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Tribe decides not to pursue charter school option for the local academy

Julie Severn

5/14/2003 12:00:00 AM

Tribal education officials have abandoned efforts to make the Saginaw Chippewa Academy a charter school.

The academy was authorized by the Bay Mills Community College Board of Regents to initiate the process of becoming organized as a charter last August and was to have opened in August of 2003.

After researching the pros and cons, Education Director Angeline Matson said the results had several parents concerned.

"Council decided not to go with the charter essentially to maintain Tribal control over the school," she explained. "The academy is currently completely funded by the Tribe and if they were to accept the charter, they would be legally bound to follow state regulations. We felt we would be losing our identity as an Indian school."

Although state funding would provide $6,800 per student, Bay Mills would be able to charge up to 3 percent to cover fees, reimbursements, and costs of providing oversight of the charter contract.

"The Tribes sovereignty to control the school is not worth the dollars we'd be chasing after," Matson said. "Current Saginaw Chippewa Academy students and their siblings would have priority enrollment, but if enrollment were to exceed capacity, a lottery would occur. It would be possible for a non-Native student to be enrolled while a Tribal member would be forced to seek another school."

The academy currently operates as a private school and has 267 students in the toddler program through eighth grade. Enrollment consists of 100 percent Native American students-63 percent are Tribal members, 28 percent are descendants, and 9 percent are from other Tribes.

Spiritual and cultural restrictions to the Native youth would be enforced under the charter due to the separation of church and state.

"We would be able to educationally teach culture by avoiding spirituality except when comparing religions," Matson said. "We would not be allowed to have a sacred space or make tobacco offerings."

Academy staff, parents and two Elders recently attended JK Lumsden, a charter school in Sault Ste. Marie that consists of 70 percent Native students.

Matson said culture is integrated into the curriculum in all classes by using the Medicine Wheel, but Ojibwe language is offered as a special class. Ceremonies are not taught or practiced during school hours, and although smudging and drum are provided, prayers or making reference God or the Creator are not permitted.

Matson is continuing to work with Dow Howell Gilmore Associates in designing a new 110,000 square-foot school building which would house toddler, pre-primary, elementary, middle school, and a new high school program.

"Education is the best investment a Tribe can make in their community," Matson said.

Two of the eight community planning sessions remain to be conducted in the Tribal Library for public input on improvements and the direction each grade level should take. The Saginaw Chippewa Academy middle school-sixth through eighth grades-is slated for May 8, and the new high school-grades ninth through twelfth-are scheduled May 22.