Analysis of an Ethnocentric Charter School on an American Indian Reservation

Fenimore-Smith, J. K. (2009). The Power of Place: Creating an Indigenous Charter School. Journal of American Indian Education, 48(2), 1–17.

Charter schools have often been endorsed as an alternative to the public school system, as it allows for more freedom in curriculum and instruction while still adhering to state standards.  Specifically ethnocentric charter schools have been employed to address the complex and unique needs and challenges surrounding the educational struggles of marginalized and colonized indigenous populations.  The objective of ethnocentric charter schools is to integrate traditional indigenous linguistic and cultural ways of knowing into the Western educational platform.

In the article “The Power of Place: Creating an Indigenous Chart School,” Kay Fenimore-Smith (2009) outlines her study of an ethnocentric indigenous charter school on an undisclosed reservation in northwest United States.  The article outlines a two-year study to identify and examine the challenges and successes of Eagle High School (pseudonym) during the school’s first two years of operation.  The purpose of the study “was to provide a historical record which could serve as a basis for evaluation of the school as well as documentation and analysis of policies and practices of a fledging Indigenous charter school” (p. 2).

Fenimore-Smith (2009) builds upon other related studies that explore the complexities of the development and implementation of linguistically and culturally integrated curricula in American Indian schools.  The research and initial year of operation of the school began in the summer of 2004.  Although Fenimore-Smith (2009) was unable to consistently visit the school during its first year, she did attend school board meetings and school functions, interviewed staff, and conducted multiple classroom observations.  During her sabbatical for the 2005 fall semester, she regularly volunteered at the school to maintain daily contact with the students and staff.  For the remainder of the school year, Fenimore-Smith (2009) occasionally met with school staff and attended in-serve sessions in addition to other school functions.

The research was conducted through a variety of ethnographic methodologies, such as field-notes on interviews, meetings, and observations.   Other strategies included taping daily journal entries, and collecting school-related artifacts, such as student/parent and staff handbooks, classroom handouts, and school schedules.  Fenimore-Smith (2009) employed the triangulation model of reviewing the data by comparing the information garnered through the taped notes to the interviews and artifacts.  Additionally, the initial analysis of the data was reviewed by the school administrator and student who transcribed the interviews.  As the data revealed several themes, Cummins (1992) theory of cultural differences was implemented as the framework and lens from which the findings were dissected and analyzed. The theory outlines four elements that affect minority student access to education: incorporation of students’ language and culture; community participation in school; instruction; testing.  As Cummins (1992) theoretical framework is based on educational access, Fenimore-Smith (2009) contends that the study’s findings are grounded in practical application.

The findings of the research are significant of the systemic challenges faced by Eagle High School.  Eagle High School’s mission statement of “[Eagle High School] is dedicated to recognizing an individual’s worth and dignity and mutual respect between all people. [It] will provide a new educational environment and unique curriculum to bridge educational, cultural, economic and social gaps” (p. 5).  Although Eagle High School consistently attempted to strive toward the goals outlined in the mission statement, it ultimately was largely unsuccessful due to unforeseen challenges. The findings highlighted that the school did not adequately train teachers to integrate Native language and culture and the language and culture classes were not integrated into curricula.  Furthermore, some students were resistant to participate in traditional cultural activities and language and, as the focus of the curricula shifted, the students requested structured, more Western activities.  Lastly, there was no community and parental involvement, and 79% of the students failed the state standardized assessment.  However, the study did reveal that students felt valued by the teachers and, while the community and parents were not actively involved in the school, they expressed appreciation of the school and its mission.

While the findings are very compelling, there are research methodologies and a claim within this study that should be further addressed.  If there are no transparent or valid research methodologies, the study cannot be duplicated as a means of testing for reliability.  Unfortunately, this opaque approach muddles the validity of the findings, no matter how compelling they appear.

The first element is the fact that Fenimore-Smith (2009) admits to have had limited access to the school throughout the first year of her research.  However, she does not address how limited the access was nor in what capacity.  She also does not discuss if this affected her research methodologies and findings, or if she compensated for the lack of access through the implementation of another approach.

