On the way to receive their certificates May 18, 28 teens walked past a line the photos of Fort Washakie School eighth-grade classes dating back to 1988.
With rose corsages pinned to formal gowns and pressed shirts, the students walked behind the local American Legion color guard into the gym. Family members and friends holding eighth-grade promotion ceremony programs filled the room, as did singing and drumming. Cakes decorated in congratulations sat waiting, and so did the future. For most, the future is high school outside their small, primarily Eastern Shoshone community. Some are going to schools in nearby districts, a handful are going to boarding schools out of state.
Vice Principal Elberta Monroe reminded students and their families that this is the beginning, not the end.
“Please don’t allow them to drop out of school,” Monroe said.
In her 22 years working on reservations, she’s seen many students give up when high school gets too difficult, she told them.
“And the sad thing is,” Monroe added, “that parents let them give up. But you have to change that.”
Some educators and parents across Wyoming say a major reason why students drop out is lack of support for education at home, often complicated by poverty. They agree that parents want their children to succeed, but too often don’t or can’t provide an environment that fosters success.
Fort Washakie’s exiting eighth-graders face a transition most don’t make until college, educators in the district say. Besides the trials and adjustments all high school students face, most students from Fort Washakie will experience being a minority for the first time, Monroe said after the ceremony.
Role of home-life
Travis Nichols said his daughter would not have had the opportunity to realize her potential as a top student and athlete at Lovell High School if not for family support, especially from stay-at-home mother CaMee Nichols.
“If it weren’t for her home with our family,” he said, “there’s no way on earth that Mykelle would be who she is.”
In her Brigham Young University T-shirt and freckled face, slightly sunburnt from a recent track meet, freshman Mykelle Nichols said she thinks a lot about college and what she wants to do after. She likes writing, composing piano music and engineering. She also likes designing and building just about anything, she said, pulling back a curtain to show a wood pirate ship she built in her backyard. If she doesn’t get accepted to BYU, she can use the Hathaway scholarship for a Wyoming college, she said. A basketball scholarship also is a possibility for the varsity player. She almost quit the sport in sixth grade after older team members picked on her. But her mother took her into the garage to show her some basketball moves and taught her how to handle bullies.
“CaMee is so involved with our kids’ lives that she’s there at those … critical crossroads where the kids are making decisions,” Travis Nichols said.
Mykelle Nichols' father, an engineer, and mother are college-educated. She lives in Big Horn County School District 2, which has one of the state's highest graduation rates, at 92.2 percent.
After watching her son receive his eighth-grade certificate at Fort Washakie, Jan Pogoree also said she believes home-life is a big factor in with whether students graduate.
“I’m going to say a lot of that can probably fall back on the parents’ motivation or encouragement,” she said.
The level of support for students at home varies by family, Monroe said. Many families teach and reinforce good habits and skills, she can tell by the students’ attitudes and success. Monroe attributes her own success to her childhood on the Wind River Indian Reservation, where her teenage parents taught her the value respect and responsibility, she said.
Some students aren’t being taught those life skills they need to be successful, Monroe said. It’s falling to schools to teach responsibility, self-discipline and respect, she added.
Gloria St. Clair said she didn’t have the support for education that she’s now helping give to her grandson, Scotty Nez. She wants him to go to college.
“I don’t want him to live in poverty,” St. Clair said. “I want him to be a successful Native American man and to have a good, fulfilling life with spiritual values.”
Nez is going to Sherman Indian High School in California. His mother graduated from Sherman and from college. She’s now secretary of the Shoshoni Business Council.
“If she’d stayed here, I don’t know that she would have achieved that much,” St. Clair added. “That’s why she wanted to send him away,[so]that he could get a good education.”
Nez’ grandfather Stanford St. Clair said there is plenty of peer pressure for teens to use alcohol and drugs, another factor affecting graduation rates.
“People think it’s bad here, but it’s bad everywhere,” St. Clair said. Parents and grandparents have to teach children to say no.
“We have to show them the way,” he said.
Jim Zierden, dropout prevention and recovery coordinator for the Natrona County School District also said drug and alcohol use is a major reason students fail to graduate.
“Personally I think marijuana is devastating for keeping kids in school,” Zierden said, adding that it takes away their motivation. But he doesn’t think there is any simple explanation for why students drop out, such as poverty or lack of support at home, he said. He sees parents who will do anything to keep their children in school, he said. Lack of attendance is the biggest commonality among students who drop out, he said.
Ditching class is a habit students can develop no matter what home life they come from, he said.
“It’s not just unsupportive parents or poverty,” Zierden said. “That hits a lot of seemingly solid households.”
Zierden said when he started trying to track why students drop out, he thought he could pinpoint reasons and categorize them. But he found it wasn’t so simple. Along with primary reasons, there also are several secondary factors.
