Last month, tribal leaders and policymakers in town for the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Tribal Unity Impact Days joined the National Alliance to grapple with just that question. The convening included NCAI Executive Board 1st Vice President and Tribal Chairperson Dr. Aaron Payment of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, representatives from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, and officials from the U.S. Department of Education, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Department of the Interior.
To start the conversation, the National Alliance organized a tour of DC Bilingual Public Charter School, a top-rated cultural and language immersion school in northeast DC that serves a predominantly low-income student body. It was just the second week of school, but already the energy in the building was buzzing with purpose.
At every turn we saw adults and students working together to build the school culture that makes DC Bilingual uniquely effective and culturally affirming. In one hallway, a class of kindergarteners were receiving intentional feedback from two teachers in both English and Spanish. In another, the Puerto Rican vejigante masks adorning the walls were made by 5th graders who will spend the year studying Puerto Rican culture before traveling there for a week of immersion in a Spanish-speaking community.
This was immersion education in action: the youngest students learning to manage themselves in a bilingual setting, surrounded by the products and promises of a culturally affirming education.
So how does being a charter school make DC Bilingual different and how might charter schools serve the unique needs of Native students? There is no silver bullet in any school to solve all of a community’s challenges, but when school leader Daniela Anello sat down to speak with the Tribal leaders, three key themes emerged:
Sovereignty might not be the first word that comes to mind when thinking about schools, but for Native communities that bear the weight of generations of historical trauma ownership over their schools is critical.
Charter schools offer communities a different type of local control and the opportunity to “expand their sovereignty by controlling the type of education their children receive,” according to the NIEA Sovereignty Handbook. Like all charter schools, DC Bilingual has a Board of Directors, comprised of community members, that sets and monitors school goals and policy. This brings local control much closer to the community than a single, district-wide school board.
Similarly, a Native-serving charter school could be governed by community members who are best positioned to understand the needs of the community and localize control of the school in the community it serves.
Since charter schools are free from many regulations, they have unique flexibility to devote energy and resources to the particular needs of the communities they serve. Charter school autonomy manifests in many areas, including staffing, curriculum, school hours, and more.
For a Native-serving charter school, this could mean focusing resources on trauma-informed teaching, hiring teachers with non-traditional backgrounds to provide language and cultural instruction, or developing curriculum that integrates Native values, practices, and languages. Native students have unique needs and the autonomy of charter schools offers the community the ability to build an education designed to meet those needs.
3. Cultural Affirmation
For generations, Native education in the United States was designed to erase cultural identities. To succeed in school, students had to strip away their Native identities. As Dr. Payment explained, this cultural change creates separation from their families and heritage.
Language and cultural affirmation in schools means kids can show up as themselves. The autonomy and sovereignty engendered by the charter school model gives communities the space to build this type of culturally affirming school.
The challenges of Native education will not be solved overnight, but there is little doubt that local communities are better suited than distant bureaucrats to understand the needs of their children.
For Tribal Chairperson Payment of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, the charter school advantage is already apparent in the Joseph K. Lumsden Bahweting Anishnabe School, which has been serving his community as a charter school since 1995. Other local school options weren’t meeting the needs of his community’s children, he explained, so "we took control of it."
Through sovereignty, autonomy, and cultural affirmation, tribally controlled charter schools can do just that—give tribes control of their children’s education.
Fiona Sheridan-McIver is a manager of policy and government relations at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
For more information, see our report on public charter schools and Native students.