Red Lake Nation News - Babaamaajimowinan (Telling of news in different places)

By Pippi Mayfield
Bemidji Pioneer 

From failing to flourishing: St. Mary's Mission in Red Lake sees success in teaching commitment


Preschool teacher Ms. Amanda and her students pose with the blankets made and donated to them by special friends of St. Mary's School from Sartell, Minn. (Submitted photo)

RED LAKE -- When Father Jerry Rogers left Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Detroit Lakes, Minn., and headed to St. Mary's Mission School on the Red Lake Reservation, he knew things didn't look good for the pre-K through sixth grade school.

Enrollment was under 50 kids, state test scores had them 17-24 percent at grade level and some classes didn't even have textbooks.

"When we arrived, we called the bishop over and asked him if he was going to close it," Rogers said. "If he was going to close it, that would have been the time to close it."

But, the bishop said he had every intention of keeping the mission alive. So Rogers and his crew went to town on a plan to better the school, starting with the reading test scores.

That being said though, "you can't focus on one thing, you have to focus on everything," he said of rebuilding the school. "We had to focus on a new principal, teachers."

He found out that kids were being passed simply for social passing, and he put an end to that immediately.

"I consider that a mortal sin," he said. "If they were going to continue to do that, I would fire the teachers" he let them know. "My constant message to them was 'if they are not learning the way you are teaching, you change the way you are teaching.'"

And so they did.

The mission brought in new, young, excited teachers who would commit to a couple years before moving on and they were able to build relationships with the students and their families.

Another Detroit Lakes resident that felt compelled to work at the mission and build relationships was Patti Spry.

After working for 10 years as the youth minister at Holy Rosary, she felt the need to move on, so she ended up in Red Lake -- during the week anyway. Her husband stayed in Detroit Lakes, and Spry would stay at the mission during the week and return home on the weekends.

"I was only going to be there for one year," she said. "Well that one year lasted five years," she added with a laugh.

In December of 2014, she and her husband decided it was time for her to quit her full-time work of outreach and development at the mission. She wasn't able to break all ties, though, and still works there one day a week.

"My goal for this year is to get the word out. Most people know about Red Lake, but they don't know about St. Mary's Mission," she said.

Before going to Red Lake to visit Rogers, Spry said she had never been there and really didn't know any of the history or conditions there either. Of course she had heard about the school shooting several years ago, but that was about all.

"I was probably the most naive person to enter Red Lake," she said.

But once she learned, that didn't stop her.

"There was just a love that I felt for that mission. The people, there was just a stirring in me," she said. "I just felt, this is where I need to be. This is where I can do something that hopefully my ministry would be a good ministry."

Sister Patrice Eblen also went to the mission when Spry did.

Struggles to overcome

To enhance the education, the mission also started summer school. Each week a different group of older students from throughout the Midwest would visit the school and teach summer classes.

"Their job was to trick our kids into reading and doing math," Rogers said.

And with a new group of teens each week, it made it more interesting for the younger students because there was new interests, new passion, new ideas each week to keep them engaged and excited for summer school.

Every square foot in the mission's building is used: The gymnasium stage also serves as the library, and the closets have been turned into classrooms.

The school hired a reading specialist also, and now when she does the testing, 100 percent of the kids third through sixth grade are at or above average reading level.

With the social difficulties, there are also financial hurdles as well. Spry said that while a typical church may collect $2,000 a week, Red Lake maybe gets $200.

"So right away, you're met with a huge operating budget, and where do you get the money from," she said.

With all those struggles, though, many that they have overcome in the last six years and work to maintain, Spry said that the mission is truly a great thing on the reservation that most people don't even know about.

"Good things are happening at that mission, and good things can happen for Red Lake with our children, and the elders and parents that send their children, they want that mission to keep going," she said.

Finding success

Enrollment is now at capacity, 100 students, and on parent-teacher night, there is 100 percent participation for the families of the students. Part of that success comes from the fact that teachers have to report to the principal every other week the phone calls they have made to the children's homes.

It's to report all the positive things the students are doing so that parents want to continue working with the school to educate their children.

"It's very simple, but it works. What works is you love the kids," Rogers said. "I think part of the secret is creating a community. One thing the natives have taught us is the importance of relationships."

He said he could double the size of his classrooms, but he won't, so that students get the attention they need and so teachers can handle the number of students they teach.

"We work at being a family, this is a family," he said.

"The kids are wonderful. They are just beautiful, beautiful, beautiful children," Spry agreed. "They are just so full of love. And the spirit of those elders and parents that sends those kids to the mission, are just unbelievable."

Future plans

With all the success and accomplishments in the last several years, Rogers and the mission staff have plans for the future as well. One is to have a "baby space" for toddlers age 2 and up.

"We want to get the kids as soon as we can get them," he said, "because our kids come to us in kindergarten two years behind."

Not only is that helping the children get a quicker start, it's also connecting the school and the parents sooner. With the belief that education starts at home and parents are the primary teachers, it's critical to get families involved as soon as possible.

Baby space is not a daycare or a Head Start program, Spry said, but instead to help children develop. Classrooms will be built to specifically engage the kids of a certain age. The school will also be involved with the parents.

The other future plans for the school is adding seventh and eighth grade.

"Every year at graduation from sixth grade, the kids cry because they don't want to leave," Rogers said.

A new college was started on the reservation as well, and Rogers said he would like his school to be involved with those students at the college so the younger kids see older kids going to college, getting even more education and finding careers.

"It's humbling," Rogers said of the success the school has seen since his arrival. "You realize you're not the one doing it. You get out of the way and the Lord works through you. That's the bottom line.

"Some of the most beautiful people I've met are on this reservation."

"I could see the good in what our school was doing," Spry said. "It was very slow change, but there's just a love that you cannot explain. You can just see and feel the Holy Spirit working.

"When you're up there and working up there, there's just something that touches your heart so deep."


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