Wolf Creek School -- where life and work mix as officials plan for bigger school, better future for kids
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Strolling across the food-speckled tile floor of a crowded gymnasium, Darrell Eagle Bull observes with a smile what amounts to a carefully choreographed feeding frenzy.
“We start feeding them at 11, and in an hour and a half we’ll have 800-plus people eat,” Eagle Bull says. “We have to be really efficient.”
Efficiency is essential at the Wolf Creek School, where Eagle Bull serves as principal. And it’s not just in the daily trick of feeding more than 750 hungry students and dozens of staff in a tiny gym that serves double duty as a lunchroom.
Space is at a premium throughout the school, where a constantly-expanding student population has long since outgrown the 50-year-old facility seven miles east of Pine Ridge village. While some students eat at the smaller auxiliary gym, two classes of physical education are busy in the larger, wood-floored gymnasium a few doors away.
And the activities in both are run with military style timing and direction.
“We’re hanging out the doors and windows here,” says Eagle Bull, who has worked at Wolf Creek School in a variety of jobs. “When I started here 35 years ago, we had 300 to 350 students. And last fall we were over 800.”
The student count has actually dropped since then, to 753 on Wednesday when I was there tour. But that’s a seasonal fluctuation that has more to do with shifting jobs and living locations for families of students than it does with the overall trend in the student population here — which is up, up, up.
That’s unusual in most small rural communities across South Dakota outside the reservations, where a grinding decline in population has been in progress for a generation. But it’s a common reality on the Pine Ridge Reservation and other Native American communities in western South Dakota.
There’s no better example than Wolf Creek, one of four state-affiliated schools in the Oglala Lakota County School District on the reservation. The schools offer pre-K through 8th grade educations at far-flung locations in Batesland, Wolf Creek, Rockyford and Red Shirt.
And while all are dealing with the mixed blessing of increased student populations, Wolf Creek has the most serious need for expansion and improvement. Soon.
“Right now we’re trying to decide if we should expand it or tear it down and build a whole new school,” says Bryan Brewer, president of the school board. “But the facility itself is still in pretty good shape. So right now I think we’re leaning toward building on.”
Whatever the plan, it will be aimed at handling continued growth for many years to come.
“We’d like to build to accommodate close to 1,400 or 1,500 students,” Brewer says. “And then we can bring back some of the music, the art, and other programming we lost.”
It wasn’t lost to a reduction in demand, but to the realities of a packed-house school. Eagle Bull points to one example of that after another during a tour of the school.
“See here, this used to be our library,” he says, walking into a large, centrally located room broken up with partitions for special-education services. “I’ve got PE teachers in locker rooms and counselors in closets because we don’t have the areas for them.”
He and fellow Principal Jeanine Metzger also have a continuing demand for enrollment at the school, even this late in the school year.
“I’ve got phone calls every day from people who want their kids to go here,” he says. “We don’t really say ‘no.’ Last year we did a few times when we were getting up to 30 per class. But we do the best we can to make room.”
Sometimes that reality takes precedence over the effort to improve test scores and graduation rates, which lag far beyond the state average. And even addressing the crowded conditions and continual enrollment demands sometimes ranks behind life-and-death imperatives.
Youth suicide is an ongoing threat on this reservation and others, with horrific spikes in recent years that prompted emergency declarations by tribal officials and intense focus on the individual mental health of students by school administrators. It’s pretty hard to focus on elevating test scores while struggling to make sure you don’t lose a child to suicide, Eagle Bull says.
“You look at that bad year we had for suicides a couple years ago. We didn’t make our gains with the state. I know that. And I felt bad about that,” he says. “But sometimes, I felt like I was successful because none of my kids committed suicide.”
Because so many people on the reservation are related, by blood or through tribal kinship connections that transcend DNA, each suicide has deep, widespread and lasting impacts. Eagle Bull, who was raised by his uncle and aunt, has especially meaningful family connections to the overall effort to fight suicide. The aunt who raised him is Yvonne “Tiny” DeCory, a leader on the reservation in suicide prevention work, with heart-breaking and sometimes-inspiring front-line experience.
That family experience and understanding made him even more likely to reach out personally students.
"I'd come to and say a prayer, for all these kids and for those of us who work with them," he says. "And I pray with the students sometimes, too."
But time and energy committed to that prevention effort at Wolf Creek doesn’t mean Eagle Bull isn’t serious about raising test scores and meeting student-achievement expectations. Those are blended in among other challenges, which include the often-complicated chore of helping kids get to and from school in an isolated landscape where travel options are limited, weather conditions mercurial and transportation routes less than ideal.
Busing is another priority that demands efficiency and focus, he says.
“We’ve got 12 big buses and 16 small buses and Suburbans,” Eagle Bull says. “Our commitment on busing is ‘to the door.’ And we believe in that.”
But that door might be far out in a prairie or even in a badlands environment. Children need to be picked up and dropped off at homes that are sometimes several miles of main roads, which can challenge equipment and drivers.
