State Eyes American Indian Residential School

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South Dakota is applying for a federal grant to help it build a residential school designed to improve academic achievement among American Indian students.

A limited number of states will receive money for Race to the Top, a U.S. Department of Education program aimed at encouraging and rewarding states that help improve student success.

Under South Dakota's proposal, partners would establish a year-round, residential school — likely in the Black Hills — for grades 9-12 and two years of postsecondary education.

The Obama administration is looking for innovative, outside-the-box ideas that have proven to meet the needs of a state's most underperforming students, said state Department of Education Secretary Tom Oster.

"We think that our application meets all of those," Oster said.

Preliminary parameters for South Dakota put the grant proposal at between $20 million and $75 million, Oster said.

Curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering and math to address the nation's need for scientists and engineers.

The initiative also infuses Indian family culture by establishing partnerships with tribal communities. Students would receive additional support through mentoring, internships, research experiences and cultural guidance.

The new venture would be an outgrowth of a successful summer initiative that has evolved into South Dakota's Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or "GEAR UP," honors program. The effort, which is funded by a different federal grant, targets mainly American Indian students and prepares them for postsecondary education.

All of the "GEAR UP" participants have graduated from high school, and 87 percent have pursued postsecondary education while 9 percent have joined the military, said Stacy Phelps, who has directed the program since its inception in 1992.

Sixty-five percent have graduated from college or are still enrolled, she said.

Oster said Race to the Top grant winners would have four or five years to spend the money.

The school would begin with a freshman class and add a grade level at a time. Postsecondary courses would likely be offered in partnership with the state's universities.

The South Dakota Board of Education is scheduled to review the proposal at its Jan. 5 meeting, and the U.S. Department of Education expects to announce its first-round winners in spring.

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