PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION — More than 47 million children are heading back to school across the country this month. But for 600 Lakota students on the remote Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the road is not a smooth one. Just getting to school on the first day would be nearly impossible for some, if not for the arrival of a new bus on the Red Cloud Indian School campus last week—the first of ten aging buses the school hopes to replace over the next five years.
When the school’s buses—several with odometer readings of over 210,000—started breaking down last year, young students like Grace, who wake up before dawn everyday to make a two hour bus trip to the school, did not know how, or if, she would be able to get to school this fall.
In response to this growing concern, Red Cloud’s President, Fr. George Winzenburg, S.J. turned to the school’s national network of partners and friends for help raise the $870,000 needed to replace the aging fleet. The Emilie Kolat Hesemeyer Charitable Trust responded by committing a matching leadership gift of $250,000 with the aim of inspiring others to give. Over the spring and summer months, several other partners stepped up to the challenge with donations to help make safe, reliable travel to Red Cloud’s quality education possible. With their help, the school raised enough to purchase the first bright yellow school bus to ensure that Grace and her classmates can continue their education this year. But, there is still a long way to go.
The funds needed to replace the entire fleet must be raised in addition to the significant cost of keeping the doors open at the nonprofit Jesuit school located in the isolated southwest corner of South Dakota. The school, which is funded almost entirely by individual donations and grants, also needs to raise an additional $400,000 each year to cover the annual cost of fuel, insurance, and regular maintenance to safely transport students across the 2.8 million acre reservation to class each morning—and back home each evening.
In an area where half of the residents live below the poverty line, rough roads, long distances and the growing cost of fuel only add to an already long list of challenges. “Around the country, about half of all elementary and high school students rely on buses to get them to school. But on Pine Ridge, nearly all of our kids—close to 95%—need our buses in order to stay in school,” says Ted Hamilton, superintendent at Red Cloud Indian School.
For Red Cloud junior Tad, the new buses will make it possible for him to continue his education and obtain the skills needed to get into the college of his dreams. “If the bus broke down or stopped coming, I wouldn’t be able to make it to Red Cloud,” he explains. “I put up with the early mornings and cold bus ride because the education is top-notch.”
Red Cloud Indian School was featured in a December 2013 edition of Education Week that reported graduation rates far above those for Native American children nationally. The school attributes much of this success to its commitment to meeting the needs of the whole student—mind, body and spirit. By providing free, healthy meals to all students, engaged counselors and a rigorous, culturally responsive STEM and humanities-based curriculum, students are not only graduating, but also attending some of the nation’s top colleges and universities.
But before Grace, Tad and their classmates can alter the challenges stacked against them, they need to get to school.
Getting every student to class is a critical first step and a fiscal challenge, but one that Fr. Winzenburg and the students hope will be realized with the support of the community and the generosity of donors nationwide.