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As a senior at Lakota Tech High School, Luta Keegan is captivated by the school’s approach to education and by the integration of Native culture in the curriculum. She appreciates how Native students like her can claim their true identities, while making choices that help them fulfill their career dreams.
“I enjoy my experience here, it is a place that offers a new approach to education that also respects and values my Indigenous identity,” said 17-year-old Luta Keegan. “Learning about culture is an important component of student success, especially at reservations.”
Opened in August 2020, Lakota Tech High School is the first public high school on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It is also the first Career Technical Education (CTE) high school on a Native reservation in the United States. The high school takes a unique approach to education that allows students to explore their Lakota culture while gaining academic knowledge as well as technical and professional skills. U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation (USBCDC), the community investment and tax credit subsidiary of U.S. Bank, invested $7.5 million in New Markets Tax Credits (NMTC) in the project. The bank’s community development entity, USBCDE, LLC, along with Dakotas America, LLC, brought a combined $23.5 million NMTC allocation to the project.
Lakota Tech is part of the Oglala Lakota County School District, which serves 22 underserved communities with high poverty and unemployment rates. There are 1,700 students in the district, of which 97% are Native. The district estimates that only 23% of eighth graders graduate from high school. They hope to change that, however, because research shows that in a concentrated CTE program, the graduation rate is 90%.
“We are fortunate to be at a school where students have a voice and opportunity to lead and shape our school and their lives,” said Marlin Kingi, social studies teacher, Student Council advisor, and member of the Native Lakota community. “Our hands-on approach to education will benefit the entire community.”
Keegan explains that at Lakota Tech she’s been able to pursue her interests. For example, she’s taking a Lakota language class, traveled to New Mexico to attend a summer architecture camp, and currently writes for the school newspaper.
“These experiences wouldn’t be possible at my previous school,” said Keegan. “To have a teacher telling me that she has no doubt that I can be a writer meant the world to me.”
Keegan also sees the school as a venue where the Native community of South Dakota can repair the legacy left by the Native American Boarding School system, created to assimilate Native children into the white American culture. Children were not allowed to speak their native languages, wear their customary garments, or practice their traditional forms of spirituality.
“Years of feeling disconnected from our cultural heritage still affects us because that tradition still exists,” said Keegan. “The idea of learning about our Lakota culture and language can help in the prevention of suicide by fostering positive experiences that increase student self-esteem.”
USBCDE specifically prioritizes projects with a commitment to racial equity and closing the racial wealth gap. Board members use a scorecard that considers seven objectives, such as whether the project decreases segregation and inequality or increases quality schools, quality job opportunities and social capital. The goal is to ensure that the benefits flow from those projects, such as Lakota Tech, directly to the communities that need them, said Andrew Hammond, vice president of New Markets and Historic Tax Credit investments at USBCDC.
“We are proud to support schools like Lakota Tech, designed to encourage the students’ career aspirations while ensuring their Native culture and values are acknowledged and celebrated,” Hammond said. “This unique approach that makes education more inclusive is more relevant and more powerful.”
The school’s construction was completed in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It started offering virtual classes in August of that year before transitioning to in-person this school year.
“Everyone involved in this project went above and beyond to overcome the challenges we faced during the pandemic to ensure this school became a reality,” said Dustin J. Ludens, managing director at Dakotas America. “The school’s targeted approach will help students have a better footing to start their careers.”
Keegan is looking forward to applying for college. She’s considering a double major in writing and architecture.
“I have passion for both, but I also know that I’ll end up where I’m meant to be,” said Keegan. “Education is the gateway to freedom.”
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