Tribal Nations

For Oklahoma Cherokees, Public School Consolidation May Mean Losing Ties to Culture

In one Oklahoma town, a state budget crisis and low enrollment have reignited rumors that the local public school will be shut down. The closure might save money, but for the community’s Cherokee population, there’s much more at stake.

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For Oklahoma Cherokees, Public School Consolidation May Mean Losing Ties to Culture

Jessica Henry, GPJ Tribal Nations

An American Indian motif is on display at Kenwood Public School in Salina, Oklahoma. The school educates many American Indian students, but despite contributions from the Cherokee Nation, rumors persist that it might close due to budget cuts.

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SALINA, OKLAHOMA — The tiny public school in this rural Oklahoma town follows state curriculum, but many activities there reflect its large Cherokee student population.

Students at Kenwood Public School, which includes kindergarten through eighth grade, play Cherokee marbles, a traditional outdoor game that uses palm-sized balls and harvest wild onions during the spring. In the past, there was a Cherokee-language choir.

About 20 percent of Salina’s population is American Indian, according to 2016 U.S. census data. Many residents in that category are members of the Cherokee Nation. The town is filled with signs of American Indian culture, including a Cherokee community center. Locals say the school is key for maintaining Cherokee culture in the tight-knit community.

But as Oklahoma faces an ongoing school budget crisis, Salina residents worry about Kenwood Public School’s future. If the school closes, they say, Cherokee children will lose out on practicing a part of their culture.

Stephanie Stick, a Cherokee Nation member who attended Kenwood schools and raises funds for them now, says that if the school closes, students will likely be bused to larger schools elsewhere.

The Cherokee Nation is a sovereign government that represents more than 350,000 Cherokee people within the United States. The nation is formally recognized by the U.S. government as a sovereign entity and operates its government and businesses independently. While many of the groups known as American Indian within the U.S. are based on reservations, which are land areas reserved for them by the U.S. government, the Cherokee Nation has a tribal jurisdictional area within the state of Oklahoma, in the center of the U.S.

The Cherokee Nation is the largest of more than 500 federally recognized groups within the U.S. The group was based in the eastern part of what is now known as the U.S., when European explorers and settlers arrived. Eventually, the U.S. government violently pushed the Cherokee west. That journey, which ended in what is now the state of Oklahoma, is known as the Trail of Tears.

For Cherokee students, she says, that will likely mean being in classrooms with very few other American Indians.

“I think the smaller school breaks the barrier for the kids being Cherokee and being shy,” she says. “They don’t feel so overwhelmed when they’re in these smaller schools.”

The Cherokee Nation government, headquartered about 30 miles away in Tahlequah, a town in the same state, gives millions of dollars each year to schools throughout the state, particularly focusing on schools where Cherokee students attend.

In early March, the Nation announced contributions to public schools totaling $5.4 million, including $390,145 to schools in Delaware County, where Kenwood Public School is located. That school received just over $9,500.

The contributions came from fees paid into the Nation’s car-tag program, a voluntary program the Nation created in 2002 to assist public schools and meet other public needs. Additional money, generated by the Nation’s casinos, is added to the state’s education budget. That contribution is required by the Nation’s casino-gaming compact with the state.

Bill Taylor, the superintendent of Kenwood Public Schools, says that contribution isn’t nearly enough to save the school.

“We’re glad to get it, because we need it, but it’s a drop in the bucket,” he says.

The school’s budget has shrunk by about 10 percent in recent years, from close to $1 million a decade ago to around $900,000, he says.

Only a portion of that money comes from the state government, he adds. Eight years ago, state funding was close to $700,000, he says. Since then, it has dropped to around $400,000.

The Cherokee Nation contributes funding to the school based on the number of students that are Nation members, Taylor says. Between 30 and 40 percent of the school’s students are enrolled with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, a separate tribe from the Cherokee Nation, Taylor says.

Rumors that the school might close have lingered for years, but they’ve gained momentum as enrollment declines. In 2008, when Taylor first started at the school, 128 students attended, and there were between 10 and 12 teachers, he says. Now, there are nine teachers, several of whom are responsible for more than one grade, he adds.

There’s no immediate danger of closing, Taylor says, but the school takes each year as it comes, working to stay open by any means necessary. He says he has faith that God will help him and other school leaders find the funding the school needs.

For Salina residents, the fear that the school might close is especially fraught, because similar scenarios have played out elsewhere.

In 2016, the Spavinaw School District, located about 12 miles from Kenwood, consolidated its elementary school with larger districts in the area. That community was once similar to Kenwood, with a large population of American Indian families. The town regularly hosted a powwow, an American Indian celebration.