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Tackling the Native American achievement gap

School entrance to the Sovereign Community School located at the former SeeWorth Academy in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Latoya Lonelodge / Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal Tribune (CATT)

Story at a glance

  • Native Americans experience higher dropout and discipline rates than other communities.
  • Sovereign is a new charter school that’s intertribal and open to anyone, teaching Native American history, culture and values along with a quality general education.
  • Classes are small and the school emphasizes complete physical and mental wellness, as well as a thoughtful approach to discipline.
  • The school’s founders hope to expand the model to other areas soon.

More than 130,000 of Oklahoma’s roughly 703,000 public school students are Native American.  Despite recent publicized movements to be more culturally sensitive (generally through changing mascot names) schools rarely address the bullying many of these students experience, and inappropriate stereotypes persist, even in the classroom. According to the 2015 White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, these students also are disproportionately suspended and expelled for nonviolent, disruptive behavior.

Phil Gover, a former admissions counselor at Dartmouth in charge of Native American recruitment, points out, “Native American students experience far higher dropout rates than other communities.” He adds that while African American and Latino students, first-generation college students and low income students have seen gains in graduation rates, Native American students have not. “The things that are holding these kids back,” he says, “almost always have more to do with mental and emotional trauma and abuse, either actually experienced, or historical trauma that impact the people in their lives. That’s the kind of thing we talk about openly and want our kids to be equipped to manage as they emerge in to adulthood.”

These statistics are in part why he decided to pursue a career in school development. The founder of the newly opened Sovereign Community School in Oklahoma City, Okla., Gover says, “I think a lot of people have this monolithic vision of what indigenous identity is in America.” Sovereign’s students come from different tribes, but have a common history. “Almost every tribe that was brought here was given land and wealth that was stolen from them generations later. Our cultures and our languages are distinct, [but] as indigenous people we all have had this journey and this exposure with historical trauma that no one ever talks about.”

He adds that the state educational system ignores this fact, saying, “Other states cover Oklahoma better than Oklahoma covers its own history.” He says that on April 20 of each year, most Oklahoma public school districts hold an event called the Land Run, “where they line elementary students up on a football field and make them pretend they’re stealing Indian land. There’s always a group of Native American parents who don’t send their kids to school that day. Why would you have your kids participate in a reenactment of the way the white people who came to Oklahoma stole your wealth and your land from you 130 years ago?”

Sovereign’s founding committee borrowed concepts from the Native American Community Academy (NACA) in Albuquerque, N.M. Gover, who had a fellowship there in 2017, says, “What makes NACA really special is the way it relates to its community. These ideas aren’t just for Native American communities; these ideas are for all communities.”

The school currently has almost 50 students in grades six and nine, representing 19 tribes; next year the school will add grades seven and 10, followed by grades 11 and 12 in 2021. The student body has been growing steadily; a recent week saw one new student a day, and at least two will start after the New Year.

Parents are attracted to the small class sizes (currently eight to 14 students) and to the overall focus on both physical and mental wellness. The curriculum is holistic and regular cultural experiences touch on deeper issues. Gover says, “We bring speakers in from different tribes across the state to talk about different kinds of medicine that our people have had and are practicing even today. We’re trying a different way to think about our physical, mental and emotional health. “

Sonny Fields, parent of a sixth grader, moved to the area from Washington, D.C., two years ago. His son had a tough time fitting in at the public school. Facing a move to the larger middle school this year, Fields was happy to learn about a Native American charter school in the area. He says, “Their goals and curriculum intrigued me, it sounded perfect. The timing was right.”

Already, he’s impressed by what the school is teaching his son. “He’s learning more about his culture and other tribes,” says Fields. “He speaks more of our tribal language than I do” The family lives about 35 miles east of Oklahoma City and plans to move closer, in part so they can be more active participants in the tight-knit school community.

A different approach

Founding Principal Matt Wilson explains that the education is intertribal. “Coming into our school you’ll see a timeline of all our different tribes and treaties and things that were going on between all of our tribes. We have maps showing migration routes of where they came from and where they’re at in Oklahoma or where their actual homelands are now. They get a full inclusive education of not only other tribes but [also] a centralized education around who they are as an individual.”

