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GEAR UP Players Sought Federal Grant for American Indian STEM Boarding School in Black Hills

Indian Country Media spotlights a May 2015 report from the Lakota People’s Law Project recounting the self-serving relationships and contracts, first revealed in Laura Sullivan’s landmark NPR report of October 2011, through which South Dakota officials have allegedly enriched themselves under the guise of helping American Indian children.

The title of the LPLP report, The New Boarding Schools, gets me thinking about an aspect of the GEAR UP scandal that’s been sitting on my desktop since September, when we learned GEAR UP business manager Scott Westerhuis and his family died by shotgun before their house went up in flames. The players involved in the GEAR UP scandal—Stacy Phelps, the American Indian Institute for Innovation, Keith Moore, Dan Guericke, Rick Melmer, the Department of Education—were involved in an effort to create a new boarding school for American Indians in the Black Hills.
AIII STEM-Health Academy location, as shown in appendix to SD 2010 Race to the Top application appendix

In 2010, South Dakota applied for a $74-million Race to the Top education grant. The main application and appendices draw as the “cornerstone” of the application the creation of a year-round residential charter school built and operated by the American Indian Institute for Innovation. Proposed for a site near Whitewood with a view of Bear Butte, the school was to offer American Indian students in high school and the first two years of college a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) curriculum.

Here’s the AIII pitch from the application itself:

The American Indian Institute for Innovation (AIII) proposes to develop a pre-eminent year-round residential, Science,

Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) based educational opportunity for American Indians, at first in South Dakota, but with a view to replicability across the nation. The AIII model is unprecedented. This comprehensive transformational institution will lead to sustainable change. It engages future leaders with rigorous curriculum, relevant real world experiences, and supportive mentor-based relationships in an environment infused with Indian culture. It is a solution being proposed for the American Indian by the American Indian.

AIII has established partnerships with Tribal communities focused on supporting their students through mentoring, internship and research experiences and cultural guidance. The AIII residential year-round model will educate student cohorts from the beginning high school years through the first two years of college with a specific focus on creating American Indian professional leaders in STEM and health care to serve Tribal Communities. [South Dakota Race to the Top grant application, January 2010, pp. 30–31].

The application cited Phelps’s work in the GEAR UP program as evidence that a STEM curriculum would provide value to American Indian students. At the time of the application, education officials said this charter school for American Indians had been in the works for a few years—i.e., at least since Rick Melmer’s time as head of the Department of Education under Governor Mike Rounds.

The 2010 Race to the Top application included the following timeline for development of not just one but two AIII demonstration schools:

RTTT-AIII development timeline 2011–2020 (poor resolution in original)
RTTT-AIII development timeline 2011–2020 (poor resolution in original)

The application does not make clear where AIII would establish the second STEM demonstration school.

In a budget summary, the application designated salaries for an AIII CEO, a superintendent, a development coordinator, and an administrative assistant:

RTTT 2010 AIII admin budget
RTTT 2010 AIII admin budget

The AIII school budget envisioned gearing up to hire a CFO, payroll clerk, accounts payable clerk, human relations officer, principal, technology integrationist, diversity coordinator, school nurse, two secretaries, a registrar, a study hall monitor, a home and tribal coordinator, a librarian and an assistant, several coaches, two counselors, 37 support staff, and 29 teachers. Throw in travel budgets, and all that staff would cost $14.7 million over five years. AIII would spend an additional $6.8 million over five years on school outreach. The PAST Foundation of Ohio would receive $1.3 million over the first four years to help set up the STEM boarding school.

$33.2 million would have gone to construction of the school itself. $9.7 million was designated for dorm renovations, $6.2 million for classroom renovations, and $17.3 million for physical plant renovations, including geothermal, solar, and wind energy. (A blueprint of the campus is available from The Kubala Washatko Architects of Wisconsin.)

