Stories & Commentaries

Changing the Face of Education for Native Students

Holbrook Indian School serves as a safe haven, and empowers students with lifestyle skills and discipline for life beyond the reservation.

Jovannah Poor Bear-Adams draws from her life experience and education at Union to help change the lives of her students at Holbrook Indian School.

Jovannah Poor Bear-Adams draws from her life experience and education at Union to help change the lives of her students at Holbrook Indian School. Photo: Holbrook Indian School.

Jovannah Poor Bear-Adams remembers the students who have come through Holbrook Indian School. In her seven years—first as girls’ dean and English teacher, then as vice principal, and now as dean of Student Services and Programming—she has worked with hundreds of students, each with their own unique narrative.

Poor Bear-Adams thinks of those rare students who are academically prepared for the school year, and whose parents are supportive and involved. But more common are the students of abusive families and minimal education - the freshman who couldn’t read the alphabet; the orphaned kindergartner who slept on the floor at her grandmother’s house; the young woman whose mother took her and her three siblings to a Walmart and said, “I’m done being your mother,” and drove away; the straight-A student who was suicidal when she returned from summer break because of the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her uncle.

These are some students Poor Bear-Adams remembers, and it is for them that the Holbrook alum continues to work.

Considering her own background—both as a Native American and as a victim of sexual abuse—it's not hard to understand why Poor Bear-Adams works with one of the most disenfranchised populations in America.

“There is a huge gap between where I started and where I am now,” Poor Bear-Adams said, recounting her childhood of homelessness, drug use, and sexual and physical abuse. “I want to bridge that gap for the students. I want to give them what I wish I had when I was their age.”

A Tailor-made Career

When Poor Bear-Adams graduated from Union College she returned to Holbrook in 2011 as the new girls’ dean and English teacher, and saw the need to provide more than scholastic education.

“There is such a wide range of students in the dorm,” she said. “Some don’t have electricity or running water at home, and they use outhouses. Every year we’ve had a student who will not use the restroom here because they’re afraid of the toilet.”

As the dean and teacher, Poor Bear-Adams observed how students struggled to learn from a textbook when they didn’t understand or trust their environment. When she became vice principal in 2012, Poor Bear-Adams continued to pinpoint fundamental obstacles that restricted students from an education.

“As vice principal, a lot of my work was pure discipline,” she said. “We were so busy trying to deal with behavioral issues that I didn’t have time to do anything proactive. I wanted to be able to teach and work with students in a positive way.”

So great was the need—and Poor Bear-Adams’ desire to address it—that in 2016 she wrote a proposal for a job description and presented it to the principal. The proposal outlined the challenges she observed at Holbrook, and the ways in which she could begin to overcome them. The principal and the school board approved the proposal, and in July of that year Jovannah assumed her new role at Holbrook as dean of Student Services and Programming.

The title is suitably broad, yet still does not carry the weight of what Poor Bear-Adams does for the students at Holbrook. Her role is to provide safety, success, and wholeness for her students, now and in the future.

“The role is a lot of picking up things that can get overlooked,” she said. “But they are things that are very, very important to the students’ success.”

Educated for a Life of Service

That philosophy of holistic education is nothing new to Poor Bear-Adams. When she attended Union College to pursue her degree in Language Arts Education, she saw firsthand the value of a student-oriented curriculum. But it was the compassionate community of Union College that got Poor Bear-Adams through her senior year while she was pregnant with her first child.

“My husband and I were sleeping on an egg crate mattress on the floor of our apartment,” Poor Bear-Adams recalled. “I was six months pregnant at the time, and we didn’t have much.”

When a Union staff member learned the pregnant student was sleeping on the floor, she rallied the campus.

“By the time that day ended, we were sleeping on a real bed,” Poor Bear-Adams said. “We also had a couch, a chair, a kitchen table, dishes, and more. We had a home all because people I didn’t even know came together to help.”

“I finished college because of the people at Union,” she added.

That experience so moved her—and restored her faith in a God she had grown distant from—that Poor Bear-Adams made a promise to God to return to Holbrook after graduation.

Poor Bear-Adams followed through on her commitment and returned to Holbrook.

“Everything at Union worked together for me. [God’s plan] revealed itself," she said. “I felt like God wanted me to work with native people. I wanted to show them that they could go to college too.”

Helping Students Thrive

On the surface, Poor Bear-Adams’ role seems typical of what one would expect at an academy, including working with the deans, parents, and students.

Look deeper, however, and you’ll see Poor Bear-Adams’ interactions are more profound than typical academy coordination. Her work with the deans includes teaching a dorm curriculum that gives students proper health and hygiene skills, such as how to use a toilet and brush teeth, among other lifestyle skills that are often overlooked in abusive homes. She also encourages parents to be more involved with their students’ school-lives, and to create safer home environments, the latter of which is addressed with classes that include healthy cooking and self-defense for women.

But it is her work with students that has begun to reshape Holbrook.

"I’ve been where these students are,” Poor Bear-Adams said. “When I came here as a freshman, I had no idea that people actually ate three times a day. I thought that was just in the movies. That’s where these kids are now, but I know I can offer them a link between this and where they can be.”

The challenge is not only to perform the duties typical of a dean of student services—a laundry list of planning, researching, coordinating and interacting—but also to give shape to a world where each student believes he or she can succeed. Poor Bear-Adams is not only a resource, she is a beacon of hope.

“Once these kids adapt to the structure, they realize they are free to be themselves,” she said. “Holbrook is a very good place to be.”

Holbrook is such a good place to be that last summer eight students elected to remain on campus for a new six-week summer program designed by Poor Bear-Adams. The program included classes in horsemanship, Spanish, and pottery, in addition to a daily regimen of games, activities, and camp meetings.

“There isn’t much to do on the reservation except get into trouble,” Poor Bear-Adams said. “The majority of the students who want to stay here do so because it is safe.” The sense of safety Poor Bear-Adams and other Holbrook staff strive daily to impart on students is not limited to the physical. Poor Bear-Adams recently designed and implemented programs that also bolster spiritual, mental, and emotional well-being.

Among the numerous components added to Holbrook curriculum in recent years are lessons on how to pray, abstain from drugs and alcohol, study for tests, deal with grief, write resumes, and grow vegetables. Additionally, Poor Bear-Adams organizes health fairs with the physical education staff, drug-free weeks with the counselors, and college weeks with the teachers.

“Holbrook has progressed so much since I was a student,” Poor Bear-Adams said. “We still serve the same number of students, but we are offering them so much more.”


Michael Rohm is an alum (’14) of Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska; this story originally appeared on Union College’s website,