Trees fill the landscape in Ada, Oklahoma 

Oklahoma Landscape Near Ada City Schools

ALL PHOTOS BY GLENN COOK

 

As a single parent with an adopted son, Theresa Plata knows what other families face in her rural Oklahoma community that bills itself as the “Indian Capital of the Nation.” It’s one reason the former foster care worker became a Communities in Schools student support coordinator when students returned full-time last fall.

“The heartbreak these kids go through is just immense,” says Plata, who works with second and third graders at East Elementary School in Anadarko, a community with 37 Native American tribes, including seven that are federally recognized. “Just the other day, I had a couple of third-grade kids reach out on Google Classroom and message me, ‘Don’t tell my mom this, but I need food.’”

Two years ago, Anadarko officials note, students in this district on the state’s western plains would not have been able to reach out with such a request. When Oklahoma’s schools shut down in March 2020 for almost five months, most of Anadarko’s 1,450 students did not have devices or a way to access the internet.

The mad scramble to mitigate the digital divide and institute virtual learning was seen in school districts across the U.S. at the start of the pandemic. But the problem was particularly acute in low-income and rural communities such as Anadarko, where the lack of access has only exacerbated long-standing issues faced by Native American students.

Pre-pandemic, American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) youth already were disproportionately affected by poverty, food insecurity, and ongoing trauma due to a lack of family stability, substance abuse, and domestic violence. Nationwide, AIAN achievement remains two to three grade levels below whites in reading and math, and Native Americans are twice as likely to drop out of school.

According to the 2019 National Indian Education Study, which uses pre-pandemic data from 15 states, Oklahoma’s fourth and eighth grade students outperformed their peers across the nation in reading and math. But reading scores across the state fell by a larger percentage than in any of the other 14 states, highlighting concerns that existed before schools were shut down.

For AIAN students, the pandemic added months of isolation from their peers as well as tremendous personal loss. Oklahoma has had more than 15,000 COVID deaths, one of the highest rates in the nation. Before vaccines became widely available, COVID-19 killed Native Americans at a rate 2.8 times higher than whites, a November 2021 Demographic Research study showed.

LuVona Copeland, principal at Okmulgee High School, about 150 miles from Anadarko, says COVID has “just been devastating to many of our native families.” Some students lost “multiple generations of people,” while siblings who are staff members at Copeland’s school had five family members die.

“It’s hard to focus and learn when you’re dealing with so much trauma,” Copeland says.

Now, school officials in districts such as Anadarko and Okmulgee are tasked with finding ways to reengage these students to prevent further loss, says Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. While technology access is important, especially if students are forced to go virtual again, Hime says you can’t lose sight of the big picture.

“Students lost family members due to COVID. Jobs have been lost, and families have been displaced from homes,” Hime says. “All of that is going to disrupt education no matter if you have broadband or Wi-Fi or not. That’s just one piece—an important piece—of a huge puzzle.”

Unique relationship

American Indian and Alaska Natives make up only 2.9 percent of the population in the U.S. Still, they are “incredibly diverse,” with more than 600 state and federally recognized tribes and more than 200 different Native languages, says Susan Faircloth, chair of the technical review panel for the National Indian Education Study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Office of Indian Education.

About 700,000 of the nation’s 50 million students identify as AIAN, with 92 percent attending public schools in their local communities. In Oklahoma, almost 160,000 of the state’s 703,000 public school students identify as AIAN, second only to Alaska in terms of percentage. Thirty-eight of the 39 tribes in Oklahoma are federally recognized, and the state receives the largest percentage of Title VI dollars in the nation. Title VI is the primary education law that protects people from discrimination based on race, national origin, or color in educational programs or activities.

“It’s critically important that American Indian and Alaska Natives have a unique legal and political relationship with the federal government that no other group has. This is based on the federal government’s trust responsibility for the education, health, and welfare of Native American peoples that is rooted and grounded in decades of treaties,” says Faircloth, a member of North Carolina’s Coharie Tribe and director of Colorado State University’s School of Education.