By year 5, AIII anticipated having 400 students on campus who would have brought in $1.9 million in state funding and 300 students who would have brought in $4.68 million in Bureau of Indian Education funding. AIII also anticipated drawing $33.2 million in grant revenues—90% of the Race to the Top dollars designated to tribal and local schools—by providing professional development for teachers statewide in STEM curriculum.

Another key part of the 2010 Race to the Top grant application was passage of charter school legislation. That year, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 63, which authorized the creation of a pilot charter schools for American Indian students. SB 63 conditioned approval of any such pilot school on receipt of federal grants to pay for it. Among those testifying on behalf of Senate Bill 63 were Education Secretary Tom Oster, Stacy Phelps for Mid-Central Educational Cooperative, Dan Guericke on behalf of Educational Service Agency 3 (which is, essentially, Mid-Central), and GEAR UP project director Keith Moore from USD.

The application included letters of support from numerous state officials, including our entire Congressional delegation (Herseth Sandlin, Johnson, and Thune) and then USD Dean of Education Rick Melmer, who said the program would help train teachers for STEM education.

The feds turned down South Dakota’s Race to the Top application. Governor Mike Rounds said shucks, that boarding school was a good idea:

The state asked for $74,000,000 to fund a year-round residential charter school for Native American students. The school would include grades 9-12 plus two years of college. It would emphasize science, technology, engineering and math.

“We really thought if we could bring it together in the Black Hills of South Dakota it would be a great place to provide another option for young people that wanted to take the next steps to get into higher education and continue on,” Gov. Mike Rounds said [“S. Dakota Loses Shot at $74M,” Native Village: Youth and Education News, 2010.04.01, “condensed” from that Sioux Falls paper, poorly cited with a dead link].

According to the Native Village report, Dan Guericke blamed the failure of the application (for which he was main contact person and which his co-op appears to have prepared) on the state’s lack of charter schools, unified data systems for teacher evaluations, and merit pay for teachers. Centralized teacher evaluation and merit pay were key components of the education reforms passed by the Legislature in its next Session but defeated by voters in 2012.

Governor Mike Rounds and Bureau of Indian Education director Keith Moore, honored at SD Indian Education Summit, Oct 2010. Photo by Lakota Country Times.
Governor Mike Rounds and Bureau of Indian Education director Keith Moore, honored at SD Indian Education Summit, Oct 2010. Photo by Lakota Country Times.

Later in 2010, the Indian Education Summit, arranged by the South Dakota Department of Education, Mid-Central Education Cooperative, the University of South Dakota, Oceti Sakowin Education Consortium, and Technology and Innovation in Education, gave Stacy Phelps, Keith Moore, and Governor Rounds awards for working really hard on American Indian Education.

AIII continues to promote the STEM academy on its website. I have been unable to determine so far from online resources exactly what land the academy is supposed to sit on or whether AIII has actually acquired the land. But I have heard that former Lower Brule tribal chairman Michael Jandreau had acquired some land for his tribe in the Northern Hills, and in the Race to the Top appendices, Jandreau is listed as one of the trustees of AIII, along with Phelps, astronaut John Herrington of Idaho, and filmmaker Chris Eyre.

AIII has no independent campus of its own, but in recent years AIII appears to have implemented something like the charter school model by contracting to take over tribal schools at Lower Brule, Wounded Knee, and Takini. As AG Marty Jackley has revealed, Scott Westerhuis was in Takini for work the day he learned that the state was canceling his co-op’s contract to run GEAR UP.

We thus see that GEAR UP was part of a grander scheme on the part of state education officials to use federal dollars to promote STEM education and charter schools. Most remarkably, the state would have created a new boarding school for American Indian students.


  1. rsterling 2015-11-25 09:33

    The last decade of one party rule has allowed a group of South Dakota political good-ole-boys to master the art of enriching themselves at the expense of American Indians and the working poor. We should all be so proud.