“And it’s not a moment,” Zierden said, “It’s a process where these factors come together and a student decides that it’s their best option not to be in school anymore.”
The assistant principal of Casper’s Transitions Learning Center, Chris Bolender, also said drug and alcohol abuse, both of students or family members, often play into dropping out. Transitions is an alternative high school program in the Natrona County School District. Such problems cross all socioeconomic lines, Bolender said. She said she also sees some students struggling to graduate who live in incredible poverty, some with parents in jail or prison, some in legal trouble themselves, and a host of other issues.
Principal Walt Wilcox of Dean Morgan Junior High School in Casper said a feeling of hopelessness passed from one generation to the next pervades many conversations he has with struggling students' families. Like Monroe, he said he often sees students and their families give up. It isn’t that they don’t want their children to succeed, he said.
“More often they think there is no way the kids will be successful, no matter how hard you try,” Wilcox said, “because it didn’t work for them and it won’t work for their kid.”
Role of poverty
All parents want their children to do well, said Casper’s Roosevelt High School Principal Shawna Trujillo. But some work long hours or more than one job in a struggle to make ends meet, leaving little time to be there for their children. Poverty is major factor in the dropout issue, Trujillo said.
Being poor doesn't doom students to drop out, Trujillo said. But success requires commitment to school above all else, which doesn't always happen in families struggling economically, she added.
Poverty is correlated with numerous issues, including higher rates of students forgetting knowledge during the summer, Trujillo said.
For every student who drops out, there is a slightly different story, and often several factors play in, Trujillo said.
"But poverty is a big deal," Trujillo said. "And if parents don't have an education and are fighting to put food on the table, kids are leaning that and the priorities are different."
Greta Hinderliter is the homeless liaison for the Natrona County School District. She sees many students from homeless families or who are homeless on their own. She said some students also must work for household expenses, food and transportation. Those factors often make it very hard to finish high school, but it’s also a motivator for students who realize education is a way out of poverty, she said.
Role of community
Bill Schilling, president of the Wyoming Business Alliance, doesn’t think the dropout rate in Wyoming reflects a lack of value in education.
A survey he conducted as part of a committee providing information to the Wyoming Legislature indicated Wyomingites -- including 86.1 percent of 495 surveyed Wyomingites outside the education community -- believed their state's rate of one in five students not graduating on time was unacceptable.
The public wants a higher graduation rate, but the entire community must be involved and accountable, Mike Ceballos said. He's a member and past president of the Wyoming Education Coordinating Council and is researching how the public affects public education for his doctoral dissertation. The council, formerly known as the Wyoming P-16 Council, is a nonpartisan organization made up of state leaders from business, education and government working to improve education, according to its website.
He cited a study by Robert Marzano that indicated 20 percent of student success is due to teachers and schools while 80 percent is due to external factors, which educators can influence but not directly impact: home environment, student motivation and prior achievement and knowledge.
If that’s correct, education can’t be successful “without engaging your public, without engaging your parents, your business and your community leaders,” Ceballos said. “You just can’t do it.”
One example of community involvement is when businesses require good school attendance as a condition of employment for teens, Ceballos said.
Principal Shad Hamilton at Fort Washakie High School said he’s lost a handful of students this year to jobs. Some dropouts are working at the Shoshone Rose Casino and other places around town, he said. The school board is working to educate local businesses about the issue and and gain support for keeping students in school, he said.
Having no community high school for the past century led to a culture in which an eighth-grade education is considered sufficient, Hamilton said. The district has the lowest graduation rate in the state at 11.1 percent.
He often hears people reminiscing about the times like when their eighth-grade class painted letters on the hill. The eight-grade ceremony looks like a high school graduation, he said.
Monroe said she wonders how holding off on the pomp and circumstance after eighth grade might affect high school graduation rates. At the same time, eighth-grade ceremonies are a Native American tradition, she said. It concerns her that many in the community refer to the ceremony as a graduation. She wants students and their families to think of it as a promotion to high school, not a graduation.
Fort Washakie High School started as a charter school about nine years ago and last year received state approval to become part of the Fremont County School District 21, which means it will have more resources to grow.
Fort Washakie High School is more of an alternative setting with Internet-based instruction, Monroe said. Most prefer a traditional high school with the full array of clubs and sports, she added. Each year, the Fort Washakie School eighth-graders tour high schools of nearby districts and, because they are outside the district, they must be accepted.
While Zierden says there is no simple answer, he's seen an overall attitude trend in the Natrona County community that dropping out is a legitimate option. Parents often accept it and tell their children to get a GED. But a very low percentage of students actually earn a GED in the first few years after dropping out, Zierden said.
“I have siblings that work in the school system in Minnesota, and their graduation rate is in the high 90s because nobody in the community thinks it’s even an option to drop out,” Zierden said. “If they lose somebody, it’s a shock.”