If you watched “60 Minutes” last Sunday, you had to be amazed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) mountain climber professor who had both his legs amputated due to frostbite but was still able to climb mountains using his new artificial legs, which he invented. How is that possible? Sometimes I have trouble climbing out of bed in the morning.

I watched with a bit of envy as professor Hugh Herr showed the viewers what MIT is up to these days in terms of artificial intelligence. One piece of technology showed how after a person thought of a question, the answer would appear on a screen. It’s akin to having an artificial brain alongside your normal brain.

What was more interesting for me as a teacher was to see the many young people working on these mind boggling projects. It gives a person a lot of hope for the future knowing that we have youth who are capable of inventing the unimaginable. It also gives me hope knowing that these young people are products of our k-12 schools.

Everywhere I look I see young people doing marvelous things even right here in the north country among the deer and bear and wolves and bobcats. Kids are amazing, which was reinforced by what I saw at the Koochiching and Beltrami County fairs. All of these youth have taken advantage of opportunities to improve their lot in life. They will all do well. We certainly have a right to be proud of them.

Unfortunately, there is another story to tell about Minnesota’s young people who, no fault of their own, don’t have the same opportunities. The Ciresi Walburn Foundation for Children has a number of billboards in the Twin Cities area that say “Minnesota schools are the worst in the nation for our children of color.” They cite that the most recent data available that gives Minnesota “the lowest graduation rates of any state for black and Hispanic students and the second-lowest for American Indian students.”

How can this be in a state that boasts about its fine schools at all levels? Yes, I have the same question, “How can this be?” The truth is, it shouldn’t be and we need to fix it.

So, what do we do? The 100 percent graduation rate goal in our county, initiated by the Red Lake Tribal Council, is a huge first step. We now have 251 organizations that support the goal but much more needs to be done. Thanks to Northland Tackle, Southside Towing and the Northome City Council for being the most recent organizations that support it.

The goal of Project Graduate is to have young people develop a mindset to graduate in like manner that you and I had a mindset to graduate. There was something in our subconscious that was telling us to graduate. Maybe MIT may have an answer for us. For this reason I have a letter written to Professor Herr asking for his input.

Part of this answer also comes by envisioning different schools for different kids. I am reminded of a quote often used by my mentor but originally said by Aristotle: “There is nothing so unequal as treating unequals equally.” In other words, “People should be treated equitably and ethically, given their individual needs and circumstances, and the differences between people should be recognized and valued, not diminished.” (attributed to Randy Conley in “Are you playing fair?”) Unfortunately, many minority students leave school early because our vision of what schooling should be hasn’t changed.

In a column I wrote a few months ago, I suggested that with the high rates of absenteeism among students who drop out of school, we need to have a summit on how to combat this problem rather than to continually penalize the student. I suggested that maybe the whole county needs to be the school and why not? We have learning academies that occur outside the school in the community, why not find a way to make the whole community a school. Why not? Just as MIT uses out-of-the-box thinking, all of us need to think outside the box if we are to graduate 100 percent of our students.

It’s an injustice to me to think that we are turning away thousands of young people every year who could possibly be an MIT scholar working on inventing an unimaginable robotic. Every young person is capable of doing big things when given the opportunity, yet right here in northern Minnesota our record, to say the least, is not good for graduating Native students. Oh, we are getting better and it’s not that we aren’t trying, but we have so much ground to make up.

We just can’t settle for anything less than a goal of 100 percent graduation rate. Why can’t Beltrami County show the state of Minnesota that we are capable of graduating 100 percent of our students so that the Ciresi Walburn Foundation can tear down those billboards?

Riddle: Why was Mr. Jones wearing sunglasses to school? (Because he had such bright students.) If all students are bright and capable of graduating -- and they are -- we need to find ways to help them graduate.

100 percent graduation

A local movement is underway to ensure the area has a 100 percent high school graduation rate. Schools can help achieve a goal of 100 percent graduation rate when they:

  • Provide programs that satisfy the needs and circumstances for those students who leave school without their diploma.

  • Work closer with parents of students who need more help by giving parents more help.

  • Keep track of those students that leave school early to determine where they went and why.