Saturday, February 24, 2018

Pryor Public School students take a lap around the local track, which Principal Sam Bruner (far left) said represented all the small steps students and educators take on the road to academic excellence.
Third grader Cedric Big Lake looks at an award certificate won by Raymond Big Hail on Friday morning in the Pryor Public School gymnasium. Despite not having a set teacher due to a resignation, Pryor Elementary School third and fourth graders have been taught by the other teachers who donate prep time.

Pryor students rewarded for academic achievement

Editor’s note: The following is the first of two articles in regards to academic improvements within the Pryor Public School system. This piece will detail student and faculty achievements on a basic level, while the second will examine the role of the Montana Office of Public Instruction in the school’s development.

When Dean Siers arrived to teach English at Plenty Coups High School in Pryor eight years ago, he was told “not to expect anything, because it was an Indian school.” As an educator with more than three decades of experience at the time (now more than four), he and other faculty members decided to put this assertion to rest.

Known by students for his high standards – which he said are “not appreciated” by some parents – Siers said someone once called him “the craziest Sioux [the person] ever met” due to him teaching Crow people, traditional enemies of his Oglala Lakota tribe.

“I worked hard to make people realize this was a public high school and it has to be treated as a public high school,” he said. “That means we have to belie expectations. And it’s come around to be a lot better than it was then.”

The road to improvement would not be easy. A March 23, 2012 article in The Atlantic magazine showed the Pryor school district struggling with “the lowest graduation rate in the state and a long record of depressed test scores.”

Nearly four months before the Atlantic article, a 15-year-old honor roll student in the district shot and killed his father during a family fight, marking the fifth homicide on the Crow Reservation in two months.

“Less than a third of students made it to graduation last spring,” the article states. “Others drifted out of town, dropped out with kids to care for or just stopped showing up.”

Awards ceremony

Four years later, enter Aaliyah Bull Shows, an excitable, gap-toothed kindergartener at Pryor Elementary School: She can add and subtract within 10 and received a certificate to prove it Friday morning during the Pryor school district’s first awards ceremony.

Bull Shows, one of 94 students enrolled at Pryor Public Schools, is finishing her first year in a facility whose high school graduation rate, according to the Montana Office of Public Instruction, increased from 61.5 percent in 2014 to 76.5 in 2015.

Once she begins learning about larger numbers and decimals, Bull Shows will be able to calculate this as an increase of 15 percentage points.

“These kids have the ability succeed – and a number of them do,” said Ed Wiest, a 17-year veteran of the district who teaches math for high school and junior high students. “There’s times when Native American schools are totally stressful, but otherwise, I enjoy it.”

For a broader example of academic achievement, one can look to Loren Mostad’s first and second grade class. Their certificates indicate the clear defeat of six other qualifying classes on the Sumdog education website’s South Central Math Contest in early January.

As described by students and faculty, Sumdog is a game-based math competition, where correct answers make an orange cartoon dog – pictured in the right-hand corner of the winners’ certificates – move faster.

The school’s third and fourth graders would go on to take first at the math contest in April. They accomplished this feat after their teacher resigned – other educators in the school volunteered to teach them during scheduled prep time without extra pay.

“It was kind of weird,” said fourth grader Kayden Falls Down, but he and third grader Raymond Big Hail said they were continuing to work on their assignments, avoid getting in trouble – sometimes a difficult task – and earn field trips. Big Hail, for instance, has perfect attendance.

Further certificates awarded to kindergarten through 12th grade students denote improved reading abilities, top physical education learners and more.

Speaking before the students in the school gymnasium, Principal Sam Bruner said the ceremony was continuing the legacy of the school’s namesake, Chief Plenty Coups, who told his fellow Crow tribal members: “Education is your greatest weapon.”

Bruner said the everyday elements of school, though “less glamorous” than sports, were crucial to build a student’s future.

“One does not just come to school and end up graduating from high school or college,” he said in his opening statement. “It takes little actions, like getting to school on time, listening in class, doing your homework and studying for tests.”

For the past three years, Bruner said, every student who made it to senior year at Plenty Coups High School has managed to graduate.

Future possibilities

One year before Terae Briggs signed to play Division I basketball for the University of Nevada Wolf Pack – on Wednesday, to be exact – she gave a speech to her graduating class in Pryor. Also present was Siers, a favorite teacher of hers, who brought with him his well-known standards for English grammar.

Briggs may have been the high school’s valedictorian for 2015, but verbal pauses were not an option.

“I told her if I hear one ‘um’ or one ‘dur’ or one hesitation in that speech, I’m leaving,” Siers said. “She spoke for almost 20 minutes and went straight through.”

Though the 6-foot-2 freshman is undecided as to a major, she cites Siers as the person who helped her prepare for “the college experience” with its essays and scholarship applications. He even gave her tips in basketball.

“He’s the main person who made me what I am today,” she said.

With her acceptance to the Reno, Nev. school, Briggs will be moving on from United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, N.D. While playing in Division II for the school’s Lady Thunderbirds, her team not only won the Region XIII tournament on Feb. 28 with only six players, but she was also awarded Most Valuable Player of the division.

Along with these more “glamorous” accomplishments, as Bruner might say, she also maintained – as of the first semester – a 3.7 grade-point average.

Concluding the Friday awards ceremony, Bruner announced destinations being considered by Plenty Coups’ eight new high school graduates: three for Montana State University-Billings, one for Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Mont., and four are as yet undecided.