- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 29, 2015

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - The administrators of a more than $16 million American Indian college-readiness program failed to achieve nearly a dozen key performance benchmarks, including the number of students it had proposed to serve, according to a recent evaluation.

The South Dakota GEAR UP program has come under scrutiny since the deaths of a family of six, apparently at the hands of the family’s patriarch. Scott Westerhuis was a business manager at Mid-Central Educational Cooperative, and he had learned just hours before the killings that the state would not renew his company’s $4.3 million contract to administer GEAR UP.

Federal education officials evaluating the South Dakota program said it met only about half a dozen aims, and that those shortcomings coupled with red flags in at least two financial audits led them to not renew the GEAR UP contract with Mid-Central.

Investigators believe Westerhuis shot his wife and four children, set fire to their family home, then turned the gun on himself. The bodies were found early Sept. 17 in the charred ruins of their house in the small community of Platte.

Mid-Central was notified on Sept. 16 that it had lost the contract.

In a Sept. 21 letter to Mid-Central, state Secretary of Education Melody Schopp cited financial problems and failures to follow proper accounting procedures as reasons.

“The fact that Secretary Schopp decided not to renew this contract obviously indicates that she was not happy with how things were going,” Tony Venhuizen, Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s chief of staff, told the Argus Leader (https://argusne.ws/1NZpLJX ).

The latest evaluation the program showed that it was falling short in key areas of increasing the number of Native Americans pursuing post-secondary education, starting with the number of students it served. Under Mid-Central, the program had proposed enrolling 6,591 students but ended up providing services to 4,629.

One of the benchmarks missed was increasing by 10 percent the number of GEAR UP students who took two years of math classes beyond introductory algebra. Another missed benchmark was in increasing the number of children who had grade point averages above a 3.0.

GEAR UP is a national program; the acronym stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.

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