Florida’s school for the “unconquered”

Some charter schools aim to save kids. Some aim to save cultures – and the kids along with it.

A new report from Harvard education researchers highlights three charter schools that offer cultural immersion for Native American students, including a K-8 charter on a Seminole Indian reservation in Glades County, Fla. The school’s name, Pamayetv Emahakv, means “our way,” which sums up the school’s goal: Preparing more than 200 students for the higher education they’ll need to succeed anywhere in the 21st century while at the same time holding on to Seminole culture and values.

“We turned our back on our way to go and learn the other way,” Michele Thomas, a school administrator and parent, told the researchers when they visited earlier this year. “So, now with this school we have to look back this way now. We have the education down, we have lots of college education in this community, but our language has suffered, our young people are not fluent speakers.”

Some education researchers think the approach of the Seminole charter and the two others in the report could help Native American students elsewhere who are not faring well in traditional public schools. According to the report, which was prepared for the National Indian Education Association, American Indian students have the highest absentee rate among minority students and the second-highest suspension and dropout rates.

“These three schools … all share a broader vision of transformative community change,” wrote the Harvard researchers, Eve L. Ewing and Meaghan E. Ferrick. “The establishment of a school serves as a means for mobilizing and empowering the local communities to assess their own needs and determine their own solutions. By doing so, community members not only improve educational outcomes for their children – they are also making a profound expression of self-determination and tribal sovereignty.”

The motto of the Seminole school boldly echoes that: “Successful learners today, unconquered leaders tomorrow.”  (The Seminoles call themselves “the unconquered” because even after three wars with the federal government, over half a century, they never surrendered.)

The charters in the Harvard report are part of a national movement by Indian and other native communities to use charter schools to help resurrect and maintain their indigenous cultures.

Last year we wrote about the Kanu o ka ‘Āina charter school in Hawaii, where all instruction is conducted in the native Hawaiian language. We also mentioned the growth of charter schools on Indian pueblos in New Mexico that stress the language, religion and customs of their native culture.

Customization, as we’ve said before, is the future of public education. And charter schools run by minority communities are a growing part of this future. The founder of a California charter school featured in the report described her school as being “the front line of our civil rights movement.”

In Florida, the Seminoles did not think their kids were getting an inferior education in traditional public schools, said Thomas, the administrator and parent. They just wanted something that better matched their community’s – and their kids’ – needs. “We built a school so the language could be a daily part of the curriculum,” she said.

The students in the K-8 school are taught tribal history and traditional arts and crafts twice a week. Their student council is set up like the tribal council. They sometimes use a traditional chickee cooking hut on campus. At the same time, classrooms are equipped with laptops and iPads, and an “Education Wall of Fame” celebrates the reservation’s college graduates.

Interestingly, the Seminoles opted for a charter because they wanted their kids to be judged by state academic standards, not by other standards that they worried could raise questions about academic quality. Said tribal elder and culture teacher Lorene Gopher, “We wanted the best school that we could get.”

This year, both the elementary and middle school portions of the school earned B grades from the state.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at rmatus@stepupforstudents.org or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at facebook.com/redefinedonline.