Kelsey Jefferson is looking forward to being one of the first to live in the new Lummi Youth Academy, a 40-bed residence now being completed next to the Lummi Nation School.

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LUMMI RESERVATION — Kelsey Jefferson is looking forward to being one of the first to live in the new Lummi Youth Academy, a 40-bed residence now being completed next to the Lummi Nation School.

Jefferson, 17, said she and many of her classmates expect to do better in school with the support services available at the academy.

“It will give us all a better lifestyle,” Jefferson said. “It will keep us on track. Most of us have had struggles. This will keep our heads on.”

Darrell Hillaire, the former tribal chairman who has headed the effort to plan and build the academy, said it will offer a home to 20 boys and 20 girls. Many students will stay with family members on weekends and during the summer, but they also can live at the academy 365 days a year if they choose.

The $2.1 million building and $1.4 million annual budget have been covered with a combination of tribal and federal revenue and private grants from the Gates Foundation, among others. Hillaire agrees that the cost of delivering intensive help to the students will be high, but he argued that it compares favorably with the cost of jail for those who never learn to be productive citizens.

Yearning to learn

Some of the students have been in foster care. Others have lost one or both parents. Some have been shuffling around the homes of friends and relatives, sleeping on couches, with no real homes of their own. Some have had to drop out of school to earn money for food.

“They don’t all fit one profile,” Hillaire said.

But they do have one thing in common: They all want to get an education and improve themselves.

“They want the environment that enables them to do it,” Hillaire said.

Matt Magrath, academy director, previously worked in tribal youth services for 11 years.

He said he and others have been repeatedly frustrated to see students make academic progress while they were in the tribe’s live-in chemical-dependency-treatment programs, only to relapse as soon as the treatment program ended.

“They have no stable homes and they don’t know where they’re going to be from night to night,” Magrath said.

“We’d get them stable for 120 days, and two days later they’d be back sleeping on somebody’s couch. We needed a more stable place for kids to live.”

Hopes for expansion

Magrath and Hillaire hope the school can eventually be expanded to as many as 160 students.

Heather Leighton, Lummi Nation School principal, said the need is there.

“Applications were pouring in this week,” Leighton said. “There’s a high need, a very high need.”

Leighton expects the academy to make dramatic improvements in school attendance.

Many students will simply make the short stroll each morning from the academy to the tribal high school. Others will go to Ferndale High School. But all will get structure, homework help and square meals when the academy is ready for occupancy in a few more days.

John Jefferson will be working a swing shift at the academy, 2:30 to 10:30 p.m., as a student mentor. Among other things, he’ll be checking to make sure the residents do their homework and give them a hand if they need it, so they can make steady progress toward a diploma.

“That’s the point of the academy, to get them to stay in school,” Jefferson said. “That’s the point of the mentor.”

Eager to move in

The students who have been accepted into the program are eager to move in.

“It looks really nice,” said Nelson Montenegro, 17, the starting center and nose guard on the Lummi Blackhawks football team. “I’m really excited. It’s good because it keeps people out of the drug environment at home. It’s a big issue here, a lot of broken homes.”

Montenegro wants to be a computer engineer.

Kyle Finkbonner, 17, is Montenegro’s linebacker teammate.

“It [the academy] will keep me focused, being the best student I can be,” Finkbonner said. “My main concern right now is just graduating.” After that, he may join the U.S. Navy.

“My grandpa was a Navy SEAL,” he said.

Chris Cultee, 17, said he spent some time at the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Ore., and did better there academically. Since he left, he feels he’s fallen behind, and he hopes he can get caught up living at the academy.

Magrath said he hopes the school will help students fulfill their dreams, but for many, the first step will be the chance to have a dream.

“Many of them haven’t even gotten to that place, because they have been so worried about basic needs,” he said.