Making Sense of Things

Some of these words are a part of my blogging this week, but I tried to synthesize with this post. 


This past week, I was given the opportunity to participate in a a study trip sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. We travelled to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It was an incredible opportunity to see how learning takes place on the reservation as well as a look at how the many other systems (housing, mental health services, health and wellness, transportation, etc.) impact education. It was an incredible look at a segment of our education system that is invisible to most people. The greatest take away from this experience is that the complexity of poverty at Pine Ridge supersedes any urban or rural poverty that I've experienced. It exposed a piece of the education puzzle that most ignore, but it also provided incredible insight to how solution for most of our education system is about shaping culture and system as opposed to technology and stuff. 


The Pine Ridge Reservation is a unique place. It is the fourth largest reservation in the country, and it is the second poorest county in the United States. It has  85% unemployment is coupled with the nation's highest teen suicide rate. Couple these statistics with the fact that Pine Ridge has the lowest life expectancy in the country, high alcoholism rates, and extreme obesity, and you begin to barely understand how life, learning, and living is for the children here. Poverty is squeezing the life out of the children of this beautiful part of the country.


With all of this despair,  it is hard to imagine that this culture is producing potential solutions, but the hope, the beauty, the solutions that I heard about Pine Ridge left me with some sense of optimism. These solutions include: a recent rise in children leaning back into their culture including more and more students learning the Lakota language, the Oglala Lakota College (OLC) that now boasted 200 plus graduates between the ages of 20-50, and a small business surviving in a place where jobs are scarce and money for food is limited. Even with these potential solutions, so many questions about remained. 


Can the little things matter? Can the simple greetings that we have with people each day reshape the culture of support, forgiveness and care? Can the simple breaking of bread together lead to the connections, solutions, and journeys forward that we need? Can taking time to breath and notice and smile produce results? Can the big things ever matter enough? Can systemic change that includes personnel changes, learning design changes, and instructional changes ever take hold without a healthy culture for it to reside? Can sweeping technology changes make the differences needed to transform our schools into being agile, open, and transparent? Can excellent leadership without the right followers reshape education as we know it? 


These questions brought forth new ideas, but one of them seem like the answer. None of them will “fix” the Pine Ridge Reservation. None of them are possible without champions from the inside. None of them are impossible though, and none of them disrespect the beauty of the culture permeates the reservation. 


Ultimately though, change takes time, but rarely does it comes from spinning in circles. There is a deep need for air traffic control and communication dissemination on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Ideas are isolated. People are isolated. Solutions are isolated. All of this isolation is causing floods of resources to miss their mark. It is also causing great programs to be missed by schools and communities. Connected living doesn't appear to be a priority for the solution makers here locally, but it would provide a way to move from having programs to having programs that impact families and children. Connected living would make sure that systems that remove friction are known throughout the reservation. Connected living would allow art, music, culture, and language to flow more freely. Connected living would pool money and resources to make sure that opportunities for jobs are lost. 


The realism about the culture can never be pushed too far away as the darkness of death and dying has oozed into everything there. I told someone that I wouldn't be surprised if everyone on the reservation suffered some level of post-traumatic stress. The depth and complexity of the poverty is like no other thing that I've experienced in the United States. Housing, health care, transportation, food availability, job opportunities, substance abuse, mental health and overall governance are all systems in tatters. The state of these systems makes the education system at Pine Ridge seem like the shining star of the reservation. 


So often, we get caught talking about tools, tricks, and tips, but the reality of most of our schools is that culture, the culture in the school and the culture of the community that dictates our overall success. Hidden away from most of the country, the Pine Ridge Reservation is a place that struggle, has hope and can provide wisdom to all of us in the space of bring solutions to education. It shows us that champions for change matter deeply as only with inside solution can excellence emerge. It shows us that the beauty of culture is essential for growing a community in which all students have a chance. It shows that despite of the barriers to success that systems can overcome. It shows us that together we are better, and there is a deep need for all of us to connect.