Title VI Parent Committee wants role in planning TPS' Indian Ed reorg

TULSA, Okla. — Members of Tulsa Public Schools’ Title VI parent committee made it clear at their four-hour-long Feb. 11 meeting that they are tired of being left out of the conversations regarding a proposed reorganization of the district’s Indian Education Program.

“This reorganization was given to us by TPS as ‘This is what we’re going to do,’” parent committee member Heather Hoover said. “We weren’t given a chance to say, ‘Why not do it this way?’

“It felt like we were basically treated as an afterthought.”

Before a full house in the Grant Building’s break room – the facility’s largest room – the parent committee voted 3-1 to rescind its chairwoman’s signature on a collaboration letter regarding the proposed reorganization and send it back to district officials with a list of concerns.

At the Feb. 3 board of education meeting, TPS Superintendent Deborah Gist announced a commitment to collaboration promising formal tribal consultations with leaders from the Cherokee, Osage and Muscogee (Creek) nations, as well as working with leadership from the Greater Tulsa Indian Affairs Commission, Oklahoma Council for Indian Education, Tulsa Native Youth Board and the National Indian Education Association before making any formal recommendations.

Chairwoman Hether Cuervo was among the signatories, although the parent committee was not explicitly mentioned as one of the entities that would be part of the collaborative effort.

“It says in the letter that they (TPS officials) are pursuing greater collaboration,” parent committee member Robin LeBlanc said. “Never once does it mention the parent committee. All they ever mention is that we’ll continue to have monthly meetings. They’re not going to collaborate with us but in the law it says we have to participate in all negotiations.”

In addition to taking exception to not being formally mentioned in the letter, members of the parent committee expressed concern that the letter would be used as a substitute for formal tribal consultation sessions.

According to district officials, no formal consultations have been scheduled as of Feb. 12 – just preliminary discussions. Under federal law, tribal consultations are required for school districts that receive more than $40,000 in Title VI funds. Similar to the federal government, the Oklahoma Department of Education recommends 30 days notice, 60 days for a response and an additional 30 days for collaboration if needed.

“We made it clear up front that the letter did not count as formal consultation,” Cherokee Nation representative Adam McCreary told the parent committee.

Also at issue for the parent committee was that the collaboration commitment did not include the eight TPS-sponsored charter schools. TPS does not receive Johnson-O’Malley, Title VI or Cherokee Nation car tag funds for Native students at those sites and its Indian Education Program currently does not serve those schools.

“I want to at least see space for them to step up,” parent committee member Aaron Griffith said. “They are part of the problem with our declining enrollment.”  

The parent committee was not the only objector to Gist’s collaboration announcement. While announcing her organization’s formal opposition to the proposed reorganization, past president Lucyann Harjo said OCIE was not even contacted about the collaboration commitment until Feb. 10 – a week after it was name-checked at the school board meeting.

“We appreciate this request for official ongoing collaboration as you consider a reorganization or restructuring, which would be in our opinion, a regression of services to the high number of Native children in your district, ” Harjo said, reading a letter OCIE sent to both Gist and the school board.

The proposed reorganization of the district’s Indian Education Program calls for it to have just three resource advisers to work with TPS’ Indigenous secondary students on a 12-month contract. The seven current advisers, who are all certified teachers paid for through federal funds, would be eligible to apply for one of those three spots or be moved to another position within the district.

As currently worded, the department would also have six non-certified teacher’s assistants at elementary schools and a cultural enrichment specialist would be hired to work with Native TPS students across all grades.

Some of the remaining Title VI money would also be used to pay for more tutoring stipends. Currently, the district has enough funds to pay teachers across 21 sites a stipend for up to four months to provide after school tutoring for Indian Education students. The proposal as presented on Jan. 30 calls for expanding tutoring to every TPS site for eight months.

District officials have maintained that the reorganization is necessary due to a drop in Native student enrollment based on the 506 forms returned by parents that are used to determine federal and tribal per-pupil funding. District enrollment overall has declined by about 5,000 students since the 2004-2005 school year.

Originally slated to be presented to the school board in mid-February, district officials announced earlier this month that the reorganization recommendation would be pushed back to mid-March based on early community feedback. Despite the parent committee’s concerns voiced at its Feb. 11 meeting, Laura Grisso with TPS’ Language and Cultural Services confirmed the following day via email that the district still plans to follow that timeline.

The framework for the reorganization was crafted based on a needs assessment conducted in August when the Indian Education Program handed out free school supplies to Native students. However, less than 300 families completed that assessment, drawing additional criticism from the community about not including enough voices. TPS officials have promised to send out an additional informal survey, but the timeline for its release is now in flux after the parent committee expressed concerns about access for parents and guardians who do not use email, including some of its own members.

“We are very interested in hearing more feedback from the community and we had committed to those in attendance at the Indian Education community meeting on Jan. 30 to release a survey to do just that,” Grisso said. “We also value our partnership and collaboration with our Title VI parent committee. We have delayed our release date of the survey in order to seek more feedback on the survey design from the parent committee, the students, tribal leaders, and other key stakeholders. Once the survey is finalized, we will share the access information through all of our communication channels and host open computer labs for families who need computer and/or internet access.”