REGIONAL— Ricky White has quite a story to tell. Now the executive director of a Minneapolis-based charter school, White has a long career in education. But his own journey to adulthood was not without challenges.
As the students at Vermilion Country Charter School sat in a large circle, White talked about his experiences growing up on the Whitefish Bay Ojibwe reservation on Lake of the Woods, and his experiences when he moved to Kenora as a young teen. He grew up in a home where only Ojibwe was spoken and didn’t learn English until he was 12. The small reservation community was open and welcoming.
“We didn’t even have doorknobs,” he said, noting that everyone was welcome to walk in and out of anyone else’s house.
When he was 13, his parents divorced, and he moved with his mother to a rural home outside of Kenora, Ontario. He had no experience with city life, let alone small town life, but with the help of some new friends, he slowly learned what he needed.
The first time he showed up at his new friend’s house, he didn’t know that it was expected that he would knock on the door before walking in. But he was lucky to find friends who didn’t judge him, and showed him what was expected.
“I had that sense of belonging,” he said. “They didn’t call me rude or stupid. If that had been my first experience, if they had kicked me out, my life would have been different.”
He graduated from high school in Kenora, and entered college, majoring in accounting.
“Guess what my GPA was my first year?” he asked the students. The answer, to their surprise, was zero. He hadn’t earned a single credit. After two failed years, his older sisters urged him to try education, and once he was in that program, his GPA rose to 4.0, where it has stayed even as he pursued graduate degrees. He worked for many years in the St. Paul public school system, and also started a charter school on the Mille Lacs Reservation. He is now the Executive Director at Augsburg Fairview Academy, a charter high school that serves a population of mostly homeless older teens in Minneapolis.
White said the atmosphere at VCCS reminded him of his early schools days on Lake of the Woods. He said as soon as he walked in the door of the school he could feel the sense of belonging.
“You are making history this year,” he told the students. “This is the only first year at Vermilion Country…You have all chosen to be here.”
White is spending two days at VCCS, working with staff and students on developing a school-wide system of Restorative Justice, an approach to school discipline that works to create problem-solving methods and policies that restore relationships and build a positive school community.
“We are going to learn from each other,” he told the students. He told them to expect a lot of “wondering” and “noticing” as he works with students in small groups.
“I want to talk, listen and learn from all of you,” he said, noting he was very interested in seeing how the project-based learning environment worked, and hoped to bring ideas back to his own school.
White spent Wednesday observing teachers and students, then conducted a workshop with teachers in the afternoon. On Thursday he was set to work on the Restorative Justice circle process with students in the morning, and then once again working with staff in the afternoon.