Anadarko, where 77 percent of the students are classified as AIAN, relies heavily on federal funding and grants to pay for its programs. In addition to Title VI money, it is one of 108 districts in the state that also get federal Impact Aid. All pre-k through eighth-grade students receive free breakfast and lunch. The district took two and sometimes three meals a day to 18 different stops in the community during the early days of the pandemic.

“It was eye-opening,” Superintendent Jerry McCormick says. “If you’re not out there, you don’t know what it’s like, and many of our kids shouldn’t have to live in places like they do.”

When schools shut down, the district did not have enough computers to send home with students, relying instead on parents and caregivers to pick up packets at schools, McCormick says. Using a mix of state and federal funds, Anadarko purchased laptops for every student and staff member as well as 800 hot spots for homes to improve connectivity. Hot spots also were located at a church on the southwest side of town and in a convenience store on the northeast side of town to help with internet access.

Donna Richey, a parent and former Anadarko Middle School teacher, is the tribal services director for Communities in Schools of Mid-America, which has a staff member at each of the district’s five campuses thanks to a federal Native Youth Community Projects grant. When the laptops were delivered to students, Richey and others went to families’ homes to help them set up the technology.

Most families were not familiar with how to set them up, “so we set up a table, brought out the hot spot and went through it with them step by step,” Richey says. “Most of our kids and families have pay-by-minute phones or phone cards. It was a big learning curve.”

Faircloth says the pandemic has “underscored and intensified issues around access to technology, Wi-Fi and broadband in and out of school.”

“This is true across the nation,” she says. “You can give students a laptop but what if they don’t have access to Wi-Fi or the internet at home? What if they don’t know how to use a computer? Our failure to provide educational supports and services, including access to broadband and technology, goes against the legal, moral, and ethical obligation we have to educate our children.”

An abandoned gas station in Anadarko, Oklahoma

An outdoor scene from Anadarko

Pandemic disengagement

On a sunny but windy and crisp spring afternoon, 17 people—a cross-section of students, caregivers, and educators—are gathered in the board room of the Okmulgee School District to discuss the challenges they’ve faced since March 2020.

The students talk about boredom and lack of motivation. The caregivers talk about the challenges of helping their children with virtual school while dealing with the losses of family members and friends. The educators—Superintendent Renee Dove, Copeland, and the district’s elementary and middle school principals—sit back and absorb variations on the stories they’ve heard repeatedly over the past two years.

“I’m raising my grandkids, and a lot of the stuff they do now on computers I have no clue about,” says Melvern Bevenue, the guardian of a 10th grader and of a senior at Okmulgee High. “They had to figure it out on their own, and that made me feel bad because they wanted to go to school. It was very tough.”

Okmulgee, which serves 1,130 students, has been the home and capital of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation since it was founded three years after the Civil War ended. About 60 percent of the district’s students are AIAN, and most were receiving wraparound services from the Muscogee Nation, which also shut down during the early days of the pandemic and did not reopen for several months.

The district implemented a 1:1 device program in the fall of 2019, but at home, 60 percent to 70 percent of the students could only access the internet with their phones, the superintendent says. At that time, Dove purchased an additional 1,200 computers because she “knew we’d need replacements,” and Okmulgee was able to send home laptops and hot spots with each student when the pandemic hit.

But that doesn’t mean things went smoothly. All the hot spots purchased at the start of the pandemic would not work properly if more than one was used in a home, so they had to be reconfigured. The process took months. Teachers had to learn how to teach virtually, eventually receiving professional development on how to “project their persona digitally.”

“This was all done by literally ripping the Band-Aid off,” Dove says, noting 80 percent of the students live in single parent or multigenerational homes. “There was no easing into it. They became full-time virtual students, and we never had any time to prepare them to be virtual students.”

The district ran a hybrid model through the end of the 2020-21 school year. It returned last fall on a four-day school week with virtual Fridays through the first week of February and extended days since.

High school attendance has been low. Copeland says more than 20 percent of her students didn’t return during the hybrid year. Dove notes many high schoolers “are couch surfing” or without stable homes. An estimated
80 percent of Okmulgee’s students are living with single parents, other relatives, or in multigenerational families.

