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Public Education and Charter Options: Urban Native Perspectives

Sep 28, 2022 | Blog

The history of public education in America is complicated and rife with institutional and systemic racism. For Indigenous people in particular, American public schooling in the 19th and 20th century was brutal, characterized by forced assimilation and overt efforts to erase culture, separation from family, physical harm and even death in boarding schools, and generational mental and emotional trauma, all against a backdrop of stolen land, socio-economic oppression, and lack of representation in our governments and decision-making bodies.

While overtly anti-Native oppressive practices have been outlawed in our public schools, trauma and inequities that negatively impact Indigenous youth, families, and communities linger. In the words of Sarah Sense-Wilson, Oglala, Lakota tribe member and Executive Director of the Urban Native Education Alliance (UNEA), “The impacts of historical trauma and multi-generational poverty, violence, invisibility and systemic exclusion and targeted assimilation practices continue today. The weaponizing of educational systems is ongoing and pervasive in school classrooms, and within all nooks and crannies of school activities and programs.”

The outcomes from this systemic trauma and treatment are measurable. In 2019, the Seattle Indian Health Board reported the following (except where other sources are noted):

Food, Housing, and Health Statistics:

  • Food Insecurity: 31% of Native sixth graders in Seattle public schools lack access to breakfast, contributing to childhood hunger and community food insecurity
  • 24% of the AI/AN populations live in poverty, compared to 10% of the general population (United Way of King County report, 2014 )
  • Despite representing just 2% of the population in King County, Native people make up 15% of the population experiencing homelessness
  • Health outcomes: Statistically significant disparities exist between Natives and the general population in asthma, obesity, alcohol use, smoking, teen birth rate, infant mortality, disease, mortality, suicide, social support, mental distress, and access to healthcare.

Education Statistics

  • Low Preschool Attendance: Native children have lower rates of preschool attendance between the ages of three and four than their Non-Native peers.
  • Higher Rates of Discipline: Native students in Washington are more than twice as likely to be disciplined than Non-Hispanic White students.
  • Fewer High School Diplomas: 21.6% of Native people in King County do not have a high school diploma, compared to 5.8% of Non-Hispanic White people.

Despite these challenges, Seattle’s Native urban community is vibrant and diverse, with culturally matched services being provided by an increasing number of Native-led nonprofits, including youth-centered organizations like UNEA. Recently, UNEA invited us to sit down with several Indigenous community members who do not feel at home in Seattle’s public education system, and who desire the opportunity to open Native-focused charter public schools in our city and across the state.

You might wonder: Why a charter pathway instead of a tribal compact school? While tribal compact schools are a viable option for communities with a single federally recognized tribe, charter public school designed for Native students could be inclusive of students spanning multiple tribes and identifying as multi-racial – reflective of Native identity in urban areas.

Fact: Seven of 10 Native people in the Seattle area live in urban areas (United Way of King County report, 2014). Not only does King County contain the reservations of two currently federally Native recognized tribes (the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and the Snoqualmie Tribe) and ancestral territory of the Duwamish, Suquamish, Tulalip, and Puyallup and shared waters of many other Coast Salish like Nisqually, Stillaguamish and Chimacum (Seattle Urban Native Nonprofits website, 2022), it also is now home to Native people in hundreds of tribes from every corner of Turtle Island (a traditional name for North America) as well as Central America and South America, especially the tribes of the nearest states and provinces and Alaska.

Thus, for many Native-identifying folks in and surrounding these urban centers, a charter public school pathway is a better fit. No system is perfect, including the charter public school system, yet charter public schools have more flexibility to take creative approaches, and as we’ve seen in the pandemic, can nimbly adapt to meet the social, emotional, and academic needs of systemically underserved student populations.

However, until and unless our state’s charter public school law reopens the window for new school authorization, the dreams of charter public schools designed to be culturally affirming for Native students will not become a reality. If you want to help change this, sign up for our action alerts here.

Below, we’re offering space for Indigenous voices to speak to why they want Native-focused schools and see charter public schools as a promising pathway for their communities. Stay tuned for more videos here and on our social channels!