Millions of your taxpayer dollars have flowed into South Dakota all for the purpose of getting Native American students ready for college and helping their families prepare and pay for it.  But did that happen with South Dakota GEAR UP?   The latest independent evaluation of the program really can’t say for sure.

Our KELOLAND News investigation has been following the grant money since the tragedy in Platte that occurred hours after the state pulled the grant administration from Mid Central Educational Cooperative.

A current South Dakota college student who could be counted as a GEAR UP success statistic, except for the fact that her family says GEAR UP never delivered on its promises. 

Black Hills State Sophomore Kelsey Walking Eagle Espinosa is studying environmental science.  And she already has plan for her future. 

“I want to try to put my degree toward my reservation because I know we don’t have clean water there either, so I’m hoping to either study hydrology or something to help out with getting clean water there,” Kelsey said.

Kelsey grew up on the Rosebud Reservation and started attending GEAR UP in the summer after 8th grade. Her mother wanted to keep her busy and off the reservation where there was nothing to do. 

“I didn’t want my daughter to become a statistic of teen pregnancy, alcoholism, high rates of suicide. I didn’t want that for her.  I wanted her to have a better life and I always pushed education–pushed her, pushed her, pushed her,” Starr Walking Eagle said.

And it took a little pushing to get Kelsey to go to the School of Mines for GEAR UP. 

“Because I’m leaving my mom, I’m leaving my family for six weeks and I have never been away from her side,” Kelsey said.

But it was more than separation anxiety that alarmed Walking Eagle as her daughter went through the summer program. 

“Just checking in on her from time to time and that’s where I personally felt as a mother, there was not enough supervision.  And I really didn’t speak to an adult often,” Walking Eagle said.

“The summer program is kind of chaotic.  It’s kind of wild,” Darla Drew Lerdal said.

Drew Lerdal lost her job with GEAR UP in Rapid City when the state pulled its contract with Mid Central.  She says while it may have been wild, it wasn’t unsupervised.

“We have to know where these kids are at all times. They are our charges for seven weeks. We have to know exactly where they are,” Drew Lerdal said.

But Walking Eagle says there were times when no one knew where her daughter was.

“They ensured us they would know where they were at, and the first time we dropped in one evening, I did not see an adult in the area we had to check into,” Walking Eagle said.

Walking Eagle says the teachers were barely older than the high school students in the program.

“I guess I had the wrong impression in my mind- I thought it was going to be all about academics and it was going to be people teaching with education–that had degrees to be teaching our children,” Walking Eagle said.

“A lot of times they were not. But sometimes they were kids who were in college,” Drew Lerdal said.

Drew Lerdal says students’ safety was top priority and staff was on hand 24 hours in case of emergencies.

“And they would be there just for hospital runs.  Kid wakes up in the middle of the night with a sore throat, take him to Sioux San.  Ear aches; take him to Sioux San. Whatever it is, they’re going to go to Sioux San,” Drew Lerdal said.

But when Kelsey broke her ankle, no one took her to Sioux San.  She went to her dorm room and waited it out until she could call her mother that night.

“And I thought, she sat there all day–nobody checked on her. Who was supposed to check on her?   Who was she supposed to tell?  Someone should have called us. We live 2 and a half hours away and I thought, ‘We’re just going.’  It’s 10 o’clock, we’re going to be up there and we’re going to take you to the hospital,” Walking Eagle said.

Walking Eagle reported it to program coordinator Stacy Phelps.  She even sent a letter to Secretary of Education Melody Schopp. 

“No one protected her. No one helped her and she sat there like that and that just made me highly upset to have nobody from that program call me and to say we apologize for this, we tightened it up, we fixed or protocols or something. We never got a response at all,” Walking Eagle said.

While it wasn’t as serious, there was one other thing that struck Walking Eagle as odd while her daughter attended GEAR UP.  All the parents were asked to provide receipts for their travel to and from the program and any expenses they incurred for their child to attend. 

“We had to put our gas money, tolerates, bedding–anything we spent to get our kids there–we had to put that in there; sign it an turn it in,” Walking Eagle said.

But it wasn’t to reimburse the parents. Drew Lerdal says the program was using what parents spent as a match for the GEAR UP grant.  South Dakota must match every dollar in GEAR UP funds to get the money.  But typically a match is made by an institution or business in the form of donations, services or personnel. 

Angela Kennecke: These Native American parents are supposed to be served by GEAR UP, yet they’re providing the match?
Drew Lerdal: Yes, in this case they are–but we provided for their students for seven weeks: room, board activities, education.  It’s a pretty good deal.

“I felt if this was going to keep this program going, I’ll do it,” Walking Eagle said.

One of the main goals of GEAR UP was to educate parents of Native American students on financing for college.  But Kelsey’s mom says she never got any sort of guidance in that area. In fact, her family is taking out loans and will have about $24,000 in student loans once Kelsey has completed her studies. 

“I told her if I have to sell my car, I’ll sell my car to keep you there,” Walking Eagle said.

As for GEAR UP’s third objective…

Kennecke: Increase the student and family knowledge of post-secondary education options, preparations and financing.
Walking Eagle: I received none. When you show me these things, GEAR UP was supposed to provide, I feel like we were cheated.

In fact in the grant application, South Dakota makes promises to provide ongoing mentoring from graduation coaches and all sorts of college planning and financial aid workshops for students and their families.

“I don’t remember getting anything from GEAR UP, showing us family nights–come do a FAFSA night, come do a college night. Come–we’ll show you how to fill out the application. I honestly don’t remember getting any of that from GEAR UP at all,” Walking Eagle said.

Because Walking Eagle works at the St. Francis Indian School her daughter attended, she says she wouldn’t have missed it.   Walking Eagle’s anger grows as each new piece of information comes out on the troubles with GEAR UP, following the murders and suicide in Platte. 

“The only ones that are truly hurt out of all of this are the four children who had to pass on because of it and all the Native American children that didn’t benefit anything from it. And we’re not thinking just hundreds of dollars–we’re thinking millions of dollars that probably could have put a lot of our Native American children into colleges across the state,” Walking Eagle said.

While Kelsey is technically a GEAR Up success statistic, she says that doesn’t tell the entire story.

“Gear up was like half, maybe not even half of it; but my teachers from high school; my family—they pushed me,” Kelsey said.

Walking Eagle says her family also never got individual development accounts with matching savings for college from Lakota Funds, as the grant promised.  And Kelsey was supposed to get ongoing support to stay in school once she got to college from GEAR UP.

At Black Hills State, the Center for American Indian Studies provides mentoring and support to Native American students.  But none of the funding for that comes from GEAR UP.