“We’d be told things like, ‘He’s working at Walmart, and we need him to pay the gas bill,’ or take care of their siblings,” Copeland says. “This year, we’ve told them, ‘You’re coming to school, period.’ Now we’re trying to find ways to motivate and engage these kids. It’s frustrating for us because we can’t go to their homes and fix that or bring them here and fix it either. They are just so disengaged. It’s really tough.”

‘Tore the scab off’

A boy reads a workbook in a classroom

Students at Washington Grade Center, one of six campuses in Ada City Schools

Mike Anderson knows his students in Ada City Schools are fortunate compared to many of their AIAN peers. Ada is the headquarters of the Chickasaw Nation, the city’s largest employer and the third-largest employer in the state. In a fall 2021 bond referendum, voters agreed to a 12 percent tax increase to replace two elementary schools at a cost of $74 million.

“I’ve always said if you give me enough money, enough people and enough time, we’ll fix it,” says Anderson, superintendent of the 2,500-student district. “But all three are difficult to have at the same time.”

Charity Eakens, Ada’s director of Indian Education, notes that the district’s AIAN students are scoring at or above their peers on standardized tests and outscore other ethnic groups on the ACT. But there are concerns, especially after two years of dealing with the pandemic. Tatum Sallee, principal at Ada’s Washington Grade Center, notes the AIAN third and fourth graders at her school are the “highest achieving or lowest achieving. There is no middle.”

More than half of Ada’s students, 51 percent of whom are half or full Native American, did not have devices or internet access in 2020. Like Anadarko and Okmulgee, the district purchased hot spots and laptops to ensure every student could participate in virtual learning. Teachers took part in intensive staff development in the summer of 2020 to prepare for a virtual year. A drive-thru tech support system was set up to help students and caregivers. Hot spots were installed in parking lots around the town.

Now that students are back in school, they are using technology regularly. Still, Anderson says, the pandemic “tore the scab off” many problems that simmered below the surface. Ada, like the rest of Oklahoma, is dealing with a severe teacher shortage, which has, in turn, increased class sizes. Teachers are talking about burnout, and district leaders are looking for ways to reengage students.

“We’re good with the technology. The mental health and behavioral health of our students and staff is the stressor now,” Anderson says, noting the district is looking at a variety of ways to address learning loss. “We’re still looking for answers to that.”

The same can be said in Anadarko, which is working with its seven federally recognized tribes to find solutions. The Wichita and Affiliated Tribes have applied for a $10 million grant to add broadband access across the district and are seeking funds to take over the Communities in Schools program when that grant ends this year.

“This is not something you just snap your fingers and fix,” says Terri Patton, president of the Wichita tribe. “Kids really suffered during this period of all this distance and virtual learning. Now we’re trying to get them integrated back into the schools, and they haven’t had the motivation to do so because they’ve fallen so far behind.”

Plata, one of the Communities in Schools staff, understands the challenges Native American caregivers in the district have faced. She fostered and later adopted her son, Henry, who is from the Kiowa Tribe.

“As a single mom, sometimes you have to make a decision between feeding your kid and having internet access, so I get it,” Plata says. “But having that access brings them information and knowledge. Without it, they feel isolated and less than. And let’s face it, Native American students already are isolated and feel less than.”

She pauses for a moment and thinks back to the third graders who sent her the message about needing food.

“Those students wouldn’t have been able to call us to tell us what they needed. No way,” Plata says. “But they were able to send us a message, and we could find a way to help them. That was just awesome.”

On June's ASBJ cover: Anadarko, Oklahoma, Student Support Coordinator Theresa Plata and her son.

Glenn Cook (glenncook117@gmail.com), a contributing editor to American School Board Journal, is a freelance writer and photographer in Northern Virginia.


 

Around NSBA

the NSBA logo and text "State of the Association"

2020 State of the Association

Full of challenge and change, 2020 was like no other year. NSBA's State of the Association provides a snapshot of the association's advocacy and member services work as well as our ongoing transformation.