It will be three years this month that the Red Lake Tribal Council passed a resolution supporting a 100% graduation rate for all of its young people regardless of which school they attend. Rather than just focus on Native American students, Project Graduate has a goal of 100% graduation for all students.

So, how are we doing? We are not doing well. The percentages are still unacceptably low for many students. The Department of Education had a goal of 90% graduation rate by the year 2020. The current overall Minnesota graduation rate is around 83%. I am afraid it will be a long time before Minnesota achieves 90% unless they ask the community for help.

In case you are interested, the school with the highest graduation rate in Minnesota is Rocori High School at 99%, followed by East Ridge High School, Minnetonka High School and six others at 97%.

So, how are we doing in our area? Clearbrook-Gonvick is at 90%; Bemidji, Laporte and Blackduck rank in the 80% to 89% category. TrekNorth and Cass Lake are in the 70% to 79% category. Grygla, Mahnomen, Voyageurs are in the 50% to 59% range. Red Lake, Northome, Bemidji Lumberjack, Cass Lake-Bena Learning Center, Mahnomen Learning Center, Bemidji Learning Center, Red Lake Alternative Learning Center are all around 50% or lower.

By the way, it’s not a good idea to compare one school against another due to so many variables. Our schools are doing a good job of “educating” some of our youth, but, obviously, not all.

Has the 100% movement made a difference? Yes and no. No other county in the United States has accepted a 100% goal for graduating its youth. There are 376 area businesses and organizations that support this goal including all city councils and the county commissioners. The result is the 100% movement has created more of an awareness for the graduation rate. This is good. Few people in the state, outside of Beltrami County, have thought about graduating 100% of their youth. Most assume it’s only a school function and not both a community and school function.

We face many social obstacles in Beltrami County. We have dozens and dozens of social agencies that deal with poverty, homelessness, foster care, physical and mental health, incarceration, drug issues and the list goes on and on. Those who work to help people cope with these issues spend countless hours in seemingly perpetual meeting after meeting to find solutions. This is laudable. We are a helping county. Yet we seem to spend more time trying to solve the problems rather than identify the root cause of the problems.

Over the years I have sat in on these meetings and worked with individuals who have the best intentions but I have seldom heard people discuss what would happen if we all wholeheartedly ensured that 100% of our kids graduated from high school. I certainly am not familiar with all of these social issues but one thing I do know is education is key to solving most of them.

For example, most of the hundreds of individuals currently on probation in the county do not have their high school diploma. Many of the students who do not graduate come from families where parents are not high school graduates. Many of these families are dysfunctional and many kids from these families are in foster homes. When both parents have their high school diploma, when both parents are present, the chances are greater that kids will graduate from high school. It’s almost a given.

We know that African Americans have disproportionately higher instances of the COVID-19 virus. The same holds true of Native Americans. We also know that the graduation rate for both ethnic groups including Hispanics is considerably lower than for whites. We can fix this when more kids graduate.

I have been recommending to politicians about the need to include a 100% graduation rate as part of their educational agenda. It’s a win-win proposition because it doesn’t cost anything, it gets the community involved and it helps kids graduate. Plus, more kids in school means more money for schools and fewer referendums. If we can get citizens nationwide to wash their hands more often and wear masks in a period of three months, why can’t we teach kids the importance of graduating from high school?

So, what’s next? Here’s what we need to do.

If Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz supports zero dropouts he should tell Commissioner of Education Mary Cathryn Ricker to support a goal of 100% graduation and then spread the word to every county in the state.

School districts need to put themselves on the line by saying our goal is 100% and tell communities how they can help them achieve the goal. What if all the schools in the county collectively worked together to achieve a 100% goal? There are things we can do to help each other like do a better job of keeping track of kids who drop out of school.

City councils, and Red Lake Tribal Council, need to do more than just say we will support 100%, they need to dig in their heels and say this is what we will do. The same is true for all social service agencies including churches and fraternal organizations.

BSU and NTC, both institutions need to do more to help a county where Native Americans have a graduation rate of 50% or less. This issue has gone on far too long with little or no progress being made. BSU and NTC need to step up their efforts. They could be key participants.

With all of the good schools in our county and even without community support to help kids graduate, why haven’t we achieved 100%? We have charter schools and alternative schools and schools within a school, big schools and small schools, but when you really look at them, they are more alike than different. They are meeting the needs of many kids but not all kids.

In addition to wide community participation promoting 100%, it would also help to have a truly different kind of school. How about a school where there are no grade levels, report cards, bells, schedules or required algebra — where the entire community is considered the school? The reason why about half of Native American youth do not complete high school is because there is no school in the county or in the state of Minnesota or, perhaps, in the nation that has truly been designed around the needs of Native youth. The same is true for African American and Hispanic youth. Anyone who says otherwise just needs to look at the graduation rate. Our traditional model of school for all Native youth just doesn’t do it. If we wish to have significantly better schools for Native youth, they have to be significantly different.

There has never been a year like this in America’s history. Now is the time for real change. Let’s do something significantly different. I know I haven’t done enough to achieve the 100% goal. I can do more and you can too.

Riddle: When do you get that run down feeling? (Answer: When you get hit by a truck.) When it comes to the graduation rate we have had that run down feeling long enough. Let’s all get up and do something.

100%

To find data regarding graduation rates go to the Minnesota Department of Education website or to the Public School Review out of New York, which provides free, detailed profiles of United States public schools.

John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.