Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

August 24, 2012

Educators worry about school’s future

Chief Baker says former Sequoyah administrators’ fears that athletics will take priority over academics are unfounded.

TAHLEQUAH — Two former Sequoyah Schools administrators say they are concerned the  Cherokee Nation administration is steering the institution away from academics to strengthen its athletic department.

Former Sequoyah Dean of Academics Dr. Geary Crofford said the selection of Leroy Qualls as the new superintendent is a strong indication that earning state championships is more important than maintaining high scholastic standards. Tribal executives say that’s not true, and they’re aiming for a total package of excellence.

Crofford believes Principal Chief Bill Baker’s administration has opted to turn the clock back to 1999, when the school was “over $1 million in the red, barely filled half the seats at sporting events, and was known as the school of last resort under the leadership of Gloria Sly, Leroy Qualls and the Joe Byrd administration.”

“The Baker administration has [removed] administrators who helped effect these positive changes and replacing them with Leroy Qualls, a coach, as superintendent, and others yet to be determined,” he said. “These changes were part of a thinly veiled political vendetta disguised as a reorganization.”

Crofford maintains the education professionals who were laid off recently would have qualified for any new jobs created under a reorganization plan.

“Some of these employees had worked for Sequoyah for years before the more descriptive job titles were adopted, and thus would fit the new job titles. None of them have been rehired,” he said. “Also, to wait until June to notify these employees is simply unacceptable. It gives little chance to find new jobs for the upcoming school year.”

Qualls coached basketball in the Hulbert Public School district, as well as in Tahlequah. Most recently, he was director of Indian education for the Tahlequah district. Qualls declined to address Crofford’s claims and referred questions to the tribe’s executive branch.

Baker said the changes in the school’s administration should not be viewed as intent to move away from its path of academic success.

“To say Sequoyah Schools has come a long way since its early days as a boarding school for Indian children would be a gross understatement,” Baker said. “Many of our elders still have painful memories of their days at Sequoyah, being forbidden to speak the Cherokee language and enduring attempts to force them to turn their backs on their Cherokee heritage.”

Today, the landscape of Sequoyah couldn’t be more different, Baker said.

“It is a model school, producing the brightest young Natives in the country. This is a shift that has happened over many years and many administrations,” Baker said. “As far as we have come, however, there is still farther to go and improvements to be made. I am confident that any changes made under my administration will only serve to continue the upward mobility that has made Sequoyah Schools the respected institution it is today.”

Former Sequoyah Dean of Leadership Teresia Knott and former Dean of Students Louie Jackson were also removed from their positions, and they agree with Crofford’s allegations. Crofford said the three were full-time employees in their respective roles, but the tribal administration forced them to sign 30-day contracts.

“[They were] no-cause contracts so they could get rid of us more easily,” Crofford said. “And what they ended up doing was not even giving us 30 days. Our layoff notices were dated May 29, and they were put on our desks while we were out of town.”

Knott said she picked up her termination notice June 16 because she was told by a fellow worker that her job status had changed.

“The Nation never did tell me,” she said. “I think administrators need to consistently be there, especially for high school-aged students, because they come to trust you. And it takes them a while to get to that point, and now they’ll have to start over.”

Crofford points to CN Executive Director of Education Dr. Neil Morton as part of the problem. Crofford wanted to present the school’s academic accomplishments to the tribal council’s education committee at its monthly meeting, but he said Morton refused to allow it.

Crofford said he made the request because Morton, who was also a tribal executive during former Principal Chief Chad Smith’s tenure, did not present the academic data accurately.

“Dr. Morton has misused, colored and even presented inaccurate data to the committee to support the new administration’s point of view in terms of a change being necessary at Sequoyah,” Crofford said. “The former athletic director, Larry Grigg – and I guess he’s still employed there as a coach – was invited by someone on the council to come and speak about the athletic program. Here are all the athletic triumphs of Sequoyah this year, and he basically ended up lobbying for Coach Bill Nobles' job. It’s all on the Cherokee Nation website. It’s the tribal council’s education committee meeting that’s chaired by [District 1 Tribal Councilor] Joe Byrd.”

Crofford said this meeting occurred “two or three months ago.”

“I asked then if I could come and speak as the academic dean, and if I would have the same opportunity to come before the committee and talk about the good things that were going on at Sequoyah in terms of education, and I was told no by Dr. Morton that I couldn’t do that because that was his responsibility,” Crofford said. “He gets the report from us on Sequoyah, and he was picking and choosing and not qualifying some of the data he was presenting to them to, again, basically tell the side of the story that the new administration wanted to be able to justify what they ended up doing.”

Crofford said Morton receives a report from the school, produced by gathering information and data from the school’s departments.

“That’s why he said he felt like he had all the information already, which he didn’t,” Crofford said.

Citing an example, Crofford said Morton wanted to talk about the “low” ACT scores at Sequoyah, but he failed to mention Sequoyah tests all of its students.

“Most schools don’t do that. They cherry-pick the better students who are going to college for sure,” Crofford said. “Well, now, in the most recent meeting, he has suddenly remembered, and he’s talking about the fact that they do test all students.”

Crofford said another indicator the school may be moving away from academics is talk of returning to Bureau of Indian Education standards.

“The word around the CN campfire is that the school, the new administration, is considering not even pursuing the new common core standards, but instead actually move back to the BIE standards, which are a lower level of expectation academically,” he said. “The immersion school now has a state charter, and so they have to maintain state accreditation. The high school doesn’t. This makes it easy to bring in lots of athletes and keep the ball rolling athletically, and kind of let the academics continue to get pushed to the side and minimized.”

Crofford stressed that he doesn’t want to sound like he’s “anti-athletics.

“Schools revolve around the academics, and athletics are an important component of the total picture of the school. I support that completely,” he said.

Crofford believes the change in school administration was a political move.

“Basically, the goal was to get rid of our superintendent because she was a Chad Smith supporter. The dean system was an extension of the Chad Smith administration. So we were kind of collateral damage,” he said.

Knott said she believes the word “bullying” could be used to describe the situation.

“We’re not vocal about any campaign or side,” she said.

Crofford agreed, and said most members of the education team weren’t strongly associated with any side in last year’s election for chief.

“I feel like that what happened with us is wrong on many, many levels,” he said. “You don’t get into education for money, not for prestige. You do it because you like working with the kids, and you want to help them be successful. Ultimately, the ones paying the price for all of this that’s going on are the kids at Sequoyah. And even by extension, some of the ones at some of the outlying schools the Cherokee Nation has to do with because they fall in the 14-county jurisdiction. And to me that’s why I use words like ‘cold’ and ‘callous.’ It’s tragic. It’s sad.”

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