For Immediate Release
Contact: Dale Wetzel, Public Information Specialist
BISMARCK, N.D., Dec. 17, 2018 – State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said Solen High School and Cannon Ball Elementary, two public schools on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, are receiving national acclaim for their students’ exceptional academic improvement.
Cannon Ball Elementary and Solen High School were recently honored by the National Association of ESEA State Program Administrators as a Distinguished School. The organization recognizes federally supported schools for their students’ academic achievements. The Distinguished School honor is given to up to 100 schools nationwide each year.
ESEA stands for Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a federal education law that was first approved in 1965. The ESEA is periodically renewed by Congress. Its most recent version is called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.
Justin Fryer, superintendent of the Solen school district, said the work by the district’s teachers, administrators and staff in building relationships with students and their parents have been a bedrock factor in the schools’ improvement.
Teachers attend school and community events and make contact with their students’ parents at least once each month, Fryer said. Both Cannon Ball Elementary and Solen High both have leadership teams that give teachers an outlet to discuss students’ specific needs, and give teachers a greater voice in school administration. Staff turnover in the district has been minimal in the last five years, which has lent an important sense of stability, he said.
Solen High uses a trimester class schedule, which breaks the school year into smaller chunks. That gives the school’s students more opportunities to take elective classes, as well as earn college credit by working with Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates and United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck. The high school has established a chapter of DECA, an organization that promotes careers in management, finance and marketing, and has a student-run screen printing and embroidery business.
Solen High students choose a teacher mentor to guide them as they grapple with school and life issues, which has boosted some students’ desire to stay in school and graduate, Fryer said.
"When a kid feels safe, and they feel like a teacher or someone here has their best interests at heart, they tend to really open up. We’re able to help them through those difficult times and help them to stay focused," he said.
During the 2015-16 school year, 35.7 percent of Solen’s students graduated in four years. During 2017-18, the four-year graduation rate increased to 45.5 percent. Fryer said he hoped it would rise above 60 percent this year.
Baesler said the awards for Solen High and Cannon Ball Elementary shows progress in narrowing Native American student academic achievement disparities, which is one of the goals of the state’s strategic vision for education.
"The teachers, administrators, parents and students at Cannon Ball Elementary and Solen High School should be congratulated for this achievement," Baesler said. "They could teach us all about the importance of school and community engagement, and how to achieve it."
Solen and Cannon Ball students have been equipped with iPads, and its teachers with MacBook laptops as part of an Apple Inc. school support initiative. The technology company has also provided valuable training on education innovation, Fryer said. This has encouraged teaching and learning creativity among both students and teachers, he said.
"We want to be moving with the times. We want to work towards innovation, and it has just opened a whole new avenue where our students are able to learn at their pace," Fryer said. "It allows the students to be creative as well. There are really innovative things you can do in science, the arts and music."
The district wants to begin driver’s education instruction this summer, which will make high school students more employable – "Pretty much everything down here, you need a driver’s license," Fryer said – and eventually expand its career and technical education offerings into automotive repair and welding. "There is a shortage of people who are skilled laborers," he said.
The schools also provide Native American cultural instruction and context with the curriculum. They share a cultural teacher who focuses on teaching the Standing Rock tribe’s Lakota language. The Lakota Language Consortium named Solen High as the "Most Improved High School" in 2017-18 for its stronger scores in a cultural assessment.
A "Buffalo Days" celebration at the school each May includes a traditional meal of buffalo meat and soup, fry bread and wojapi, a traditional thick berry sauce used for dipping. Students are shown the traditional way to butcher and skin a buffalo, and how to tan its hide to make leather.
Families of the students have been supportive. Fryer said the district’s annual surveys on school culture and climate have shown marked improvement. In the surveys, which are taken during parent-teacher conferences, parents and students have rated the school more highly than the teachers, he said.
"The results have all been good, but I just think it says a lot when you have very high parent survey results, and solid student survey results, it tells you you’re making a difference in the community," he said. "It gives us a really good idea of what we’re doing well, and things we can improve upon."
The Solen district was recently awarded $5.6 million in federal impact grants to build a new Cannon Ball Elementary School, which will be the first new school built in the district in about 80 years.
"It’s been a long time coming. It is something the community has wanted for a number of years," he said. "The new school will definitely enhance our learning environment."