ShoBan school board targeting STEM School designation to better the lives of tribal students
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FORT HALL — Students in the Shoshone-Bannock School District face an uphill battle.
When they leave the reservation to pursue a better life, they find that little to no support awaits them, according to school board member Sunshine Shepherd. When they come home, Shepherd says students are greeted with increased chances for alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide.
Through partnerships with the Idaho National Laboratory and U.S. Department of Energy, the district school board and ShoBan Jr./Sr. High School are looking to put an end to that cycle.
The board, with the assistance of INL, expects to reach STEM designation for the Jr./Sr. high school within three years. The goal is to turn the school into a “work-based learning prep school,” according to district superintendent and school principal Jonathan Braack.
“At this point, generations have been knocked down,” Shepherd told EastIdahoNews.com. “There are already barriers along the way that (tribe members) are having to break down, so I think that starting in high school is so important. They can go out into the world with the confidence of knowing, ‘I can be anything that I want to be, literally, and I know how to get there.”
Changes are not meant to be a complete redesign of the school or its operations.
Instead, the school and district are finally embracing the goal of helping its students “travel through the circle of life productively and proudly,” according to the school’s vision and mission statement put in place at the school’s dedication in 1996. “(And) developing the skills to be able to live in two cultures.”
The new five-member school board was appointed this year, beginning in January. Since then, it has pursued the idea of a STEM designation.
INL is excited about the partnership, Braack said, because this represents the first tribal school to pursue STEM designation while embracing its own indigenous culture.
The tribe is excited as well. And that excitement flowed at a recent Fort Hall Business Council meeting.
“This is the best news that we’ve heard since that school has been in existence,” council chairman Devon Boyer said with tears in his eyes, according to Braack. “We’re finally moving in the direction that the elders and this community intended for this school to go.”
Among other responsibilities, INL will help the ShoBan school construct a trades, technical and vocational laboratory for use by students and tribal members. The school had attempted something similar in the past, but without full commitment, it failed. Now, that idea has the full support of the school and board.
INL will also be offering education assistance in two fields it has identified as positions that will be of high demand over the next three to seven years, Braack said. Those fields — industrial mechanical technician and trades operation technician — will not only be in high demand but also do not require post-secondary training.
As this program aspires to keep the culture of the Shoshone and Bannock tribes alive, language, history and cultural lessons will be interwoven into the classes, Braack said.
In many cases, that will be easy, Shepherd, who serves as the school board’s STEM liaison, said.
“When you’re doing beading, you’re doing coding,” she said. “When you’re cooking fry bread, you’re using chemistry … just making that connection is really important.”
Shepherd aids multiple tribal programs, at Fort Hall and beyond, in STEM-like teaching. It is key, she said, for the students, their younger family members and their elders, to introduce modern technology to the reservation and teach the community to embrace it.
“The push, right now, is not just for the school but for the whole reservation and the community,” she said. “In the end, that affects every single person, from preschool all the way to the elders who have no idea what all this new technology is.
“Expectations of our students are going to go up from here. A lot of our kids don’t think that they are expected to do great and go to college. If we give them this avenue of learning, and they’re able to do it, now we’re expecting them to do it.”
Becki Ingawanup, the school board’s chair, and longest-tenured member, agrees with the importance of these teachings.
“I’m hoping for a big change for our kids,” she said. “I hope that they take advantage of this, and see this and say ‘I want to get involved in this, I want to be a part of this.’”
So far, students who have been able to interact with the school’s new focus have embraced it, according to Braack. Summer school students have been tasked with identifying problems at the school or reservation, then how to fix them — using real-life information, rather than what is generated in a textbook. The positive and enthusiastic response has encouraged Braack, Ingawanup and Shepherd.
As this program is designed to set tribal children up for the future, the school board also decided that the people responsible for the children’s learning needed to feel more secure.
Braack discovered that teachers in the Shoshone-Bannock School District were among the lowest-paid in the state. By maneuvering finances, the board was able to provide each of the certified staff members with a raise, between $10,000 and $15,000 annually apiece.
It was something that made Ingawanup proud.
“A lot of these core teachers have been here through the old school board, all the negativity,” she said. “They stayed because they love our kids. They were not getting paid, but they didn’t leave and go to other jobs, they stayed here.”
“We’re very excited about our future,” Ingawanup added. “Very excited.”