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Unconquered and Unconquerable: A Culture of Learning

Choctaw Central High School students peruse options for class rings.

When U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell looked around Indian Country for a school system that other tribes should emulate, she chose Mississippi’s Choctaw Tribal Schools.

Walk through the schools and it’s easy to see why.
At Choctaw Central High School, Principal Fred Hickmon is a hands-on kind of guy. He’s in the halls, checking on students. He floats in and out of classrooms. His teachers tailor instruction to the individual needs of students and talk about them as if they are their own kids. Parents flock to everything the school does — programs, festivals, athletic events, student-teacher conferences.
Since David Germany became head of the tribe’s schools five years ago, ACT scores have risen, dropout rates have plummeted, and kids feel safer.
After more than two decades on the reservation, watching the community grow and sensing a need to change, Germany knew what had to be done. He unleashed a slew of physical, educational, and personnel changes. He also knows there’s still work to do.
“Most of our kids are English speakers, not Choctaw. Twenty years ago it was the opposite,” said Germany. “Parents are better-educated than they once were. They value their children’s education a lot more. Those attitudes have been growing.”
The schools have had to change as the Choctaw themselves have changed. As the tribe’s population has surged over the past 20 years, so has school enrollment. But Germany is determined not to let all this change cause his students to forget their culture.
He encourages teachers to spice up classes with traditional Choctaw imagery and artifacts. Math problems at Choctaw Central deal with stick ball games, Choctaw food, and hunting, for example.
But sometimes it’s not easy.
Enrolling more students means hiring more teachers, which has proven to be a challenge. With so few teachers who are Choctaw, infusing the schools with strong Choctaw culture is sometimes not so easy. Teachers at all eight schools are almost exclusively non-Choctaw. Only one assistant principal at Choctaw Central is a Choctaw tribal member, and Germany wants that number to improve. If a Choctaw applied for the same position as an equally qualified non-Choctaw, the system would give priority to hiring the Choctaw.
Renee Jones came out of retirement three years ago to teach biology at Choctaw Central. She had retired from teaching in public schools but her passion for educating young people called her back. Luckily for both her and her students, she gets to enjoy teaching only one subject, compared to the four she taught at her last public school.

Posters on a classroom wall show the Choctaw words for the days of the week.

Jones is impressed with the involvement of Choctaw parents.
“They really embody the saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ here,” Jones said.
Third-year teacher Beverly Combes also appreciates the effect of Choctaw culture on her students.
“The kids are unique, different, sweet kids,” she said. “Their culture makes them different. They’re kind, loving kids and are very artistic.”
Germany hopes to work more Choctaw into leadership roles starting at the TA (teacher’s assistant) level. He has introduced a Choctaw language program for all TAs at Choctaw Central. To instill a respect for the tribe’s history, traditions and culture, he believes Choctaw children need to be taught by their own people. School administrators have a hard time finding licensed Choctaw teachers, and Germany wants to fix that.
“Teaching culture alongside regular school helps the kids learn, and makes them more proud,” he said. “If we stopped sending our kids to these schools, our culture would cease to exist.”
Many Choctaw parents also seem to feel this way. Enrollment in tribal schools is consistently larger than enrollment in the area’s public schools. A total of 2,400 students are enrolled across all eight of the tribe’s schools. The largest school (Choctaw Central) has 665 students.
Students at Choctaw Central are quick to tell you they like the rapid changes at their school.
“A lot more people care about school now and a lot more people go to college now than in our freshman year,” said senior Tayshaun Mingo.
Students seem to like the changes at Choctaw Central High. Here, seniors Kayla Joe, right, Ammery Smith and Cecilia Ketcher share a laugh in the classroom. 

Since Tayshaun has been at Central he has seen the school’s ACT average rise seven points, matching the state’s average of 19.
“I used to go to public school, but here we all share the same culture and it’s more accepting,” said Searra Wilson, a junior. “In my ninth grade year it was really wild. It feels safer here now. Kids were running around the halls, yelling, smoking. We barely have any fights now.”
When Germany was looking for a new principal four years ago, Choctaw Central was badly in need of a steroid shot. The old buildings were deteriorating and the staff was tired. Too many students failed to graduate, and many more acted up in class.
Enter Fred Hickmon, who injected his forceful, hands-on mix of energy, enthusiasm and what Jones calls “a futuristic vision” at a critical time. People responded.
“Fred’s great,” said Germany. “He’s got a lot of motivation, loves the kids, and is barely in his office. He’s in his halls.” Just a few years after his arrival, things are much better.
Technology has made its way into most classrooms, a huge plus for teachers accustomed to sharing a single television box to show VCR tapes. Germany’s schools now use pacing and learning programs such as iReady, which provides diagnostic reports on students’ work. Teachers are then able to give individual attention where it is most needed.
Germany said the Tribal Council Education Committee is also working on a dropout prevention program and ways to help students who need diplomas to get them. In the next year, schools plan to boost Wi-Fi in their buildings, and the high school soon hopes to break ground on a huge new complex.
The majority of the Choctaws’ educational advances stem from changes in curriculum. Implementing the Common Core standards before many other Mississippi schools, Choctaw schools now focus heavily on reading, teachers say. Parents are especially happy with the results.
Kimberlane Lewis has five kids enrolled in the reservation’s schools and one daughter who is a proud graduate of Choctaw Central. Lewis worked for years as a teacher at Pearl River Elementary until 2013. Now she works in the school offices.
“I think as far as the reading goes, it’s more a part of the system now and I think that’s effective for the kids,” said Lewis.
David Germany took over as head of the tribe’s schools five years ago. Since then, ACT scores have risen, dropout rates have plummeted, and kids feel safer.

Lewis found her passion for education while going through Pearl River Elementary’s F.A.C.E. program. F.A.C.E. stands for Family and Child Education, a program that specializes in teaching under-educated parents alongside their children. Lewis went through F.A.C.E. with her oldest child and was hooked. She loves the recent technology and likes how Choctaw culture is integrated into everything the schools do.
“I really love the culture and safe environment,” Lewis said. “But I think we can be better. We always can.”

By Slade Rand. Photo by Ariel Cobbert. 

LEFT TO RIGHT: Ariel Cobbert, Mrudvi Bakshi, Taylor Bennett, Lana Ferguson, SECOND ROW: Tori Olker, Josie Slaughter, Kate Harris, Zoe McDonald, Anna McCollum, THIRD ROW: Bill Rose, Chi Kalu, Slade Rand, Mitchell Dowden, Will Crockett. Not pictured: Tori Hosey PHOTO BY THOMAS GRANING
LEFT TO RIGHT: Ariel Cobbert, Mrudvi Bakshi, Taylor Bennett, Lana Ferguson, SECOND ROW: Tori Olker, Josie Slaughter, Kate Harris, Zoe McDonald, Anna McCollum,
THIRD ROW: Bill Rose, Chi Kalu, Slade Rand, Mitchell Dowden, Will Crockett. Not pictured: Tori Hosey PHOTO BY THOMAS GRANING

The Meek School faculty and students published “Unconquered and Unconquerable” online on August 19, 2016, to tell stories of the people and culture of the Chickasaw and Choctaw. The publication is the result of Bill Rose’s depth reporting class taught in the spring. Emily Bowen-Moore, Instructor of Media Design, designed the magazine.
“The reason we did this was because we discovered that many of them had no clue about the rich Indian history of Mississippi,” said Rose. “It was an eye-opening experience for the students. They found out a lot of stuff that Mississippians will be surprised about.”
Print copies are available October 2016.

For questions or comments, email us at hottytoddynews@gmail.com.

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