chronic social and economic problems on the reservation.

Red Lake Superintendent Stuart Desjarlait says it's been a challenge getting kids back in school since the shootings. Earlier this spring, he expressed optimism about the outlook for fall attendance. Desjarlait said he expects things will get better over the summer.

We're in a canoe and there's a hole in the canoe. March 21 happens, the hole in the canoe is unbearable. We can't even tread water. Now, today we're all on our own. We're all swimming to shore. And I hope we make it.
- Vickie Irons-Graves

"I believe right now it's still a healing process they're going through, families are going through," said Desjarlait. "I believe next fall we're going to get them back. We're going to get the majority of them back."

There may be some good news for Red Lake regarding open enrollment. Administrators of surrounding districts say it's unlikely they'll accept large numbers of students from the reservation.

The Bemidji School District already draws 82 students from Red Lake. Bemidji sends two school buses there each day to pick them up. Bemidji Superintendent Jim Hess says lots more Red Lake parents have inquired about transferring to Bemidji since the shootings.

"We had calls the afternoon of the incident in Red Lake," said Hess. "We've had calls weekly or every other week, since that time."

But Hess says, for now, the district is sticking to a policy that students must apply for fall open enrollment before Jan. 15 to be eligible. The school board might consider exceptions to that rule when it meets this summer, but Hess says he won't accept an exodus of students from Red Lake schools.

"We want to be good neighbors to both the Red Lake district and the Red Lake Nation and to the children and families of Red Lake," said Hess. "And so we're trying to find a middle ground that would allow us to help where help is needed, and not decimate the Red Lake School District."

There's a similar policy in place in the Kelliher School District, which enrolls about 80 students from the Red Lake district. Kelliher Superintendent Terry Bartness says the school board there will meet in July to consider open enrollment requests.

Bartness says there are lots of unanswered questions, like whether Red Lake students who've missed several months of school would be advanced to the next grade level, or whether Kelliher schools would need to hire additional mental health counselors to meet the needs of incoming Red Lake students.

"There are concerns that kids that are going back to school and are completing their academic work, about their emotional stability, and their emotional needs that have to be met, you know," said Bartness. "It's not like this happened one day and the next day everything is over."

In some ways, the Red Lake school district is an island. It's a state-funded school system, but it's located within the sovereign boundaries of the Red Lake Nation. Tribal and school district officials have sometimes clashed over what's best for kids. At a recent youth planning meeting, Tribal Secretary Judy Roy said it's time to break down those barriers. Roy says the district needs an overhaul.

"We keep saying our kids are failing in school," said Roy. "It's the system that's failing our kids. We need to really shake it up and turn it inside out."

Roy says the school system hasn't adequately recognized the unique learning styles or cultural needs of Red Lake children.

"There are all kinds of ideas, but we're just boxed in by this one notion of what a school should look like," Roy said. "That's not good enough. And our kids are voting with their feet by leaving the district. The school is the heart of the community."

For some Red Lake parents, talk of change within the district has come too late. Vickie Irons-Graves says she's not sure the daughter she's sending to Bemidji Middle School this fall could survive in the Red Lake district.

"We're in a canoe and there's a hole in the canoe," said Irons-Graves. "March 21st happens, the hole in the canoe is unbearable. We can't even tread water. Now today, we're all on our own. We're all swimming to shore. And I hope we make it."

Red Lake School officials say there's no way of knowing how many kids will show up for school in the fall. For now, the district won't have to worry about losing state funding that's tied to daily attendance. The Department of Education froze Red Lake's funding level to what it was before the March 21st shootings. That waiver will be in effect through the next school year.