Having grown up on a reservation in Reno, Nevada, Phil Gover of Oklahoma is committed to improving education for Native American students. In the summer of 2016 he founded the Sovereign Schools Project within the Tribal Education Departments National Assembly (TEDNA). TEDNA is a national non-profit headquartered in Oklahoma City that offers technical assistance and professional development for Native American tribes across the country and runs a federal college access grant program with a few tribes in Oklahoma and Montana.
In the summer of 2017, Gover convened a team of educators, community organizers and policy experts to propose a 6-12 charter school in Oklahoma City built by and for the Native community, Sovereign Community School (SCS). The school uses design-thinking principles centered around the challenges and aspirations of Native families. Recently, the school had its proposal denied by Oklahoma City Public Schools. This month, the school’s founding team plans to appeal the decision to the Oklahoma State Board of Education.
What brought about the idea of starting a charter school with a mission and vision centered around Native American kids?
About a decade ago I was an admissions officer at Dartmouth College, and worked particularly to recruit Native kids. On a visit to Albuquerque, New Mexico, I decided to take a detour from my typical list of schools and visited the Native American Community Academy (NACA).
The feeling NACA invokes in a lot of Native people when they visit it for the first time is striking. It is a school that wears its indigeneity on its sleeve, a community landmark that’s unapologetically what it is and challenges non-Native people to conform to its norms in a way that’s difficult to describe.
While many federally-run Bureau of Indian Education schools have this strong infusion of the indigenous culture in their buildings, that feeling doesn’t extend into all aspects of its classrooms and most aspects of its curriculum. NACA feels at once rigorous and indigenous, a combination that seemingly defies the laws of educational gravity in our country as a public school.
This visit was formative for me, and in 2016 I saw the opportunity through my work as the chief of staff at Teach For America – Oklahoma to create schools inspired by NACA’s vision and commitment to community-led design and culturally responsive education.
What are the unique needs of Native American students in Oklahoma City, or in any urban setting for that matter?
Many urban Native communities suffer from similar issues as their cousins in rural or reservation settings—higher instances of physical, sexual and substance abuse, increased risk of suicide and teenage pregnancy and low persistence and graduation rates. However, urban Native students issues tend to arise from a different place: low confidence in their identity and historical trauma.
And so whereas Native kids on reservations have strong access to the trappings of their cultures and traditions, but low access to the fundamentals of modern life, their urban cousins have access to the fundamentals but weak access to culture and tradition.
And so from that comes the essential question that prompts the creation of our school: What if urban Native kids had a place where they could safely access and celebrate who they are and where they come from, while also being challenged to turn the historical trauma of their families from a wound to a source of power?
How have public schools typically responded to the needs of urban Native students and how will your school be different?
Urban districts have a lot of problems, and figuring out how to best reach less than 3 percent of the population tends to get sidelined over the issues that feel even more urgent or ones that affect a lot more children. And so Native kids are invisible, and float through the system with whatever supports their families can muster.
And so the value proposition of our school becomes clear: By pulling our kids together in a common place and building a strong sense of community, we can create a space for indigeneity that overcomes the typical barriers of an urban Native experience.
We do that with a comprehensive curriculum that takes Native people out of the history class and infuses their experiences in all aspects of curriculum. In addition we will use the traditional ‘special’ class time to build up our students’ knowledge of their own and other indigenous cultures and experiences while also addressing the wounds of historical trauma with a particular focus on community and personal wellness.
The Oklahoma City school board rejected your charter application. Why? And what is your next step?
Ultimately the district’s decision came to differences between us and their finance team around our school’s budget projections. This was a particularly frustrating experience for our team—largely because we’ve been asking the district for months to provide us insight into concerns about our budget.
Despite being promised partnership and a closer working relationship from the district’s school board, it never really materialized and we didn’t see substantive insight into the district’s concerns until about 36 hours before the school board made its final vote, which meant our final budget submission wasn’t really responsive to the issues the district seemed to care about the most.
It’s unfortunate we weren’t able to work these last few issues out—because of the 21 focus areas the district evaluated our 260+ page application on, we were rated perfect or great on 20 of them.
Fortunately, state charter law affords us a final appeal to the Oklahoma State Board of Education and we are availing ourselves of that option. We plan on submitting that appeal by the end of April, and anticipate the State Board will vote on that appeal at their meeting in late May. Should we prevail there, the district’s decision would be overturned and the State Board of Education would become our authorizer. Should the board vote to uphold the district’s decision, our journey for this charter review cycle comes to an end.
You are also engaged in efforts to expand access to charter schools in rural tribal communities through the Sovereign Schools Project—tell us more about that.
The Sovereign Schools Project aims to catalyze a movement within tribal communities in Oklahoma to exercise their self-determination within the context of local education.
In Oklahoma, a change in state charter school law granted the 39 federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma the right to authorize charter schools directly, so long as those schools were confined to those tribes’ current or former treaty boundary or reservation areas. While it passed with little fanfare or notice, a few of us in the state saw the immediate potential for re-shaping the role of tribes in local education, and that’s what created the Sovereign Schools Project.
By getting tribes into the charter authorization side of our education ecosystem we can create a situation where tribal governments are playing a role as regulator and overseer, which is a far more natural role for most Oklahoma tribes than school operator, all while expanding options for a group of kids that attend school in predominantly rural areas that need it most.