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Profile                                                            Page 51

 

Devoted to a Reservation

Community   

 

BY SARAH CARR 

ProfileWaukau
Wendell Waukau

Not long after Wendell Waukau took the helm of Wisconsin’s Menominee Indian School District in 2005, the district’s high school earned the ignominious distinction of “dropout factory,” meaning fewer than 60 percent of starting freshmen ultimately graduated.

Waukau, an American Indian who grew up on the reservation in northeastern Wisconsin that today sends about 900 predominantly low-income students to the K-12 district, refused to consider the high dropout rate a problem confined to the schools.

“The more I learned about how the schools are a reflection of the community, the more I realized we didn’t have a dropout crisis,” he says. “We had a public health crisis.”

Menominee County consistently posts Wisconsin’s highest poverty rate and ranks among the state’s highest in teen pregnancy, adult obesity and unemployment. Waukau knew these factors contribute mightily to dropping out, so he attacked on multiple fronts. He brought dental services into the schools, increased mental health support for students, launched nutrition programs, and suspended and expelled fewer students.

“He understands that ... these things impact education,” says Faye Dodge, a community health director at the Menominee Tribal Clinic.

The first Menominee member to lead the community schools, Waukau can relate to the stresses facing his students. The seventh of nine children, he grew up in a household that struggled at times. His father battled with alcoholism after serving in the Korean War, and his mother suffered from mental health issues. The couple divorced when Waukau was 15.

Even so, Waukau says his parents encouraged a love of learning in their children. Waukau’s mother, as an adult, returned to night school, earning her high school diploma on the same day as her eldest son. Her example rubbed off, as seven of the children attended college, five earning diplomas.

After graduating with degrees from the University of Wisconsin system, Waukau worked his way up through the Menominee district, starting as a substitute teacher in 1988 and special education instructor a year later. Within seven years, he was principal of the high school.

The school board president, David “Jonesy” Miller, considers the superintendent’s personal history among the Menominee Indians to be an asset. Waukau recognizes the importance of extended family and understands the historical place of discrimination — notably, the attempted acculturation of American Indians in Eurocentric boarding schools dating back to the 19th century — in shaping modern American Indian society. Waukau’s own father spent time in a boarding school.

Following the release of the -dropout-factory report by Johns Hopkins University researchers, Waukau worked with the high school staff to create a freshman academy with its own wing of the building, mentors for individual students and a new focus on Menominee language, history and culture. He increased the amount of instructional time devoted to reading and math.

Finally, he devised alternatives to expulsion, even for students accused of drug possession, to keep them in school. As a result, the district’s expulsion rate dropped from nearly 2 percent in 2008 to 0.25 percent last year. By the end of 2011-12, the graduation rate had climbed to 94 percent.

Waukau relished the opportunity to deliver some good news to the community for once. “To be able to say, ‘You’re not a dropout factory anymore,’ that was huge,” he says.

Sarah Carr is a freelance writer in New Orleans, La. E-mail: sarahelizcarr@gmail.com

 

BIO STATS: WENDELL WAUKAU

Currently: Menominee Indian School District, Keshena, Wis.

Previously: high school principal, Keshena, Wis.

Age: 50

Greatest influence on career: My mother, Joan, who through her own personal struggles successfully raised nine children and instilled the core values that help guide my work.

Best professional day: The first day of every school year and our high school graduation ceremony — milestone days reinforcing that students and families are first.

Books at bedside: Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath; and How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

Biggest blooper: I sent a text message to a U.S. Department of Education program director by mistake that was intended for our daughter Joan to "hurry up!” as I needed to get home.

Why I’m an AASA member: I am motivated by the success stories of school districts across the country on the challenges and opportunities we face.

 

 

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