U volunteers help American Indian students succeed at area school

American Indian culture is a focus for the Oh Day Aki Charter School.

Kevin McCahill

Political science senior Shalali Cassim watched while a group of second-graders munched on bananas and Rice Krispies bars Thursday in the lunchroom of the Oh Day Aki (Heart of the Earth) Charter School on Fourth Street in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood.

The next day, German studies senior Melissa Richter sat in the library with a third-grader and explained addition and subtraction principles.

“The kids are really great,” Richter said. “You can tell the teachers here really care.”

Two of 40 volunteers from the University and other nearby colleges, Cassim and Richter have been offering their time for years to help students at Oh Day Aki.

The students, mostly American Indians of the Ojibwe, Lakota and Dakota tribes, attend the K-12 charter school that originally began as a school strictly for American Indians. Now the charter school is open to all students, but 96 percent of students are American Indian.

Cassim has volunteered at the school for three years, and although she isn’t planning on a career in education, she still sees working at the school as a way to help.

Hoping to enter the field of social justice after graduation, Cassim sees the school as a resource with which students can succeed.

“I like the closeness about it,” she said. “I like how they help instill their culture.”

The charter school, tucked into the busy Marcy-Holmes neighborhood, gets passed by many students each day who may not know what the school is about. It is this school that is working to preserve the American Indian heritage that is often lost in larger society.

Since the early 1970s, Oh Day Aki has seen several revisions. First a survival school for American Indians, teaching ethnic traditions, it later became an alternative school for the Minneapolis school district.

Now as a charter school, it offers elective courses in the Ojibwe and Lakota languages, as well as courses in American Indian history.

Students connect through the small community environment of 210 students and the cultural studies, said Principal Darlene Leiding.

“They truly learn about their heritage and tradition,” she said. “You need to do that. If you don’t know where you are from, how can you survive?”

Dennis Jones, Ojibwe language and culture instructor with American Indian studies at the University said he has 19 students in his first-year Ojibwe language class at the University. The majority of these students, he said, are Ojibwe.

“The language is the basis of the culture and is the basis of the identity,” he said. “The language is who you are.”

Oh Day Aki is working to improve graduation rates among American Indians. According to the Minneapolis school district’s findings, only 15 percent of American Indians graduate high school in four years. In the past two years, 28 students graduated from the school.

“(The) Minneapolis (school district) doesn’t graduate many more,” Leiding said.

According to the 2000 census, there are 54,000 American Indians living in Minnesota. The same census reports that approximately 15,000 live in Minneapolis or St. Paul. Sixty-seven percent of American Indian students dropped out of high school in 2000.

These numbers are a concern to Joel Pourier, executive director of Oh Day Aki, who said he has seen test scores increase since he took the helm more than three years ago. He believes this is because of the environment created at the school.

“This is their comfort zone,” he said of the school’s majority American Indian population. “They feel at home here.”

The school has recently begun adding night classes for working students. They also plan to add a general education development program, and get strong involvement with area colleges to help the students continue their education after graduation.

Pourier said he would like to see a dormitory added to help create a structured environment. Most of all, Pourier said, he wants the school to help students understand their heritage along with an education.

“Their self-identity is important,” he said. “They need to know who they are.”