Teachers can and often do change the lives of their students, but the pendulum swings both ways. Sometimes a student can change the life of a teacher—just ask Antoinette Cavanaugh.
Cavanaugh, a Western Shoshone, was born and raised in Owyhee, Nevada, on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation. She is a former teacher who went on to become Superintendent for the Elko County School District. But she might not have achieved such heights if it weren’t for one of her former students.
"He was a brilliant kid," says Cavanaugh, who today works as a Barrick-funded educational consultant to the Western Shoshone community. "He was good at math. He was good at writing. He was good at everything. And then he started to skip school and was on the verge of dropping out."
The year was 1990. Cavanaugh reached out to the student to see if she could help. "I told him he owed it to himself to do better, and that he could make it off the reservation," she says. "He said, ‘Yeah, I probably could, but why don’t you?’ "
The student, Cavanaugh realized, had a point. She was comfortable in Owyhee, but would likely never realize her full potential if she remained there. So she made a pact with the student. If he graduated, she would take a job off the reservation. Two years later, the student graduated. Cavanaugh figured he’d forgotten their agreement, but after receiving his diploma, he walked off the stage, hugged her and said, "Your turn, Mrs. C."
Not long afterwards, Cavanaugh moved to Spring Creek, about 100 miles south of Owyhee, to become vice principal of Spring Creek High School. In 2003, she was named Superintendent for the Elko County School District, which includes 33 schools spread over 17,000 square miles. She retired in 2010, worked as a grant writer for the Duck Valley Shoshone Tribe, and then, in early 2013, she received a call from Tim Buchanan, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility for Barrick in North America.
Buchanan asked Cavanaugh if she was interested in working as a consultant for Barrick. "I said, ‘Tim, I think you’ve got the wrong person. I don’t know the first thing about mining,’ " Cavanaugh recalls.
Buchanan explained that he wasn’t looking for a mining consultant; he was looking for someone to work with students from the Western Shoshone community. "We couldn’t think of anybody more qualified than Antoinette," he says. "Her combination of education expertise and experience, personal knowledge of Western Shoshone culture and passion for working with Western Shoshone kids made her the only person for the job."
Cavanaugh started her new job in April 2013, and she’s been changing lives ever since.
Nevada has one of the highest drop-out rates in the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 70 percent of high school students in the state’s public school system graduated in 2013, the most recent year for which data are available. The 2013 graduation rate for Native American students in Nevada was just 52 percent.
Poverty and a lack of resources in Native American communities are major contributors to the low Native American graduation rate, Cavanaugh says. She herself grew up in poverty, raised in a house that she describes as a "tar paper shack." She never knew her father and her mother was out of the picture by the time Cavanaugh was in high school. Determined to make a better life for herself, Cavanaugh managed to graduate despite working part-time and caring for three younger siblings.
But Cavanaugh was the exception. Most of her peers didn’t graduate. College, she says, in a working-class, Native American town like Owyhee, was considered unattainable. "People didn’t see it as being real for them," she says.
That mindset persists today, but it’s slowly changing, Cavanaugh says. "People understand that they need some kind of training or additional education to be successful," she says.
In her consultant’s role, Cavanaugh works with eight Shoshone communities scattered across northeast Nevada. Initially, she conducted assessments to identify educational needs in the communities. In Yomba, for instance, she learned that there is a lack of Internet connectivity. This is a barrier to academic achievement because students can’t readily access the Internet’s vast resources, communicate online with their peers or participate in distance-learning classes.
Cavanaugh also discovered that there is a dearth of pre-schools in most of the communities she supports. In Duck Valley, for instance, there is only one pre-school, and families whose incomes exceed a certain threshold cannot register their children. Furthermore, since there are only 30 spots available, many families that meet the income-eligibility requirement are also shut out. The result is that many Shoshone children enter school well behind their peers. "These kids are coming into the public school system not ready for school," Cavanaugh says. "And there are no summer programs or after-school programs in most Native American communities, so how are they ever going to catch up?"
Cavanaugh works with about 160 students, most of them Shoshone, though some are from other Native American tribes. She has developed individualized education plans with specific goals and strategies for each student, and she visits each community at least once a month. She also communicates regularly with her students by phone, by text or via Facebook. Over time, she has formed strong bonds with many of them. "Once I start working with a student, I tell them, ‘You are now my kid because I have a bona-fide interest in your academic progress,’ " she says.
Many of the students live challenging lives, just as Cavanaugh did. One girl lost her father two years ago and then her mother passed away last summer, leaving her parentless and homeless. Cavanaugh helped the girl find a place to live and shared some hard-won advice. "My conversation with her was that, ‘if you have no one to rely on now, then really the one person you can rely on is yourself. So let’s create a situation that’s best for you.’ "
The girl is currently living with family friends and remains in high school.
While Cavanaugh is there for her students in times of crisis, she believes her most important role is to help the students believe in themselves and realize that higher education can be part of their lives. "I think the message is getting through," she says. "They’re beginning to realize that college is attainable."
She shares the story of one student who was accepted into the Maintenance Training Cooperative program last year at Great Basin College. Cavanaugh encouraged him to apply and helped him prepare his application. When he was accepted he was ecstatic. "He gave me this big bear hug and he goes, ‘I did it. Thank you so much for your help. I didn’t think I would be able to do it.’ It’s a real game changer for him."
Cavanaugh derives immense satisfaction from her work and is grateful for the opportunity to work with children again. "Being the superintendent, I had to deal with politics, budgets, school constructions and all sorts of things," she says. "I had moved away from what got me into education. Now I’m back with kids, and I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing."
At age 54, Cavanaugh’s life has come full circle. She is a front-line educator again and lives part time in Owyhee. Her four children are grown and all college graduates. The student who changed her life went on to become a diesel mechanic, but, tragically, he died several years ago from complications due to diabetes. He left three children, all of whom live in Owyhee. Cavanaugh works with all three of them.