  2. The King 2015-11-25 09:43

    Clearly, Gear Up was just the tip of a very large, corrupt iceberg, with the same players, Melmer, Moore, Guericke, Phelps, Westerhuis and Rounds all contributing in their own unique way to keep the gravy flowing. Luckily the Feds saw through the 2010 scam, the largest uncovered so far in this scandal. Keep digging.

  3. 96Tears 2015-11-25 10:03

    They seem to be a lot more brazen in their graft and contempt for being caught.

  4. Rorschach 2015-11-25 10:26

    I see the idea of a boarding school as a good idea. It’s no secret that many kids on the reservation come home to challenging home environments every day after school. It’s easy to see how a boarding school could have helped kids stay out of trouble and go in the right direction. And participation would be voluntary. Voluntary.

    Now before attacking me consider this. We already do something similar in SD. It’s called McCrossan Boys Ranch. They take in kids who are not necessarily involved with the criminal justice system. Some may be. Others are not. Some just don’t have a home or family that can take care of them. McCrossan has a school on site, and prepares youth for independent living as adults and for college or technical school. A model like this could work on a larger scale to prepare Native American students for college.

  5. Jim 2015-11-25 10:39

    More strong reporting on the GOP money dredge. Thanks Cory.

  6. Lanny V Stricherz 2015-11-25 11:27

    Yes Rorschach, That boarding school concept worked so well in the last century didn’t it? Breaking the ties to their heritage, language and ways of doing things is what put the Native American population in the shape in which they find themselves today.

  7. Les 2015-11-25 14:12

    I had a close relative in some of the meetings with John on property acquisition.

    “”AII proposal, written by John Bennett Herrington – Chairman of the AIII Board, former astronaut, Commander United State Navy
    (retired), and member of the Chickasaw nation.
    “One of the major issues confronting our nation is the lack of qualified engineers and scientists graduating from US institutions. And nowhere is this problem more acute than within the Native American community. Historically, American Indians
    are the most underrepresented minority group in science and engineering. … The challenge is to provide substantive numbers of high
    school graduates that are fully prepared to enter the demands of a rigorous engineering curriculum. …””

    John had good intentions as did many others involved. Unfortunately it is proven the cream is stripped from the milk, in our state by both red and white skins.

  8. leslie 2015-11-25 15:03

    that is the issue, … obviously many had good intentions but where did that deviate from the ruins in platte? kelo carried Darla drew interview last night. why must information be so hard to dig out of the state and why is the Board of Regents trustworthy to move forward?

  9. The King 2015-11-25 16:29

    Drew spoke in platitudes, no real information given there. Guericke has completely lawyered up, Phelps would not answer his door when Angie knocked, nor has he given any public information. Forensic audits take time, as much information may be deliberately hidden. I would love to blame the state for lack of information, but I don’t think enough time has passed to lay such blame.

  10. Oldhag 2015-11-25 16:29

    I couldn’t agree more leslie, why is the BOR trustworthy to move forward?
    I don’t think those who think 10 hours of work at a rate of $182k is at all well intended. How is it MCEC still handling any taxpayers $$$?
    This isn’t just a sad story of skimming millions of $$$$ out of grants, children are dead and still dying on the reservation at an alarming rate, is it because they know it is truly not their well being that is top priority? Where is their hope? Where is the hope of any person in Platte or the Region every learning the truth about what happened and why?
    Thanks to any reporter who is willing to keep digging! I am thankful for you!

  11. Lanny V Stricherz 2015-11-25 16:43

    @The King, you wrote, “but I don’t think enough time has passed to lay such blame.” That is exactly what I said 2 or 3 weeks ago. In both the Benda and the Gear Up case, how in the world could the AG make his determination of suicide that quickly? It would have been okay for him to think that and keep digging, but that does not seem to be the way he handles his job.

  12. jerry 2015-11-25 20:42

    Very familiar names indeed. I think the program is a good idea, but it just got corrupted. To much money and lack of oversight is always the temptress. Of course, South Dakota is well aware of this and that is why we have such a screwed up political system here. They allow you to see a little bit, but you cannot look behind the curtain at who is pulling the strings. That makes for a failed government. It will continue like this until the US Attorney’s office pulls their heads out of that dark place to deal with what is going on. Not to hard to figure out, just follow the bodies.

