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Mike DeBernardo, Deseret News
Students in Nebo Title VII Indian Education program perform dances Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, at Sierra Bonita Elementary in Spanish Fork. The program has helped increase the graduation rates of Native American students in the Nebo School District. Before the program the graduation rate was 37 percent. Within a few years it went to 92 percent. Since its inception, the graduation rate has not dropped below 80 percent.

SPANISH FORK — Connecting with culture is helping solve a graduation problem in the Nebo School District.

Eighteen years ago, only 37 percent of the district's Native American students were graduating. Now that number is more than 90 percent, and district officials say the Nebo Title VII Indian Education program is a big reason why.

Eileen Quintana says the district now approaches middle school teacher interactions differently.

"They weren't sure of society in their life," said Quintana, Title VII founder.

Quintana found that when students left elementary school for middle school, they had less one-on-one time with the teacher. Also, their cultural influence was no longer part of the classroom, and some Native American students felt out of place.

Quintana started going door to door to bring students into a summer program where they could get extra help with their studies. The first year, 87 students enrolled in the Title VII program.

"The second year, (Nebo had a) 40 percent graduation rate," Quintana said.

A homework lab was offered for use during after-school hours. Dance, art and music became regular lessons.

Within four years, the graduation rate grew to 92 percent. Since then, the graduation rate has not dropped below 80 percent. Now, more than 100 kids are registered for the program.

"We learn how to dance and more about our culture," said eighth-grader Shakotah Billie.

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"We do our homework, and then we can practice our dances," said 10th-grader Raven Sky-Billie.

The traditional songs and dances help the students discover who they are, said Natalie Billie, the girls' mother.

"It helps them remember where they came from," she said.

The students connect their heritage with the lessons they learn in textbooks. And with the extra help on their studies by willing parents and teachers, their success has almost tripled.

"There's no way anybody, just one person can do this," Quintana said.

Email: ddolan@deseretnews.com