Can a New School Help the Girls of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation?

An all-girls school opening in August aims to empower young women living in one of the poorest places in the U.S.

Shawna Thornton, a teenager from Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, looks out at the sweeping views of the prairie on the reservation. She has grown up surrounded by alcohol abuse. (Photo: Nikki Kahn/'The Washington Post' via Getty Images)

Jan 14, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Twila True left the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of South Dakota before she turned five, relocating to Southern California through a government program that provided housing. Leaving behind an absent mother who struggled with alcohol abuse, True was raised by her grandmother. Every summer she returned to the reservation, watching over time as the gap between her life and that of her extended family widened. One thing in particular separated her from many of her peers on the reservation: a high school education.

“I struggled with knowing that I had seen almost a different world,” True told TakePart. “It was always a transition when I showed up.”

Though True left in the late 1960s, a complete high school education remains a rarity for Oglala Sioux youths on the reservation. Today, roughly 70 percent of students in Pine Ridge schools drop out before graduating from high school. In a community plagued by poverty, survival—much less graduation—poses a persistent challenge. The reservation has the highest infant mortality rate in the country and a 90 percent unemployment rate, and in recent years, a rash of suicides has rocked the community.

In August, a new private school will open its doors on the reservation with the goal of offering hope and a path to college for Oglala Sioux girls. Funded in part by True’s foundation, the Pine Ridge Girls’ School was dreamed up by Victoria Shorr-Perkins, a California-based novelist who founded the private Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles.

“Last year, 12 preteen and teenage girls [killed themselves],” Shorr-Perkins told TakePart. “These are young people in fatal, terminal despair.”

After reading about rampant alcoholism on the reservation in 2013, the Wellesley graduate and same-sex education advocate decided that the Archer School could serve as a model for a school at Pine Ridge. Shorr-Perkins, who jokes that she is an “outsider with no real credentials,” traveled to the reservation for the first time and received a warm welcome from the people she met.

“The minute they heard the plan they didn’t say, ‘Who the hell are you?’ ” she said. “They all said yes—they saw beyond me to this vision of the first independent college prep school for girls on a reservation in America.”

The school will serve sixth- through 12th-grade girls, and its curriculum is founded in Lakota philosophy and values. Its founders and board members see it as a place that will empower the girls to lead their community toward a brighter future. Along the way, the school’s staff hopes to create a supportive environment that stems the rise in suicides among the reservation’s young people, in part by addressing the intergenerational trauma that is so common on Pine Ridge.

While suicide is the No. 2 cause of death among teens nationwide, it is the leading cause of death for teens in South Dakota, according to Stephanie Schweitzer Dixon, the executive director of the Rapid City teen suicide prevention group Front Porch Coalition. Schools have a unique role to play in preventing death by suicide, she said.

“In many communities, not just South Dakota, we don’t have enough mental health providers,” Schweitzer Dixon said. “We have to be able to sit down in our schools and comfortably talk about mental health and mental illness—with teachers, janitors, coaches, and kitchen staff.”

Schweitzer Dixon is working with others in the state to advocate for legislation that would mandate suicide prevention training for all teachers. Called the Jason Flatt Act, the law has been passed in 16 other states. As of now, Schweitzer Dixon has seen several piecemeal suicide prevention programs pop up around South Dakota—but as teachers leave or change districts, the programs often don’t last.

“There’s got to be a lot of leadership in schools to keep it going from year to year,” she said.

By carving out a safe space that offers a holistic education for girls living on the reservation, Shorr-Perkins and True believe the school will be able to put students on a path that assumes not just that they’ll graduate from high school, but also that they’ll go to college. Rather than seeing a dead end, they’ll see a future.

“Education is the most direct path to social justice,” Shorr-Perkins said. “These girls are going to give more to America than they have been given. We need these people—they are the best environmental stewards of anyone in their country. Once their voice can be heard, we have a chance of saving ourselves.”