  13. grudznick 2015-11-25 20:47

    It sounds like Messrs. Rounds, Melmer and Moore had good ideas back then when we were all a little younger. I wonder if young Mr. Moore pulled Melmer to the side of evil or if he was led there by the more savvy older fellow.

  14. Lanny V Stricherz 2015-11-25 20:53

    Call the doctor and an ambulance. Grudz is finally admitting that there may be some corruption at out State government level. I think I am going to have a heart attack.

  15. grudznick 2015-11-25 21:02

    Mr. Stricherz, technically these fellows left our government and went rogue in the public sector of employment. I’m sure that your bad deeds today are not held against that fast food joint you once worked at in your school days.

  16. moses 2015-11-25 21:47

    Amazing Angeala from Kelo getting it done maybe she run for attorney General ,or against Photo op; for senate.

  17. grudznick 2015-11-25 22:05

    Yes, Ms. Kennecke would be a great politician.

  18. Donald Pay 2015-11-25 22:32

    Here is the key, which Cory points out: “That year, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 63, which authorized the creation of a pilot charter schools for American Indian students. SB 63 conditioned approval of any such pilot school on receipt of federal grants to pay for it.”

    There is a lot packed these two sentences, and it tells you all you need to know about South Dakota. Let’s assume you think this project is that best thing that could ever happen to education of Indian students. Why wouldn’t the state kick in some money, if for nothing else than showing the feds how committed they are to education of Indian students? Yet, not one dime of state money is committed to the project. The entire project depended on a bunch of privatizers scamming the federal government. The only thing they got from the state was luke-warm approval in the form of a fairly meaningless bill. The sad fact is the state officials didn’t give one damn about this project, because they wouldn’t commit to one penny of state funding. Oh, the politicians would have been happy to cash the campaign donations from the people who would have profited from this operation, however.

    Sure, the project sounds very good. It was 100 percent marketing and 0 percent education. Making gold out of sewage ash sounded good to some folks, too.

    If you want to be serious about projects like this you run it from an existing school district, not a charter that doesn’t even exist!!!

  19. leslie 2015-11-26 09:35

    i like don’s skepticism. on the other hand, Dan Guricke, M. M. Rounds, Kelly Duncan and M. Jackley as sworn signers of the 2010 grant app., hooked their prairie schooner to the “poorly” authored/edited bulky text by persons unknown (Phelps, Morris, Melmer?) proposing radical changes to address South Dakota’s failed attempt to educate Indian kids, apparently.

    For example, is the following quote, pp. 25,26 (indentations mine):

    Two schools serving predominantly Native American student populations in South Dakota are universally recognized as producing students with high levels of proficiency in core subject areas, who graduate at rates similar or even exceeding those of South Dakota students in general, and who go on to postsecondary study at high levels.

    These are the St. Joseph Indian School and the Red Cloud Indian School. Both of these private schools have two main characteristics: high quality instruction and a respect for an inclusion of Native American culture.

    James Caroll, in his book, Seeds of Faith: Catholic Indian Boarding Schools, makes clear that a large part of these schools’ success is due to “a positive acceptance of biculturalism.” Thus, we have a model for what education needs to look like in South Dakota to provide Native Americans with a strong, successful education experience.

    But these two models are not the only ones and, frankly since they owe their existence and continued support to the Jesuit and Franciscan Roman Catholic orders, they are not really replicable at this point in time anyway.