“That’s what it looks like sometimes, right there,” Eagle Bull says, walking past a muddy SUV with deep-tread tires parked out front of the school. “We have to go get to them, and we have go take them home.”
Speaking of which, that’s exactly what the Pine Ridge Reservation is to thousands of students and their families. It’s a challenging-but-comfortable home that’s hard to leave for good. It beckons in deeply personal and often-irresistible ways to those who move elsewhere for school or work.
The pull of the the reservation and a vigorous birth rate among young tribal members helps drive the upward trend in school populations.
“Pine Ridge will always be home, and a lot of them are coming home,” Eagle Bull says. “A lot of the kids and even some grandchildren of students I taught are back in this school.”
The school begins working with children in the pre-kindergarten program. And like the school district facilities at Batesland, Rockyford and Red Shirt it takes them through 8th grade. But there also is an alternative school and a virtual school option in a separate building that helps students work toward their high-school degrees
Otherwise, the 8th-grade graduates from the four state-supported schools go to high school outside the district system. Options include the federal Bureau of Indian Education school at Pine Ridge, the Jesuit-affiliated school at Red Cloud and the tribally controlled grant schools at Little Wound and Crazy Horse.
But leaders of the Oglala Lakota County School District are also working on plans for their own high school, possibly to be located in the Porcupine-Wounded Knee area.
“We’ll have to find the land and do a needs assessment. We went to Sioux Falls to look at the technical high school,” Brewer says. “That’s what we’d start looking at.”
The Sioux Falls New Technology High School opened in 2010. It has a heavy focus on computers and related technology and a curriculum designed to present real-life problem-solving scenarios. Brewer believes that will fit in nicely on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
“Hopefully with a technical high school we could work with the other high schools, so their students could take classes with us,” he says. “And we’d also work with non-traditional students.”
First things first, though. And the first thing is the new or expanded Wolf Creek School. Upgrades at Batesland and Rockyford have put those schools in excellent shape, and Red Shirt had improvements, too. Red Shirt still has growth-related problems likely to require a much smaller project than Wolf Creek, Brewer says.
With Batesland and Rockyford handled, the school board has money to get serious about the other upgrades expansions. The Oglala Lakota District is among those reservation districts — including Todd County and Cheyenne-Eagle Butte — that are in the state system and receive property tax money and state school aid just as other state school districts do. But the patchwork nature of land on the reservation means the districts get much less money locally because of their smaller percentage of taxable land.
Federal impact aid helps make up for money that isn’t available through property taxes. And the districts receive substantial funding in federal Title I grants to Local Educational Agencies, a program aimed at bolstering school systems serving high poverty populations with student-achievement challenges.
“We have a good reserve. And I believe we’ll use some of that reserve. And that sure helps when we go in to those financial institutions and say we’re solid in our reserve,” Brewer says. “So we’re going to get the money. I mean, we’re going to have to do some creative financing. But we had to do the same thing with Batesland and Rockyford. And we’re getting them paid down now.”
Brewer doesn't have an estimate yet on what the Wolf Creek project will cost. But he understands the needs well, after a lifetime of working on educational issues. A former Lakota culture teacher at Pine Ridge High School, he also served as a coach, principal, athletic director and dean of students. He is the founder and a continuing director of the 41-year-old Lakota Nation Invitational, a sparkling sports-education-cultural event held each December that draws thousands of Native American participants and fans to Rapid City.
Brewer also is a past president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, So he understands politics and the need for cooperation at the federal level and support from the state’s congressional delegation: Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds and Rep. Kristi Noem.
“We went to D.C. about a month ago and met with them. We do have their support,” Brewer says. “Right now with sequestration and the fact that the Department of Ed doesn’t have all positions filled yet, because of the new administration, we’re kind of starting over there a little bit. But we got to talk to some old timers there. And I feel like we’re in good shape.”
Brewer hopes to see construction work started on the Wolf Creek School project this summer, with a configuration and work schedule that will allow construction to continue around school activities during the school year.
Eagle Bull likes that kind of talk. And at 54, he looks forward to seeing the new or expanded school built and in full operation before he retires. When he does, he will have covered most of the jobs at the school — in direct education and otherwise.
“I’ve been a cook. I’ve been a part-time janitor,” he says. “And when it’s needed, I drive a bus.”
Meanwhile, he has calls waiting from families about enrollment, repairs on muddy buses and SUVs, cramped rooms to oversee and a hungry student population to feed — quickly and efficiently, in what for many children might well be the most complete meal of the day.
“Sometimes after a 12- or 14-hour day I think I’m ready for retirement,” he says.
But it’s not just about counting the hours, or counting the kids, says Eagle Bull.
“This is a life out here, as opposed to just a job,” he says. “What I like best is when kids just come in here just to talk — about their families, what’s going on in their lives.”
And you can’t put a number on that.