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Oklahoma Charter School Opens With Hopes To Better Serve Native American Students


Oklahoma is home to one of the largest Native American student populations in the country. A new charter school hopes to better serve these kids by promoting Indigenous identities in the classroom. As Caroline Halter of member station KGOU reports, it's part of a growing movement.

CAROLINE HALTER, BYLINE: At the end of each week, students at Sovereign Community School in Oklahoma City gather for a closing ceremony.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Choctaw).

HALTER: Following a prayer in Choctaw, one of many tribes represented at the school, Principal Matthew Wilson addresses the students about his grandfather.

MATTHEW WILSON: He was a full-blood Choctaw man that was taught not to speak his language. And I'm here now at school, and I've had a young man that just ended our week with a prayer in Choctaw that my grandpa was told not to ever speak.

HALTER: The United States has a history of using public education to try to erase Indigenous cultures. Up until the civil rights movement, Wilson's grandfather was one of tens of thousands of native children sequestered at federally run boarding schools with a single goal - assimilation. But at Sovereign Community School, native cultures and histories are woven into everything. For example, in Carol Perkins' class, sixth-graders are learning math through beadwork.

CAROL PERKINS: So they're looking at their beadwork and coming up with the different sets of ratios - the colors, sizes, that type of stuff. This is supposed to be a set of earrings. And this student - she kind of did her own technique, which is really nice.

HALTER: American Indian and Alaska Native kids make up about 1% of U.S. public school students. Like other minority groups, they score below their white peers on math and reading, and they have the nation's lowest graduation rate.

DIANA COURNOYER: I think our communities, our tribes, our native communities, individual advocates are saying, we've had enough.

HALTER: That's Diana Cournoyer, executive director of the National Indian Education Association. NIEA recently put together a guide for opening charters.

COURNOYER: Where we've been is, kill the Indian, save the man mentality. A lot has changed, but not enough, which is why charter schools are a part of the conversation now in Indian country.

HALTER: There's no comprehensive research on whether charters designed to serve native students boost academic outcomes, but culturally responsive teaching holds promise. A 2016 Stanford study found high schoolers who took a single ethnic studies course got better grades, came to school more often and took more classes. But for Sovereign Community School's founder Phil Gover, education is about more than test scores. He thinks schools like his are essential for the survival of hundreds of tribes across the country.

PHIL GOVER: We survived colonization and modernization. And we're here, and we're still here, right? But the only way that I think we can talk about the future, our future as nations, is if we get really serious about how our kids are educated.

HALTER: Sovereign's mission statement says it will, quote, "activate the next generation of Indigenous leaders."

GOVER: They don't know anything about where they come from. If our kids don't understand this stuff, the only thing they'll be prepared to lead us into is, I think, the erasure of our culture.

HALTER: These schools are difficult to track, but in 2017, there were at least 46 charters with majority-native students in the U.S. And with schools like Sovereign up and running and more opening soon, there are increasing opportunities for tribes and tribal citizens to have greater control over how their children are educated.

For NPR News, I'm Caroline Halter in Oklahoma City.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHOSPHENE'S "WILD DECAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Caroline Halter
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