MADRAS — Madras High School graduate Mary Olney is, by all accounts, an extremely successful student.
The 18-year-old Madras resident and member of all three tribes in the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, was the president of her local chapter of the National FFA Organization, received multiple scholarships from local organizations like Kiwanis and FFA and plans to pursue careers in welding and pediatric medicine.
Olney is one of 45 Native American students who graduated from Madras High on June 1 — that’s 19 more graduates than in the class of 2018. She had multiple theories as to why these students have become more successful at Madras, from the school’s welcoming vibe to a tribal dance program that began when she was in middle school.
“Doing (the dance classes), people got more interested in their culture,” Olney said. “I feel like that’s something that empowers a lot of people that I know. It helps, because you have an identity.”
Madras High’s graduation rate for Native American students has skyrocketed in the past few years according to state data, from 39% in 2016 to 81% in 2018 — much higher than the statewide average graduation rate for Native Americans in 2018, which was 65%. The state hasn’t calculated official graduation rates for the 2018-19 school year yet.
This is a significant development for Madras High, which had more Native American students in the 2018-19 school year than any other Oregon high school by a wide margin, according to the Oregon Department of Education.
In 2018-19, 214 students — about a third of the school’s population — were American Indian or Alaskan Native. The traditional high school with the second-most Native American students in 2018-19 was Pendleton High School, and it had less than a third of Madras High’s Native American student population. Pendleton’s Native American graduation rate was about 82%.
Madras High administrators, staff and students point to multiple reasons for Native Americans’ success in their school, including programs that help them get more invested in their culture, targeted counseling intervention for at-risk students and a welcoming school environment based on strong staff-student relationships.
Co-principal H.D. Weddel said he calls the latter strategy “invitational learning,” in which staff are pushed to build connections with students in order to foster a warm culture. This results in students and teachers wanting to return to school every day.
“If (teachers) don’t want to come, it’s evident,” Weddel said. “Kids want to come because teachers want to be here.”
One staff member who plays a large role in building relationships specifically with Native American students is Butch David, who serves as Madras High’s Native American student liaison, as well as a multi-sport coach and security guard for the school.
David, who became a liaison four years ago, is a jovial presence in Madras High’s hallways, joking with and greeting nearly every kid he sees. A 1987 graduate of the high school and a Warm Springs resident, David said he helps Native American students by providing them with advice and encouragement.
Bridgette McConville, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs’ Tribal Council and a mother of 2019 Madras High graduate and student body president Annalise Whipple, said she appreciates that the school has a Native American authority figure students can talk to.
“If he was non-native, it wouldn’t work as well,” she said. “Having one of your own helps.”
Weddel said David has provided him and fellow co-principal Mark Neffendorf, who are both white, with valuable information about tribal culture, and that his cellphone is a virtual Rolodex of students’ numbers.
“If I can’t get a hold of somebody, I’ve had Butch text them directly,” Weddel said. “Butch just knows everybody.”
David, Hispanic Student Liaison Aaron Fisher and other staff members are part of the school’s “response to intervention” meetings, where staff members identify red flags that could keep students from graduating. Administrators say that the program, which started four years ago, has helped more students at Madras graduate in recent years. Weddel praised David and counselor Stacey Bruce, who runs the program, with knowing “every kid, all the time.”
Bruce said the program has helped some Native American students realize that Bridges, the alternative high school, is a better fit for them, with smaller class sizes and more one-on-one help. That benefits the students that choose to leave and those that stay.
“By having those kids where they need to be … we’re able to serve the ones that we have better,” Bruce said.
And programs such as the tribal dance program, which began a few years ago at the middle school level, have helped students feel more connected to their culture, David said. Graduating students said the opening of Warm Springs K-8 Academy in the fall of 2014 helped, as well, as they were the first eighth graders to attend the new school instead of being bussed into Jefferson County Middle School in Madras.
Allen Jackson, a Warm Springs resident and member of the Klamath tribe who plans on attending the College of the Siskiyous in the fall, said the school district would bring successful students who grew up in Warm Springs to the K-8 school, which inspired the younger kids.
“They showed the students, ‘They’re from Warm Springs, and they did this. What can you do?’” Jackson, 18, said.
Many graduating students and parents said they’ve noticed a culture shift among Warm Springs’ younger generation: they’re more driven, and many plan on returning to the reservation to help the community.
One student who wants to come back to Warm Springs is Samiakin Allen, 18, who expects to attend Central Oregon Community College’s Madras campus in the fall and eventually transfer to Oregon State University-Cascades to earn a psychology degree. As someone who struggled with severe anxiety and depression when he was younger, Allen said he wants to become a counselor for Warm Springs’ youth, who he said could use more mental health support.
“Previous generations have caused some of these mental health problems, like substance abuse and abusive parents, but that’s (because of) the environment itself, with all the poverty,” he said. “I want to help children never experience that during high school.”
Olney, the graduating senior who hopes to become a pediatrician and start a welding business on the side in Warm Springs, said she hopes to inspire Native American kids with her success.
“When I see someone do something, it makes me think that I can do it, too,” she said. “Everyone has dreams, and I think it’s important to inspire them to chase them.”
The parents of Warm Springs graduates are optimistic about Madras High continuing to give Native American students a boost.
“The principals, vice principals, I’ve heard they’re changing the culture and brought in a good team,” said Claude Smith III, a Warm Springs resident whose daughter, Gabi, graduated this year and will attend George Fox University.
“This is just the beginning, and students can really learn from this,” his wife, Melissa Smith, added. “The native kids coming (to graduations) and seeing this gives them hope, that they can change their futures, as well.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7854, firstname.lastname@example.org