The second element is that there are no explanations of how she completed or how often she conducted her research within the two years of her study.  Other significant and absent research facts are the protocols for the interviews, who the participants were, how the participants were selected, and what demographics the participants represented.  Moreover, she never indicated the objective(s) of the classroom observations or how the observations were equated into findings.

The third element is the vagueness of the school and location.  Employing a pseudonym for the charter high school as well as excluding the name of the reservation serves no real purpose.  However, it does perpetuate the ideology that all indigenous communities are culturally and linguistically identical and, therefore, these facets do not contribute to the unique challenges encountered on each reservation.

The fourth element is the employment of a student-participant to analyze the findings. It is not an objective practice to have the student who transcribes the interviews also interpret the data to provide a Native perspective, particularly if the student may know the interviewees.  This knowledge may alter his/her answers due to inherent biases against the interviewees. Furthermore, there is no indication if the student was a participant in the research or served in other capacities as well, such as also being an interviewee.

The last element is that while Fenimore-Smith (2009) claims that she built her research on other similar studies, there are no explicit mention of any other studies’ findings or how they were conducted.  This statement begs the question of to which studies was she referencing and how did they correlate to her research methodologies and findings.  Explicitly comparing and contrasting research methodologies and findings would have also been another way of ensuring the reliability of the findings, especially if they contribute to the research framework of indigenous educational challenges encountered on reservations.

It is very important, however, to acknowledge that throughout the research process, Fenimore-Smith (2009) addresses her intersectionality and positionality as an outsider to both the indigenous community and the school in which she conducted her research.  She also recognizes that her relationship with the students and staff may have been influenced by their perception of her as a teacher and colleague, therefore altering the data rendered from the ethnographic methodologies.  Fenimore-Smith (2009) notes that she is “fully aware that my interpretation of events may indeed affect ‘the interests and lives of the people represented,’ and it is with this knowledge that I present my findings and as understandings, not explanations” (p. 5). The acknowledgement of her positionality and intersectionality reveal layers that may otherwise be undetectable, inherent biases present throughout the findings.

While teaching in a public school within the heart of the Navajo Nation, I also encountered some similar challenges.  The issue that resonated most with my experiences was that of parental and community involvement.  I had approximately 90-95 students in my 6th grade writing class, but for parent-teacher conferences or “report card parties,” only about 15-20 parents would attend the events. The main issues that prohibited the majority of my students’ families from attending were fiscally embedded.  For example, many of the parents would not attend school events because they did not have enough money to pay for gas, they only had enough gas to go to the grocery store, or they did not have any gas in their vehicle tanks.

Furthermore, many parents were disengaged from their students’ academics due to a myriad of other obstacles.  However, the commonality demonstrated by all the parents was that of multigenerational trauma stemming from the impact of colonization, particularly the boarding school era.  Many parents and community members did not feel comfortable meeting in a school setting due to systemic cultural abuse that was perpetrated by the education system.  Therefore, following the theory of multigenerational trauma, the trauma experienced by the grandparents and parents of my students at the hands of educators in Western schools was instilled in the younger generations.  Thus, not only does this explain some of the lack of parental involvement, but it can also be attributed to the resulting lack of American Indian academic achievement.

Research that explores the complexities of parental and community involvement would be beneficial for American Indian students.  I am particularly interested in learning of any reservation schools that have implemented Epstein’s (2002) triangular partnership model that outlines six types of involvement (Olivos, Jimenez-Castellanos, & Ochoa, 2011). As the model should be tailored to better address the needs of the specific communities in which it is implemented, it would be fascinating to see how it has been adapted throughout various reservations.  As parental and community involvement increase student academic achievement, it is imperative to study different approaches to reach particularly traditionally marginalized and colonized populations.

Olivos, E.M., Jimenez-Castellanos, O., & Ochoa, A. M., (2011). Bicultural Parent Engagement: Advocacy and Empowerment. New York: Teachers College Press.

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Brittani enjoys reading, experiencing and learning about culture, food, language, and travel as well as hiking with her beloved pooch. Her interests revolve around acculturation and educational issues encountered by American Indian students, particularly on reservations.

1 comment — post a comment

Andrea Decker

wow, it kind of seems like the author of the article left a lot of things out. You raise so many good points about what we need to know to better understand the research.

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