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AmeriCorps grant gives boost to Sitting Bull College GED program

FORT YATES -- High school would not have been hard for the young woman Cara Moulton had been tutoring if life hadn't gotten in the way. But she got pregnant young and dropped out.

FORT YATES -- High school would not have been hard for the young woman Cara Moulton had been tutoring if life hadn’t gotten in the way. But she got pregnant young and dropped out.

The first three tests to get her GED high school equivalency diploma had not been a problem, but the final one - math - was her stumbling block.

Moulton heard sobs when she picked up her phone. Her heart dropped. She told the woman they would study more, and she’d pass next time. Then Moulton realized what the woman was saying.

“I passed.”

Moulton knows what a GED diploma can mean, because she, too, has one. And that was the first step on her path to graduating today from Sitting Bull College, a tribal college in Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation,  and preparing to attend law school.

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“Oh, my God, I cried,” she said.

Moulton volunteers with AmeriCorps as a tutor for the college’s GED program, along with completing her own classes and working full time for the college. The GED program at Sitting Bull has gotten a big leg up from tutors such as Moulton.

The Corporation for National and Community Service provided the program with a grant, called the AmeriCorps Standing Rock GED Project, to provide three tutors each in Fort Yates, McLaughlin, S.D., and Mobridge, S.D. The tutors - called AmeriCorps members - are volunteers, but they get small living allowances and scholarships.

“If we didn’t have this grant, we wouldn’t be able to help the students as we do,” said Mary Rousseau, Sitting Bull College’s GED program director.

The GED test in 2014 changed to a more rigorous computer-based program that requires more critical thinking skills compared to the old multiple-choice test, Rousseau said. She finds the new test holds students to higher standards.

“That’s why I like this test so much better than anything that could possibly replace it,” she said. “It’s just good for the students.”

Despite the more rigorous examination, the number of people passing the test through Sitting Bull College has remained similar to the number before the change. From 2007 to 2012, 13 people on average completed the program each year. In 2013, 32 people passed the test, getting in before it changed to the harder version.

Since May 2015, 19 people have completed the GED program through Sitting Bull College. Rousseau said those students also will be honored today at a graduation ceremony.

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Rousseau credits the grant and the work the AmeriCorps tutors have done for the success.

“What we’ve been focusing on … is getting these members trained to be able to help students with the new test,” she said.

The AmeriCorps grant is under the category of economic opportunity, and that’s what a GED diploma can provide, said Rousseau, also a GED recipient.

Rousseau explained Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has a rule in place limiting employment to high school graduates or those who have earned GED diplomas. Lacking both handcuffs people on the reservation, she said. According to data from the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, Standing Rock Community Grant High School in 2015 had a graduation rate of 49.21 percent and a dropout rate of 42.86 percent.

The people who leave school and come back for their GED diplomas usually have had some difficulty or trauma in their lives, Moulton said. A variety of difficult circumstances led her to leave school at 16.

Not having an education makes life even harder. Everything - even applying for a job - is an uphill battle without finishing high school, Moulton said.

“You don’t think you have a future,” said Moulton, who went back to get her GED diploma at 18 and began classes at Sitting Bull College a few years later.

Now, when she sees nervous students, she knows they can succeed.

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“I don’t see any of those students who walk through the door as anything less than potential doctors or potential lawyers,” she said.

Moulton said some students walk several miles to take their tests. The young woman Moulton tutored this year would bring her daughter with her when she had no one to babysit.

“I know the amazing relief students feel when they pass,” Moulton said. “For me, it was like I hadn’t failed at life after all, that I still had a shot.”

That’s why she’s worked so hard with students in the program. It’s paid off for them, and her own studies have paid off for her. Moulton is the Sitting Bull College valedictorian this year. GED diploma recipients statistically have been more college-ready than high school graduates, Rousseau said.

“I have gotten into every law school I have applied to, including prestigious top 50 schools, and so I know how much that means,” Moulton said. “I am going to law school in the fall, and I would never have gotten to this point without being able to get my GED.”

Many of the people who pass the test through Sitting Bull College begin college classes, Rousseau said. The young woman Moulton tutored plans to join their ranks in the fall.

In addition to the GED program, Sitting Bull College offers dual-credit courses for high school students, a variety of associate’s degree programs, eight bachelor’s degree programs and one master’s degree program. Moulton said the tuition is low and the quality of education is high, and the college is open to anyone, not just tribal members.

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