The New York Times recently spent a day on the Onondaga Nation interviewing a number of people. Below is a question that was asked of me via email, followed by my response, the majority of which was not included in the story.
In general many of the people I've interviewed feel that you have not been responsive over the years to concerns or wishes of the Nation's leadership, and that the district has not consulted with the Nation, as they say under the district's contract with the state that it is supposed to, about important decisions. Can you respond to this?
During the past three years, I have participated in numerous meetings and telephone conversations with Tadadaho Sid Hill and with other interested parties to discuss the interests of the Onondaga Nation as they related to our students. Mr. Hill did not appear at some of the scheduled meetings so we resecheduled if he was able to do so. If or how he communicated the substance and results of those meetings to his community is not in the district's control.
We were told over the past several years that the Onondaga Nation would create an Education Committee so that school district officials would have consistent contacts with whom to work. To date, I am not aware of such a committee having been formed. This was recently confirmed by the New York State Education Department Native American Liaison.
After I became superintendent and had conversations with other school superintendents, I initiated the first forum for New York State school districts that provide educational services to Native American students. School and Native American officials from around the state came together to learn and to collaborate on ways to increase our services to Native American students. The well-attended meeting was held at our BOCES and included two officials from the New York State Education Department. It was so well-received that a similar event was held again.
In late 2014, I was advised that the Onondaga Nation leadership wanted the school to be renovated. Previous discussions had taken place but substantive progress had not been made. I communicated with various officials and was able to secure $40,000 to conduct an official study resulting in a report with recommendations. The prior focus had been on technology but we were able to readjust the focus to be on space needs for the students. The report, entitled "Program Report: Study to Expand Spaces and Improve Technological Infrastructure: Onondaga Nation School" was prepared for the New York State Education Department by the Office of General Services. It is available if you want a copy.
I was also advised that the Onondaga Nation School had needed new boilers but none had been purchased. I started contacting various officials and was able to secure $471,090.57 for the purchase of new boilers which were installed in the summer of 2015.
When I became superintendent, I was advised that our district was identified by the State Education Department as having our Native American students disproportionately overclassified as Speech Impaired. As a speech-language pathologist, I surmised that the assessments used might not have been culturally sensitive. I researched the topic, including researching the Native American caucus of the American-Speech-Language-Hearing Association. As a side note, I sought to discover if any national recruitment efforts had been considered to inspire Native Americans to pursue that field of study. When I first met with Onondaga Nation leadership, I discussed the importance of direct instruction in the area of phonemic awareness as a foundation skill for speaking, listening, reading and writing. I then began an initiative to provide professional development to our faculty in that area, and in literacy, in general. I also assigned a Speech-Language Pathologist to provide in-class support to our young students at the Onondaga Nation School. Subsequent to that, the district was no longer identified for overclassifying our Native American students as Speech Impaired.
In the 2014-2015 school year, I asked the Native American unit of the New York State Education Department for, and was given, $80,000 for the purpose of improving literacy instruction for our Native American students. After the purchase of materials, the provision of professional development and the implementation of the interventions, the Onondaga Nation School's students' reading comprehension scores increased by approximately 44% in less than one year.
I asked Tadadaho Sid Hill if he would participate in a quest to acquire Impact Aid for the benefit of our Native American students. He indicated that the Onondaga Nation does not want to benefit from federal money.
The Nation leadership indicated that they wanted more than 60 minutes per day devoted to Onondaga Language. Last year, to honor that request, we changed the school's master schedule to allow for 80 minutes per day of Onondaga Language for grades four through eight and 65 minutes per day for grades PreK through three. We also added a .7FTE Onondaga Language teacher to our existing two full-time Onondaga Language teachers.
For Onondaga Culture, students receive instruction for forty minutes every six days. In addition, the teacher pushes into Social Studies classes to co-teach Onondaga Culture/History with the Social Studies curriculum required by New York State. That was also an increase that took effect last school year.
After evaluating the needs of our Native American students after they transition to our Jr/Sr High School, I created a new teaching position to start a Native American Academic Assistance Program. I appointed one of our Native American teachers to the position. The purpose of the program is to provide culturally sensitive academic assistance to Native American students who need it and to collaborate with our Native American liaison position at that school.
After becoming the superintendent, during my first conversation with Commissioner Elia, we discussed having her visit the Onondaga Nation School. Tadadaho Sid Hill was in favor of such a visit so, last fall, we were able to hold what I characterize as an historic visit consisting of school district officials, Commissioner Elia and her delegation, and leaders of the Onondaga Nation.
These are a few examples of how I have responded to the concerns and wishes of the Onondaga Nation, have consulted them on school matters and attended to the needs of the students.