Story and photos by Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
Located a 90-minute drive away from the celebrated stone-hewn faces of Mount Rushmore, Red Cloud Catholic Mission School, perched inside South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, has two very opposite “claims to fame.”
On the negative front, the school is located in the poorest county in the United States.
But a much happier picture emerges upon further examination of Red Cloud, a Jesuit-founded, K-12 school of about 600 enthusiastic students: the place defies all odds, sending a higher percentage of graduates to Ivy League universities, such as USC, than do many of its more affluent counterpart high schools. In fact, some 95 percent of Red Cloud’s graduating seniors go on to enroll in a four-year university.
“I was blown away by how much great stuff they’re doing,” said Notre Dame seminarian David Bailey, who brought the idea of organizing an art fundraiser for Red Cloud to his rector, Father James Wehner, after visiting the school last summer. Bailey noted that that while the poverty line in the United States is set at an annual household income of about $25,000, “the average household income in Pine Ridge is about $9,000 a year, and the average life expectancy is only 46 years.”
Making Red Cloud students’ seemingly impossible college attendance a reality are a mix of scholarships and year-round fundraising. Students at Red Cloud rely on financial help, even to pay their minimal $100 yearly tuition to attend grades K-12.
“We had this idea of Red Cloud, the seminary and St. Rita’s (School in New Orleans) all coming together to help each other,” said Bailey, who spent 20 years as a social worker on Native American reservations before enrolling at Notre Dame Seminary.
The result was an April 27 art show and auction at Schulte Auditorium entitled “Students Helping Students.”
Kimberly Johnson, St. Rita’s art teacher, chose more than 20 of her students’ pieces to give to the effort. Bailey solicited additional works of art from the seminary community and from local prisons.
By applying an intense, college-preparatory curriculum blending classical academics and Catholic catechesis with teaching students about their Oglala Lakota Indian culture, Red Cloud students are able to buck trends that include 80% unemployment and a “massive” suicide problem, Bailey notes. One student he knows of is in medical school at Yale University.
“You go to this school,” Bailey said, “and you see hope.”