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Honor song issue before Chamberlain School Board Monday

By Jessica Giard

For the Daily Republic

CHAMBERLAIN — Students from St. Joseph’s Indian School feel accepted at Chamberlain High School. They play sports, perform in high school plays, become homecoming royalty and make good grades. Then why, they ask, has garnering approval for a Lakota honor song become controversial?

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Today, Chamberlain’s board of education plans to vote, for the second time, on whether to include an honor song at Chamberlain High School’s graduation.

In May, the board rejected by a 6-1 vote a request for an honor song at the 2013 graduation, in a high school where 38 percent of students are American Indian.

This year, at the Nov. 25 board meeting, the board tabled a second vote after a failed vote on a motion to find a compromise with students on the honor song.

Forty-seven students from the St. Joseph’s high school program attend Chamberlain High School. They account for about one-third of the Indian student population at CHS.

Jenny Renner-Meyer  “Our kids feel pretty comfortable at CHS and feel pretty accepted and part of what’s going on there,” said Jenny Renner-Meyer, residential and clinical director for fifth through 12th grades at St. Joseph’s.

“A situation like this makes it so all of a sudden they start wondering, ‘Are we really accepted?’ And, ‘Is this really a place that’s looking out for our best interests?’” she said.

Renner-Meyer and Mike Tyrell, executive director at St. Joseph’s, say both schools have worked to create positive communication to support the students. Eight of the 13 Indian students in the CHS senior class are St. Joseph’s students (there are 21 total minority students and 46 white students).

“Because our kids do have a voice and can speak out, they are asking these questions,” Tyrell said. “The last two years, it’s been St. Joe’s kids who have brought before the board the whole honor song thing.”

Mike Tyrell  In April, students presented a petition signed by students and staff asking the board to consider the honor song for graduation. Students also spoke at the board’s Nov. 11 meeting.

Tyrell believes the controversy over the honor song overshadows the positive relationship between the schools.

“We’re not a perfect community, but we’re not a bad community,” he said. “This is a good time to all step up and show some leadership, and say, although it’s a five-minute song at graduation, it’s really about healing and bringing a community together.”

Chamberlain Superintendent Debbie Johnson agrees the relationship with St. Joseph’s is positive. She also sees that the Indian student population has grown in the district.

In the last five years, the share of Indian students in the high school has increased by six percentage points, to 38 percent.

“When I was principal at the high school, we could tell there was some growth there,” she said. “We knew there were more students who wanted to come to our district.”

The district includes a portion of the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation to the north, stretching into Fort Thompson. The district buses kindergarten through eighthgrade students, but not high school.

Additionally, the district discovered that twice as many of its Indian students live in Chamberlain than live in Fort Thompson. Census data also shows an increased Indian population in Chamberlain, growing from 10 percent of the city’s residents in 2000 to 15 percent in 2010.

The realization prompted the board to hold one of its biannual parental and tribal input meetings in Chamberlain starting in 2011. Before, both meetings were in Fort Thompson.

The most recent meeting in Fort Thompson was Oct. 28, where parents asked about an honor song for 2014 graduation. That pushed the board to revisit the discussion.

“The board knew that a decision needed to be made, if they were going to make it, long before graduation because we want graduation to focus on the students,” Johnson said.

On Nov. 25, the board also amended a policy to clarify that the graduation ceremony is under board oversight.

“I think sometimes when you have issues that come up, so it’s better understood by all how our district works, there it is in black and white,” she said.

The board approved adding the phrase, “The academic graduation ceremony is a school district celebration. Therefore, the board will oversee the academic graduation ceremony.”

Rebecca Reimer, Chamberlain school board president, declined to be interviewed on the policy change.

In the area, school districts in Winner, Lyman County and Pierre each include an honor song at their graduation.

Tyrell believes the honor song is about recognizing the accomplishments of all the students, not just the Indian students.

“It’s less about the exclusiveness of one group and more about the inclusiveness of all by saying this group of students wants to offer this song in celebration, so please accept it,” he said. “We’re part of the school. This about all of us.”

More information:

Honor song timeline          Indian student numbers