Magna Carta for Community: Bay Mills charters schools throughout Michigan

Nov 15th, 2009 | By | Category: 21-2: K-12 Education, Winter 2009, Features, K-12
By Jerry Reynolds

For most of a full career in sociology and education, Aaron Tadgerson has dwelt on the relationship between  communities and the school systems that purport to serve them. The special problems of Indian education derive from that relationship, he says.

Tadgerson serves as the recruiter, retention, and land grant development coordinator for Bay Mills Community College. The tribal college has chartered 40 schools in mostly troubled, mostly urban communities throughout greater Michigan, as well as one at Bay Mills Indian Community in Brimley, MI.


CORNY TRADITION. Larry Dyer from Michigan State University Extension talks about “flint” corn with Ojibwe Charter School students. The corn was grown from the same seeds that local natives used here long before the first European settlers arrived. Photo by Kalvin Perron, Bay Mills News

Like many in his generation, Tadgerson believes the United States’s educational systems have brought cross-generational trauma, sometimes tragedy, to American Indians. “Education was a tool used to destroy Indian communities. … That fear is still there.”

Unlike many, he believes he has seen the beginnings of a solution – using community asset-based development practices and the charter school movement. In brief, community asset-based development refers to what happens when residents and members of impoverished, under-served communities decide to solve their own problems through their own approaches, seek strategic assistance from others of a similar mind, and stay the course until reform takes hold.

Community asset-based development gained national stature from its beginnings in urban Chicago. In Michigan, strategic assistance for communities came from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, whose international grant making has not supplanted a commitment to its home state.

Tadgerson presided over a Kellogg-funded program at Lake Superior State University that contributed to an increase in Indian enrollment from 2% to 10% beginning in 1995. Approximately 300 Native students could be found on campus by 2003, he says.

Bay Mills Indian Community forged the link between community asset-based development practices and Indian-specific education. Bay Mills Community College President Michael “Mickey” Parrish (Bay Mills Ojibwe) says that in Michigan, a community college can “stand in the shoes of the state” to authorize a charter school under state law, supervised by the Department of Education in Michigan.

In return for complying with state mandates on academic performance, financial management, and other issues, charter schools authorized by community colleges enjoy relative freedom from regulation. As highlighted in “Expect Miracles: Charter Schools and the Politics of Hope and Despair” by Peter Cookson and Kristina Berger, “University-authorized charter schools are able to employ experienced community college instructors or university tenure-track faculty regardless of whether they are state-certified teachers ….”

For communities that have been isolated from mainstream education channels, one advantage is pretty clear: their schools have an enhanced chance of hiring faculty who look like their students and share their culture. Charter schools also invariably place local, concerned parents on the school board. Both steps amount to a significant stride in developing the community asset, not to mention the household good feeling of student success, Tadgerson explains.

Under Michigan law, community colleges can authorize charter schools within a limited area. When Bay Mills Community College authorized charter schools in distant Bay City and Pontiac, it staked a claim to a statewide service area, arguing that Native students reside statewide and that the reservation-based college is run by a tribal council that is not part of a fixed school district. The initiative generated “great hostility” in the state, says Pat Shannon, a non-Indian who directs the 41 Bay City Community College charter schools. “I’ll be frank. This was the most bigoted experience I’ve ever seen as an attorney.”

Even scholars lost their bearings in the firestorm. Cookson and Berger put a pejorative gloss on the subject by asking, “Can Bay Mills effectively sponsor an end-run around the legislative deadlock over a cap on the number of Michigan charter schools?” The courts ruled that Bay Mills was not sponsoring an end-run around existing law.

Tadgerson has a gloss of his own. “Well, the schools didn’t close, and the parents didn’t quit. It’s working.”

With its charter schools permissible in disadvantaged neighborhoods statewide, Bay Mills wanted its own charter school on the reservation: Ojibwe Charter School in Brimley. The community knew its youth were at an educational deficit despite the community college. “The main problem was that after the eighth grade, the tribe had a lot of dropouts,” Parrish says.

In addition, the community still carried the memory of a school on the reservation from decades ago. The community felt it wouldn’t be whole again without a school of its own, Shannon says. “It makes a fuller community.”

Ojibwe Charter School has gone from K-8 to K-12 in six years, serving approximately 100 students. Though the numbers still remain small, graduate rates have increased, and dropout and transfer rates have decreased, says administrative assistant Debbie Toms. It has also improved its standing under the state’s grading criteria: “We started at a C and now we’re at a B.” Ojibwe language, history, and governance are all taught, Toms says. Ojibwe language is integrated throughout the curriculum, though not “immersion” style.

Ojibwe Charter School graduates are not yet tracked for outcomes of their schooling, Toms says.

“I do know that we’re getting a lot of younger students at the college, and we still have a significant number that do take remedial classes. … I can’t tell you whether the charter school makes a difference in college enrollment and academic performance.”

Tadgerson stands firm on several measures of progress, among them whether the Ojibwe language counts toward a state-mandated foreign language prerequisite for graduation from high school. “Back when, the idea of impacting the state high school curricula was absurd.” Now it has been done. “It really fast-tracked the cultural diversity issue to a level that my generation only dreamed of,” he says.

So as Bay Mills Community College helps to restore the Native culture of its own community, it helps to grow the diversity of communities throughout the state. Not a bad start on national stature.

TCJ contributor Jerry Reynolds is a freelance writer.

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