Everyday lessons incorporate traditions. Generations ago, he explains, little ones were taught to play stick games or hand games. “We all had our variations of things like that. Our people did this higher level thinking a long time ago before it was ever given this name, [things such as] statistics or history or economics.”

The curriculum is indigenized. Wilson explains, “Our math teacher is putting tribal patterns, geometrical designs into beadwork. These sixth graders don’t even realize how much math they’re using, [for example] patterns and ratios and measurements.  … They’re carrying on a craft that a lot of our kids have lost. Our Science teacher is talking about Native Americans as a whole being some of the first scientists out there.”

History classes teach about early American economic systems (such as bartering) as well as about constitutions, treaties and government policies. Students learn that there is more than one side to many stories. “We’re going to learn about who Andrew Jackson really was,” says Wilson: “a person who signed off on the removal of most of our people. We were forced off our lands; a lot of our ancestors died; populations were wiped out. Our teachers are opening up their minds. The great part is that they’re not telling them: ‘These people were like this,’ they’re saying, ‘Let’s do some research and find out what they did,’ allowing them to do inquiry-based learning on their own. They’re giving them resources to go out and find their own knowledge.”

He adds, “It’s amazing to me to see all of these things unfolding. I went through Oklahoma public schools and hated every minute of it. I dropped out. I was just another face in the crowd, and I didn’t matter to a whole lot of people.” Sovereign is a safe place for students. Wilson shares that, at the public school, other kids made fun of his son because of his long braid. “You come to our school and you see all our boys running around with long hair. They’re proud of it. It’s a normal thing.”

Fields says his son also experienced bullying about his hair and frequently came home upset and depressed. Now, he says, his son not only wakes up early every morning excited to go to school, he also goes to bed earlier and even wakes his parents to make sure he’s not late. “He’s super stoked every day.”

Open to students of any heritage

While the Sovereign Community School focuses on the needs of indigenous students, it is open to all. “Even a student that’s not indigenous can find a place at Sovereign,” says Gover, “because the conversations that we’re having aren’t just conversations about being Indian, it’s about who you are and where you come from and how you come to terms with that. But also take that and use that as your strength. Take your power in your families and your culture and your history.”

Nonnative students’ parents are involved in the community, adds Wilson. “They say they love this. They’re learning something that a lot of other kids don’t get to experience.”

A different philosophy

Sovereign operates a bit differently than most schools. Gover says, “It may be the only school in Oklahoma City that doesn’t require a uniform. That goes to the heart of what we think about wellness and student self-identity: we want students to be able to be themselves. This is a place where we’re going to have discussions about our ideas of who we are and work on our own personal identities. We’re not interested in punishing kids. Our theory is that kids at Sovereign are going to be more prepared to learn because they’re going to be comfortable and feel safe. They know that the adults really care about them and are invested in them as the future of our Indigenous community.”

This philosophy of discipline is hoped to stem the school-to-prison pipeline. Gover explains that when a teacher responds to a student talking back or disrupting class by throwing that kid out of class, “they’re not going to learn anything.” Instead, he says, teachers should “consider what you’re teaching that student about their behavior, about the way you want to relate to them, and the way you’re investing in their education. That’s what we challenge our teachers to think about. That’s not to say that kids don’t get disciplined in class at Sovereign, but it’s to say [we’re] a little more thoughtful about it.”

Future Plans

“The vision of our school as a full-service community school is starting to come together,” says Gover. For example, plans are underway to open a clinic on campus to provide behavioral and regular health care services to its students and to eventually extend services to families and the community.

Wilson is happy with their progress. “It brings a smile to my face every day when I go to work,” he says. “I hope to be with Sovereign when I’m an old man and tell stories about the first group of students and the struggles that we had. It’s really opened my eyes to what we can do for these kids if we just hang in there.”

Now that the school is up and running, Gover is no longer involved in the day-to-day; instead he’s focusing on a new organization, the Sovereign Schools Project, which will set up charter schools in tribal communities. The first school will launch next year, using Sovereign as the model, he says. ”Our work with the indigenous community has just started.”