Making a Difference on the Omaha ReservationNovember 30, 2020
In the three years since Jon Pickinpaugh (NE ’17) took over as principal at UmonHon (Omaha) Nation High, graduation rates have risen from 46% to 80%, the largest graduating class in the school’s history. “I didn’t get into education to take the easy route,” says Jon. “I am always up for a challenge.”
This is my third year as principal at UmonHon (Omaha) Nation High School. When I received the Milken Award I was teaching eighth grade in South Sioux City, but I was almost done with my master’s in administration. When I finished I applied to be the assistant principal at UmonHon Nation. This is one of the lowest-performing schools in Nebraska, and in the country. But I didn’t get into education to take the easy route, and I thought I would be able to make more of a difference in the school and community. They were moving the high school principal to the middle school, so they offered me the high school spot. I had never been in administration before, but I’m always up for a challenge.
UmonHon Nation is in Macy, an hour outside of Omaha. The Omaha reservation is one of the poorest in the country. We have the school, a small gas station, a few tribal buildings and a jail. About 900 people live on the reservation. The unemployment rate is 86%. Most of the people who do work are employed by the school. Our students deal with poverty, homelessness, lack of parents or guardians, mental and physical abuse, and addiction. The suicide rate in the community is high.
Currently we have four certified teachers. Our classified staff is 95% Native. I would love to be able to influence more Natives to become educators and teach here. We are a public school on state land, so our curriculum follows the Nebraska state standards. The only thing that differs from other public schools is that our “foreign” language class is UmonHon language. We also offer a tribal government class. November is Native American Heritage Month, which we celebrate throughout the school. My favorite is “hand game,” a traditional Native guessing game. I also like “Rock your Mocs Day,” when everyone wears their moccasins.
One big challenge for us is getting students to school on time. We might have 20 kids when school starts but 100 by lunch. Most students are failing their first two classes because they’re late so often. We have a big issue with truancy. It’s hard to get the community to support the school. I think I have been faced with every single challenge you could imagine in my short time here. But we’re making progress. When I started three years ago, the graduation rate was 46%. After my first year it was 76%. Last year we were at 80% and graduated the largest class in the school’s history.
But then came the pandemic. COVID-19 has affected our students and community in a big way. To enter Macy, you pass through a checkpoint and have to show a paper proving that you work at the school, or you’re not getting in. Everyone is required to wear a mask. From last March, when schools closed, until we were able to open up again in August, we delivered groceries weekly to all students’ households. Students are constantly being put in quarantine.
Cases are really starting to rise on the reservation, so just this week we moved all instruction online. It seems like the pandemic has halted all the progress we have made as a school these past three years. Depression rates are growing. It’s a struggle to get students to do their work online. Keeping staff morale high is taxing. The UmonHon tribe already has such low numbers—people are scared that COVID-19 will kill off a lot of members. But we’re not giving up!
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