TPS Indian Education programs make difference in student lives

Sheri Gourd | Daily Press

Discussing issues with members of the Tahlequah Public Schools Title VI Indian Education parent committee Wednesday are, from left: Leah Matlock, committee secretary; Heather Taylor, student advocate; and Chris Ray, Title VI coordinator.

While Tahlequah Public Schools offers a variety of programs for all students, Native Americans can receive assistance and resources through the Title VI Indian Education and Johnson-O'Malley programs.

Housed in the TPS Board of Education building, the staff for both is Tanya Jones, director; Chris Ray, coordinator; and Heather Taylor, student advocate.

"Right now, we have the very best Indian Education staff. It's a team that really clicks," said Jones. "We've always had great things, but I don't think we've been able to get the information out there. It's just about helping the kids."

As of spring 2019, 2,064 Native students were enrolled at TPS, representing 30 tribes. Of those students, 92-95 percent are Cherokee. The second-largest percentage is Choctaw, and the third is Muscogee (Creek).

"We're pretty unique having that many tribes represented," said Jones. "The programs are two different pools of money."

To be eligible for federally funded Title VI funds, a student, parent or grandparent has to provide a CDIB card. JOM is more restrictive, as the student has to be a tribal member with a quarter-degree blood quantum or be enrolled in a federally recognized tribe.

When a student is enrolled at TPS, forms are filled out stating tribal membership and Indian eligibility. This is how students are counted for Title VI and JOM funds.

"Both programs require parent committees; these are basically oversight committees," said Ray. "We encourage parents to attend the quarterly meetings and join a committee. We would love more parent involvement."

The Title VI parent meeting was Wednesday, and the next one will be Jan. 15 at noon in the TPS BoE Conference Room. The next JOM parent committee meeting is Oct. 2 at 6 p.m. in the Greenwood Elementary Commons Room.

The programs are forward-funded a year. For the most recent year, TPS received over $416,000 in Title VI funding. Almost all of it goes to staff salaries and after-school and summer school programs. With 1,811 students qualifying, TPS was allocated $72,240 by JOM this year.

"JOM used to be a lot more. We are lobbying to get that amount back up," said Jones.

TPS is a JOM co-partner with Cherokee Nation, which provides the rules and regulations, and certain funding limitations are in place.

"There is a per pupil maximum amount they don't want you to exceed, and there are guidelines for seeking reimbursement," said Taylor.

For example, the ACT testing fee may cost around $55, but CN will only reimburse $30. The yearly amount per student is $40. Students in pre-K through eighth grade receive $10 each year to purchase books at school book fairs. JOM also covers school supplies kits for students in grades K-8, as well as instructional materials for cultural class and the Cherokee language class at Tahlequah High School. Other covered costs include travel expenses for Cherokee Challenge and Language Bowls, and membership fees to the Oklahoma Indian Honor Society and Indian Heritage Club.

Ideas for how to use the funds and what areas to focus on come from a survey given to parents each year.

Besides rating the importance of services, parents can suggest new ones or comment on the programs.

Some parents want students exposed to other cultures, or to their own tribes. More exposure to Choctaw culture and opportunities for Choctaw students have been added by TPS. Since a majority of the Native students are Cherokee, and Tahlequah is the heart of the Cherokee Nation, more programs and events focus on Cherokees.

"It's more economically feasible to do the Cherokee events and programs," said Ray, who is Muskogee (Creek). "We are looking to add more, especially things that hit home with students who are not Cherokee." 

The "TPS Native American Culture" Facebook page is new this year, and staffers are hoping it helps more families be aware of events, scholarships, and other opportunities for Native students. Photos from cultural events at TPS sites are also shared.

"It is focused on middle and high school students," said Taylor. "I believe a lot of that information wasn't getting home."

One endeavor Taylor is starting this year is taking high school seniors to visit the Cherokee Nation W.W. Keeler Complex.

"From talking to students, some are overwhelmed just thinking about going to the complex. They ask, 'What door do I go in? What parking lot do I go to?'" said Taylor.

She is working with Lisa Bookout from THS and Stephanie Isaacs from CN Career Services. Along with career and college resource departments, they will also visit and learn about other services: housing, food distribution, human resources, registration, and more.

One of the most important things the Indian Education staff want to tell parents is that they should get their children enrolled in their tribes as early as they can. Information should be updated promptly, as well, with the tribes and TPS. For the federal programs, all information has to match, including spelling, hyphens, periods, etc.

"Get their cards when they're young. There are so many opportunities for them," said Taylor. "It benefits their kids when they enroll in TPS, and later in life."

Learn more

For more information, contact the Indian Education Office, 225 N. Water Ave., at 918-458-4100.

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