    But the concepts behind one other model, which has enjoyed similar successes, is replicable, the GEAR UP Program. According to its most recent formative evaluation document (Kuhn, B. Gear Up South Dakota: 2008-09 Formative Evaluation, State Department of Education, Pierre, SD, June 27, 2009), the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program is “an existing federal discretionary grant program designed to ‘increase the number of low income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.’” The program has been directed almost in its entirety to Native American students in two ways. First, 24 schools were targeted. The student population of all of these schools is overwhelmingly Native American. Second, the State Department of Education gave priority to Native American students even within those schools. Thus, 80% of all students served by GUSD (Gear-Up South Dakota) are Native Americans. That GUSD is following the criteria for a successful school for Native American students, a combination of high quality core content instruction coupled with CBE is evident from the formative evaluation’s list of student activities, which include: tutoring, homework assistance, academic enrichment, computer assisted labs, mentoring, academic planning, career counseling, college visits and shadowing, educational field trips, workshops, family events, and cultural events.

    A huge part of this is the inclusion of students’ parents, accomplished by workshops on college preparation and financial aid, counseling and advising, college visits and family events. Additionally, involved faculty are provided training in cultural competency, the high school freshman success model, and a high school transition and retention program.

    GUSD is taking what we know works from the research literature and aggressively and competently implementing it in these 24 overwhelmingly Native American schools.
    But the proof is not in what is being done but rather then outcomes of those activities.

    The proof is in the pudding. That pudding, in addition to strengthening “educational resources and infrastructure at GEAR UP schools” is set out in the project’s first three objectives:

    1. 2. 3.

    Increase the academic performance and preparation for post-secondary education of participating students; Increase the rate of high school graduation and participation in post-secondary education of participating students; Increase the educational expectations of participating students and parents, as well as student and family knowledge of post- secondary education options , preparation, and financing;

  20. jerry 2015-11-26 09:52

    leslie, I am wondering if all schools, got adequate funding so they could find the way to reach students for their highest potential. It seems to me then that what you would receive is what you invest. As noted by your post, the Catholic schools on the reservation do better than the BIA schools there. I am thinking that teachers are more likely to make those schools their choices for a number of reasons with safety and salaries being high on the list. Put the hundreds of millions of dollars back into public schools that we have taken out for private ones, and lets solve the problems of the world. We can do this with the respect of Native traditions incorporated into learning for Native children both on and off reservations. The key is funding that is not corrupted.

  21. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-11-26 10:02

    Les! What can your close relative tell us about the land acquisition? Was land acquired? Where, by whom, and for how much? How is the land being used right now?

  22. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-11-26 10:10

    On the boarding school concept itself, I’ll side with Rohr’s openness, with a big helping of Lanny’s caution. “Boarding school” should set off alarm bells for any Indian. The RTTT application acknowledges that ugly history, then tries to portray the AIII residential school as an attempt to avoid the disastrous impacts of cultural separation:

    Thankfully, at least one historical example demonstrates what could have happened with only one significant change to the boarding school experience, the acceptance of the Indian culture. In Matthew W. Sakiestewa Gilbert’s article, The Hopi followers: Chief Tawaguaptewa and Hopi Student Advancement at Sherman Institute, 1906-1909, in the Journal American Indian Education, 2005, the author freely admits that the goal of the school was the same as all other Indian boarding schools of the time, to assimilate, in this case Hopi, Indians into mainstream white society. Yes, 71 Hopi children left their families to attend the school but the critical difference was that their Kikmongwi, village chief, and other tribal elders accompanied them to the school and made sure that the Hopi culture remained a part of the children’s lives. Enlightened educators worked with these elders and the result was remarkable educational advancement, with students excelling in “academics, vocational training, music, art” and other school programs [SD Race to the Top application, 2010, p. 22].

    The application studiously avoids calling the AIII project a “boarding school” and instead uses the words “residential” “academy”, “model”, and “educational opportunity.”

    I can see a residential educational opportunity working, just as the six-week GEAR UP camp seems to have been a good experience for the kids who attended. But if the residential model has merits, it has to be run by Indians, and it has to allow kids to maintain connection with their community and culture.

