By Frank Zufall
Sawyer County Record
You don’t often hear about a school in northern Wisconsin adding more students, but for the second year in a row the Lac Courte Oreilles K-12 school has hit a new enrollment record:
• At the start of the 2023-24 school year the enrollment, including the language immersion school called Waadookodaading, is at 415.
• At the start of the 2022-23 school year the enrollment, including Waadookodaading, was in the high 300s.
Of the 182 Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools around the country, according to Jennifer Bell, a spokesperson for BIE, LCO K-12 is just one of five that has increased enrollment by 50 students or more.
At 415 students, LCO is now bigger than some neighboring public schools such as Winter, Birchwood and South Shore.
LCO saw a spike in numbers during the COVID pandemic in 2020 as many parents wanted their children there because of the school’s and tribe’s progressive health protocols, resulting in 313 students at the start of the 2020-21 school year, but then over the next three years another 102 students have joined.
LCO Superintendent Jessica Hutchison is obviously pleased to see the growth and attributes the higher numbers to several factors, including consistent leadership/staffing at key positions, an emphasis on nurturing relationships between staff and students and more importance placed on education in the tribal community.
Hutchison said the story isn’t just about the record-setting enrollment but also that the students are engaged, earning college credit in high school and competing in state academic contests, such as Battle of the Books, and being ranked high in the state.
“My point is that it isn’t just quantity but it’s also a quality,” she said. “I think what’s more notable in an increasing enrollment is that our academic and behavioral and attendance expectations are also increasing and the kids are meeting those expectations and the parents are supporting us raising the bar. We’ve been able to increase our enrollment but also expand our services, expand what were doing and the quality of what we are doing.
The high school has 125 students and is looking at over 30 students graduating next spring, the largest number of spring graduates ever.
Last spring, said Hutchison, the graduation rate was 94%, which is high for any school, but especially high for Native American students.
“I would be willing to claim that there is not a school in the state of Wisconsin that can say that 94% of the Native American students graduate,” she said.
Hutchison said the school’s approach of focusing on relationships doesn’t reach every students — there are students who don’t respond — but the majority at LCO are engaged and are motivated and focusing on graduating.
Over the last decade, Hutchison said, she has witnessed a cultural change in the tribal community where education is more valued amongst the students and parents.
One factor that has helped with that cultural change, she said, is having consistent leadership such as the dean of students who has been at the school for 17 years and the athletic director who’s been at LCO for 25 years, and even the woman at the school's front desk has been there 30 years.
“We have some very long-term employees here that are far more than employees,” she said. “You know, they’re connected to the community; they have families; they have kids; they have grandkids here. Our transportation director has been here for three decades. His kids all went to school here and now his grandkids. So when you have that sense of family, I think that then you’re more invested.”
She also says the school board has been consistently supportive.
“I have never not felt supported by my school board,” she said. “They don’t always side with me, but they always listen to me, and I feel that they trust me. They trust the leadership of the school that we have the best interest of the kids at heart that we’re going to make good choices that we’re going to work hard. So it that team atmosphere, I really think, that has made for some really positive gains, where we’ve gotten families on board; we’ve gotten parents on board.”
She added, “I was saying this yesterday, so we have this increasing enrollment, but at the same time, our behavior expectations, you know, our response to, you know, fights and vaping. Vaping is a huge one right now that we’re trying to gauge. We’re doing nine day suspensions if kids are vaping. That’s a far more restrictive consequence than ever before.
“And from my point of view, it appears that families want to send their kids someplace where they know they’re going to be safe, where they know they’re going to be held to a high standard; they’re going to get quality instruction,” she said.
Other factors that have helped nurture the importance of education is seeing some real-life example of tribal members, such a Mariah Cooper, a LCO valedictorian who graduated from medical school two years ago and is now in her second year of interning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Hospital, or witnessing tribal member Monica Isham go on to graduate from law school and eventually become the first female judge in Sawyer County and the second Native American circuit judge in the state.
“We try to expose our kids to some of the amazing things happening in our community, “ she said, “and seeing other, young, capable successful indigenous people do awesome things makes it more realistic and more of a reality. We’ve always had really intelligent, artistic and amazing people here. That’s not new, but they used to be the exception, and now they are not. I don’t want to say it is cool to be smart, but it’s different now. There’s a different culture especially amongst the high school students and they really set the tone for the rest of the students that there’s a different culture of achievement, as well as accountability.”
Also helping change the culture at LCO k-12, she said has been the expansion of the LCO Ojibwe University offering bachelor and master degrees and students seeing their parents going back to school achieving advanced degrees and setting an example in deeds and not just words.
“There’s a mother who is one course shy of a master’s degree and she obtained all her credits at the university,” said Hutchison. “That is significant because it offers that mother more opportunity, more ability to financially support her family, but her kids have seen that also that their mom is a college graduate and that’s important and now they want to do that. They want to go to college and be like that.”
With more students there are also more demands on space.
“In a perfect world, we would have another gym,” she said. “We need more high school classroom space.”
With a higher enrollment, there are a many space needs and Hutchison is writing grants trying to address those as well as appealing to the BIE to fund expanding the campus.