11 September, 2018
Last month, Oklahoma education officials approved plans to open a charter school to serve American Indian students.
A charter school is established by a legal agreement, is operated by parents and teachers, uses public tax money, but is not linked to local schools.
The approval came from Oklahoma's State Board of Education. The group's decision came a few months after the Oklahoma City Public Schools' board denied the plan.
The goal of the Sovereign Community School is to serve American Indian students from different tribes in the Oklahoma City area.
A ‘safe haven'
Phil Gover is the founding director of the Sovereign Schools Project. He led the effort to start the Sovereign Community School.
Gover has been working to create the school for about 18 months. But he said the process first began about 10 years ago when he visited an American Indian charter school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The school is called the Native American Community Academy, or NACA.
Eight years later, Gover received financing to create schools based on the model of the NACA school he had visited. This took place while he was working in Oklahoma City for the organization Teach for America.
Later, he joined the Tribal Education Department National Assembly, or TEDNA, and started the Sovereign Schools project. Gover said that TEDNA is developing three school projects right now, but the Sovereign Community School in Oklahoma City is his personal project.
The path to approval was not always easy, he said.
The Oklahoma City Public School Board denied the first application for the school. Gover appealed the decision. His appeal also was denied. Under Oklahoma law, Gover's group had the right to appeal the decision to the state board of education. They did appeal and later received approval for the school.
Gover said that the school will serve as a "safe haven" for American Indian students and families who wish to stay connected to their culture.
"There are a lot of issues that native students experience in cities as on reservations," Gover said. "But the difference is that in cities they don't have access to services from their tribal governments, and don't have the same access to our culture.
Gover understands these issues well. He grew up on Indian lands, known as reservations, in Nevada, but later left and has lived in cities ever since.
"If we are on reservations and in a federally run school system, our culture is with us," Gover said. "We're immersed in our people. When you're an urban native, you don't have any of that. Your issues are invisible, you're invisible, your culture is invisible."
Gover added that many American Indian communities in Oklahoma are too small to get a lot of attention from city governments or public school districts. "We don't have a lot of political power," he said.
National studies often find that American Indian students do not perform as well academically as other groups. This also is true within the federal government's Bureau of Indian Education school system.
But some studies have also found that American Indian students in Oklahoma's public school system perform well. This is especially the case when they are compared to students in other states.
Building from nothing
Gover said there are not a lot of resources for schools targeting American Indian students. This means the Sovereign Community School team will have to develop or adapt many of their own over the next year.
Gover said his group will take a curriculum from the College Board called "Spring Board ELA," and adapt it to be more culturally relevant to American Indian students and their experiences.
They will have to go through a similar process with mathematics and science.
However, Gover said his group will have to develop some resources themselves. One course Gover wants to create is a language program that teaches native students, from any tribe, the histories of their tribal languages and their relationship to English.
Along with Gover, the team developing the school curriculum will include local, Native professors.
An American Indian identity
Oklahoma City school officials have had some concerns about the project.
During the application process, some officials said that having a charter school only for American Indians seemed like segregation.
Gover rejected that criticism. He said that having a choice to go to a school is not segregation.
He added that critics should consider what it means to have an American Indian identity in the United States.
"To have a native identity, especially in Oklahoma, is to be white sometimes, to be black sometimes, to be Hispanic sometimes. I think if you look at our students on the first day of school, and take their picture, we're going to look like the most diverse school in the city," Gover said.
The Sovereign Community School plans to launch next year with 150 students in the 6th grade to the 9th grade level. They plan to add a new 6th and ninth grade class each year until they have a full group of middle school and high school classes, with about 500 students
I'm Phil Dierking.
And I'm Alice Bryant.
Phil Dierking reported this story for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.
Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.
Words in This Story
access - n. a way of getting near, at, or to something or someone
adapt - v. to change your behavior so that it is easier to live in a particular place or situation
application - n. a formal and usually written request for something (such as a job, admission to a school, a loan, etc.)
diverse - adj. different from each other
focused - adj. giving attention and effort to a specific task or goal
haven - n. a place where you are protected from danger, trouble, etc.
immersed - adj. to put (something) in a liquid so that all parts are completely covered
invisible - adj. impossible to see
relevant - adj. relating to a subject in an appropriate way
segregation - n. the practice or policy of keeping people of different races, religions, etc., separate from each other
urban - n. of or relating to cities and the people who live in them