Can you believe the summer is almost over? The launch of the school year is a little different for my family this year. Booker is beginning his senior year of high school in a few days and will be starting football soon (Go Chargers!). Kassidy and Kennedy are done with college now, so school supply shopping is a much easier task … though I have to admit I miss the days of picking out boxes of crayons and spiral notebooks.

With one in high school and two having gone all the way through our state’s public schools, I’ve been privileged to have a front-row ticket to the continuum of our education system. And from this perspective, one thing is abundantly clear: we do a lot of things right in our South Dakota schools.

Earlier this year, I visited Todd County Middle School in Mission — a school that is doing a lot of things right. Their work has been bolstered in recent years by a state-funded Native American Achievement Grant, a 3-year project to jumpstart improvements in academic outcomes for Native American students and increase student success. The project requires schools to build cultural identities, encourage academic perseverance, and develop student leadership skills. Schools that received these funds are expected to integrate Native American culture and language throughout their curriculum. It’s truly a remarkable program.

Because of this grant, Todd County Middle School has implemented several changes that are benefitting both the students and their community. They are incorporating Lakota language and culture into their school, addressing mental health and meeting students where they are at for both behavior and academic needs.

It is a student-centered environment. Each morning, teachers and students start the day with wellness activities to get kids in the mindset for school. They make sure every student has had something to eat. Teachers collaborate and work together to instruct and support students. In addition to traditional counseling services, they have implemented a recovery room where students can go to work through anxiety or take time to sort through a difficult situation. These rooms are staffed with counselors and have proven successful in curbing violence in the school and helping students be ready to learn in the classroom.

And the results speak for themselves. The eighth grade class I talked with went from 78 acts of violence in their fifth grade year to only four incidents of violence as 8th graders. Academic gains are emerging as well. The students are articulate, confident, and optimistic — a reflection of the atmosphere throughout the school.

I was incredibly impressed by Todd County Middle School, and I know that successes like this are mirrored all over our state. Teachers are working to inspire students and prepare them for the workforce. I’m committed to further expanding opportunities in this arena, too. In a few months, we’ll launch our “South Dakota Week of Work,” which will expose students to high-demand careers and innovative businesses right here in South Dakota.

So as another summer comes to an end, let me leave our students (and teachers too!) with this back-to-school encouragement: Find things you are passionate about and act on them. Be bold. See the good in people. Focus each day on leaving this world a little better than you found it.

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