Native Village
Youth and Education news

April 1, 2012
Young adults work to address education achievement gap on reservations
Condensed by Native Village

South Dakota: Michelle Verrochi was on the path to medical school

when she graduated college with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience.

That was three years ago.

Now Verrochi, originally from New Hampshire, is finishing her third year teaching at Todd County High School on the Rosebud reservation where:

TCHS has 555-students.
The graduation rate is 51%
49% of county residents live below poverty level.

he nearest Walmart is 3 hours away.

“I felt like my entire path was me going to medical school. I was really focused on that. So my senior year of college I started to think, do I reall want to do this?” she said.

Lara Heiberger had a similar epiphany last year, when she was a senior math major at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City.

“I didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk. I wasn’t ready to go to grad  school,” the 23-year-old said. “I wanted to do something where I felt like I wasn’t just taking – where I could have immediate gratification that I could do something good.”

Heiberger and Verrochi found a solution in Teach for America. TOA recruits and selects college grads and young professionals to teach for two years at low-income schools. More than 5,100 TOA teachers serve nationwide, with 57 working in schools near the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations.

South Dakota has allocated
$250,000 from tits education budget to expand the program. With private matching funds, the state's TOA teachers will increase to 100 by 2015, and the program will expand to the Cheyenne River, Lower Brule and Crow Creek reservations.

In South Dakota, TOA teachers earn $27,000 - $31,000 a year.

Jim Curran is executive director of Teach for America in South Dakota. He is committed to closing the achievement gap between low-income schools and their better-off peers:

Rapid City schools have an 82% graduation rate,
Todd County has a
49% graduation rate,
Shannon County on the Pine Ridge reservation has a
7% graduation rate

“It’s easy to look at these numbers and get down, but that’s another thing our students struggle with — they struggle with hopelessness,” Curran said. “We need hope, and we need optimism.”

Verrochi is cheerfully working to combat the poor graduation rate. In her classroom on Tuesday, five students leaned forward intently as they rolled blue clay into long, snakelike small intestines to add to the digestive systems of model skeletons on the table in front of them.

“Make sure you attach your large intestine to your small intestine!” Verrochi, 25, reminded the “Human Body Systems” students as she circled the room. “Don’t leave it hanging.”

Tanner Colombe, 16, is a student in Verrochi’s Human Body Systems class. He has had half a dozen Teach for America teachers in his high school career.

“TFAs are usually more gung ho,” he said. “They relate to you because they’re a bit younger, so it’s easier to get along with them. And they have pretty interesting classes, because they’re upbeat.”

The Human Body Systems class is an advanced elective and most of the students in Tuesday’s class were juniors. Through a national program the school just started offering, students who score well on an end-of-semester assessment earn up to 3 credits they can transfer to participating colleges.

The first year in Mission was tough, Verrochi admitted. The brown-eyed, curly-haired teacher had just graduated and was juggling new responsibilities and a foreign environment. But watching her students use knowledge from her classes to teach others kept her coming back. Many of them want to work on the reservation as doctors, she said.

“It was a ton of work, but to see how it impacts the kids was the biggest driving force for me,” she said. “I think that grows every year.”

Verrochi is now considering studying public health, but will stick around at Todd County High School for at least one more year.

Some have criticized Teach for America as taking jobs from local teachers, but Peg Diekhoff, assistant principal at Todd County High School, said that is not the case. The school hires every applicant it can from Sinte Gleska  University, the tribal college in Mission, and there still are open jobs and high turnover rates in Todd County schools.

“One of the issues we have is just trying to fill all of our job openings,” she said. “Teach for America really gave us a viable option.”

Wizipan Garriott grew up on the Rosebud reservation. Garriot worked with Teach for America teachers when he worked with the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.

“These are people who are smart enough to go into other fields and to do  other things," Garriot said. " … They don’t have to come to the second-poorest county in the  United States or a poor inner-city area and work for very little money in a  challenging work environment. They do it because they’re committed.”

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