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Native American teens get a grip on graduation

By MARGO HORNER

The Mirror

With drums, chants, cake and songs, Native American students in Federal Way celebrated the achievement of one of their most valuable goals last week:

Graduation.

It was the first district-wide graduation celebration for Native American students since the Native Education Program began last school year. Students of all ages and their families attended a dinner Tuesday at Truman High School to show their support.

"This will show other students that there is a light at the end of the tunnel," said Maxine Alex, Native Education Program coordinator for the Federal Way School District.

The Native Education Program began in Federal Way as a way to support Native American students in the district, many of whom were falling behind academically.

The graduation rate for Native American students in Federal Way is below 50 percent, Alex said.

Organizers of the Native Education Program established a tutoring program for Native American students as well as an active parent advisory committee. The group set goals of building math skills among students and increasing the graduation rate.

Next year, organizers will start a program working with high school seniors on college and scholarship applications. They plan to host a graduation celebration each year.

At the graduation dinner last week, Roger Fernandes, a Native American historian and storyteller, played drums, told stories and spoke to the students.

"We are very proud of you," Fernandes told the students. "I am proud of each and every one of you."

He spoke about the academic difficulties Native American students often face in public schools.

"You are proof that Native children are capable of succeeding in these systems," Fernandes said.

And indeed, Native American children are capable of succeeding. Organizers honored two outstanding graduates at the dinner with brightly-colored, traditional Pendleton blankets.

"We use those traditionally to honor and bestow gifts on people," Alex said.

Rita Helmbrecht of Federal Way High School has a long list of accomplishments including earning a prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship. She plans to attend Gonzaga University and study law.

Benjamin Parker of Thomas Jefferson High School has a long list of accomplishments including earning a Western Washington Native American Education Consortium Merit Award. He plans to attend Dartmouth University and study electrical engineering and music.

Contact Margo Horner: mhorner@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

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