  23. leslie 2015-11-26 10:15

    yep. i simplistically agree. public education. publicly funded. charters likely generally dilute the system.

    btw, CBE mentioned above (from p. 22) is clumsily defined:

    John Towner and William Demmert of Western Washington University have identified six necessary elements for what they term ‘culturally based education’ (CBE), or education that respects the culture of the specific needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students. These include (numbers added):

    “1. Recognition and use of Native American (American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian) languages 2. Pedagogy that stresses traditional culture characteristics and adult-child interactions 3. Pedagogy in which teaching strategies are congruent with the traditional culture and ways of knowing and learning 4. Curriculum that is based on traditional culture and that recognizes the importance of Native spirituality 5. Strong Native community participation in educating children and in the planning and operation of school activities 6. Knowledge and the use of the social and political mores of the community”

    Unfortunately, Towner and Demmert are also forced to acknowledge that, like most educational research which cannot typically allow the gold standard of double-blind experimentation due to the ethical requirements whenever human beings are involved, no causal link
    between CBE and higher student achievement for Indian students can be proven.

  24. Lanny V Stricherz 2015-11-26 10:26

    Ah Grudz, but they didn’t have fast food in my schooldays, unless, you consider the Barrel Dive INN, Ray’s Drive In, and Cutler’s drive in fast food. My jobs in those days, were setting pins in the bowling allies, caddying at the Minnehaha CC and selling papers on the street corner.

  25. jerry 2015-11-26 10:30

    I think Wounded Knee is a contract school and not a BIA school, do you know?

  26. Les 2015-11-26 12:21

    My relative died in 2010. The land deal never went through. It was 1500 acres alongside a housing development near Whitewood on high ground with a good view of Bear Butte so the price was high. I think 7000-8000/acre would have bought it.

    I believe the natives involved including Harrington with his high profile were working on raising the money from private sources for the land purchase. Something started going south, my opinion at the time, was the price and little luck with funding ran them off.

  27. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-11-26 18:01

    Jerry, help me out: what is a contract school?

    Wounded Knee District School website ( features the GEAR UP and AIII logos on their homepage.

  28. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-11-26 18:02

    Interesting, Les. That land around Whitewood offers some surprising views, beautiful terrain. Is that land still in the family, or did someone else buy it?

  29. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-11-26 18:05

    To Jerry’s question, I don’t know if this info helps, but the WKDS policy handbook offers this description of their board’s legal status:

    The Wounded Knee District School Board is a democratically elected group of members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe established by several resolutions of the Oglala Sioux Tribe to provide for direction to the community it serves within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and particularly within the Wounded Knee District School service area. The Board is a tribally chartered, non-profit entity which provides a variety of educational services primarily to the tribally-enrolled members of the Wounded Knee District, and surrounding service area, as established by tribal law. The Wounded Knee District School Board receives federal government funds under the authority of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the Tribally Controlled Schools Act of 1988, and other federal statutes. The Wounded Knee District School is not funded by the State of South Dakota. The Wounded Knee District School is a “tribal organization” as that term is defined in 25 U.S.C. § 450b(1), and an “Indian Tribe” for purposes of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as amended, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the Age Discrimination Employment Act [Wounded Knee District School, Policy 1.02, 2014-–2015, ].

    Does that help answer your question, Jerry?

  30. jerry 2015-11-26 18:17

    Yup, it is a contract school. Thanks Cory

    Here is a list of the rest including Takini where Scott W. went on his last day of employment.

    These schools bring in a lot of federal dollars so it would make sense to try to put the kids into some boarding school to sell the idea to the feds. Luckily, the feds were not fooled by this bunch. There are a lot of smart people around the reservation that would do a very good job of administering the GearUp without submitting these children to boarding school.

    There is another answer maybe as well, make them all BIA public schools and run them with adequate funding, including mentor programs like the Gear Up.

  31. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-11-27 07:55

    Jerry, thanks for those links. The map you provide lists BIE schools. What’s the difference between BIE schools and BIA public schools?

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