Justin Pease is looking forward to graduation -- he's worked hard for it.

But more than that, he's looking forward to not having homework anymore.

"I can't wait to be done," he said.

Pease was one of 60 American Indian students graduating from School District 2 high schools this weekend to be recognized at a barbecue dinner at North Park on Tuesday.

At the dinner, the graduates were singled out for their accomplishments and a handful were awarded eagle feathers to wear at commencement.

"There's a lot of challenges that these kids face," said Dulce Whitford, director of Indian Education for All for SD2.

Validating their struggles and recognizing their accomplishments is a way to congratulate the graduates and inspire the students coming up behind them, she said.

American Indian students graduate high school at a lower rate than their Caucasian counterparts. This year, roughly 50 percent of the American Indian students who started ninth grade in SD2 will graduate this Sunday.

Outreach efforts to the students, better access to academic support and school clubs and groups have helped them find a place within the high school culture and improved their chances of making it to graduation.

"When they struggle (and then succeed) there's a glow," said Walter Runsabove, a faculty member at West High.

Their success is closely watched by younger siblings and their younger American Indian peers at the school. Success among these graduates now will breed success with the younger students as they work through high school.

"My sense is each year, it'll take a little less effort to get them to graduation," said Glenda McCarthy, a faculty member at Senior High.

Runsabove likes success stories. He worked with one student who was failing math earlier in the year with a 32 percent in the class. They met again this week and she'd brought up the grade to well above 70.

In another case, Runsabove is working with a freshman who's taken four honors classes each semester this year, maintains a 4.0 and is the primary caregiver for his younger siblings because of poor decisions made by his mom.

"It's really something to see," he said.

Kaylee Pease is one of those success stories.

Getting to graduation "was pretty hard 'cause I really slacked off my first three years," she said.

Still, starting her senior year, she decided she wanted to walk with her classmates at commencement and so she got to work taking extra classes and making up for multiple failed or missed grades.

She'll finish up this semester with a nine-period class load -- a full day is typically six class periods.

She was awarded an eagle feather Tuesday night.

"It's a high honor," she said.

Samantha Racine also was awarded an eagle feather. She was accepted into Montana State University's nursing program in Bozeman.

Like her peers, she's excited to graduate and move on with the next phase of her life.

"It feels good," she said.

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