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When Life-Giving Solutions Aren’t Enough

• Sam Duell

An Oklahoma City charter school applicant gained some press lately and left Education Post wondering, “Why is Oklahoma City Blocking This School for Native American Kids?” It’s a fair question.

The proposed public charter school, Sovereign Community School (SCS), would address concrete and pervasive problems that face Native American youth in urban areas. As one of the hopeful school founders recently noted, too many Native American students in urban areas are unwell. For example, this 2013 document from the federal government states that alienation and acculturation place Native youth at much higher risk for suicide. This specific charter school would seek to address that wellness issue by reconnecting youth with a respectful cultural education.

If you are unfamiliar with Native American education, you might wonder if this is really a problem. The answer to that question would be a resounding, “yes.”

According to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which released the National Indian Education Study in 2015, Native American families face a challenging dichotomy: choosing between a cultural education or an academically rigorous one.

For example, the data shows that over half of the middle schoolers in Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools report that examples of their Native American culture were integrated into language arts lessons at least once per week, compared to only 9 percent of Native American students who attended non-BIE public schools. This data suggests that Native American students learning in BIE schools have regular exposure to Native American language, culture and history while Native Americans in other public schools don’t. At the same time, Native American students who attend BIE schools have a tendency to score between 10 and 20 points lower on NAEP than Native American students who attend other public schools.

See the dichotomy? Would you like an education rooted in your Native culture or an education that gets you closer to college? If you’re a Native American family, you are likely forced to choose. SCS is attempting to follow Albuquerque’s Native American Community Academy by making the dichotomy false.

So why is Oklahoma City blocking a potential life-giving, problem-solving public charter school created for families who desperately need them? The answer probably doesn’t relate to the needs of Native American students. Look at the enrollment data below to see a more likely reason: charter enrollment has been going up in Oklahoma City while district enrollment has declined.



Most likely, this decision is not about students. It’s about money, and unfortunately that is not uncommon. Just a couple of weeks ago, when a Tallahassee charter-school applicant was rejected from the Leon County School Board in Florida, a school board member said, “This is not about you and your efforts; it’s more of a philosophical stance.” And we are likely to see more charter school rejections based on their financial ramifications when reputable institutions like Duke University measure “fiscal externalities,” also known as what happens when students leave one public school to attend another public school.

When local school boards put financial interests over legitimate concern for students, it reminds us to be thankful we live in a democracy. In a functional democracy, we can voluntarily associate to solve immediate problems and we can organize to enforce checks and balances. That is exactly what Sovereign Community School and the Tallahassee Classical School will do when they appeal to their respective state boards of education.

About the author

Sam Duell

Before Sam joined ExcelinEd as the Associate Policy Director for Charter Schools, he was a special education teacher, a school and central office administrator, the Executive Director of School Choice at Oklahoma’s department of education and the Managing Director of OPSRC’s Education Collaborative. In every position, Sam worked creatively to meet student needs. He founded the Integrated Support Program at Fischer Middle School in San Jose, California to increase the number and percentage of students with learning disabilities who have access to the general education classroom. He was the first administrator of Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the authorizer for online schools in Oklahoma. And he co-founded a statewide afterschool network called the Oklahoma Partnership for Expanded Learning to organize and advocate for expanded learning opportunities after school and during the summer. Sam’s current interests include charter schools and their role in a functional, thriving democracy.