Sovereign Community School
Sovereign Community School was scheduled to hold its first day of classes Monday, Aug. 19, 2019, at 5401 N. Brookline Ave., but building issues forced a delay and move. (Tres Savage)

One month before the start of its inaugural year, Oklahoma’s new Sovereign Community School is trying to round out fall enrollment by emphasizing two pillars: culturally responsive teaching and student wellness.

The charter school, which was approved in August 2018 by the Oklahoma State Board of Education after being twice rejected by the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board, will hold its first day of classes Monday, Aug. 19, at 5401 N. Brookline Ave. in OKC. The school is renting the former St. John’s Episcopal School building.

“We’ve got over 50 students today, and we’re adding students at a rate of about five to eight per week,” said founder and board president Phil Gover. “We’re shooting for a first-year class between 80 and 100 kids. We were a little slow getting out of the gate on recruitment.”

In preparation to build full middle and high school programs, Sovereign Community School is only enrolling sixth and ninth graders this year. The charter school happens to be marketing its vision to prospective students at the same time other Oklahoma charters are facing scandal.

While Gover said the vast majority of students who have enrolled are tribal members, he emphasized that SCS is a public school open to all students.

“I think everyone — regardless of whether they’re native or not — would benefit from a more culturally relevant approach to curriculum and content,” said Gover, a former college admissions recruiter. “I feel pretty good that there’s a lot of appeal beyond Indigenous kids.”

Sovereign Community School
From right to left: Phil Gover poses with Jaimie Gua and Bella Cornell. (Provided)

Students ‘learning about themselves and self-identity’

Gover and his principal, Matt Wilson, were once Indigenous students trying to understand their own identities. Wilson in particular found it difficult to fit in, eventually dropping out of Muskogee Public Schools.

“The students were predominantly white and black. It was tough for me, and I hated it,” he said. “So I know some of the experiences these kids are going through. They’re isolated. Our Indian kids are falling through the cracks, as did I. It was not that I was ignorant. It was not that I wasn’t intelligent enough to make it. I just hated it.”

Wilson, who is Kiowa and Choctaw, found a place “to bloom” at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas.

“Whenever I heard about this school, it just reminded me of what kind of saved my life,” Wilson said of Sovereign Community School. “It just aligned perfectly. I had family and friends sending me this link saying, ‘Apply for this job. It’s right up your alley.'”

After earning a master’s degree from the University of Oregon, Wilson worked for years in schools and youth programs on the Shoshone-Bannock reservation in Idaho. He referenced his time there — at a reservation school that enrolled a percentage of non-native students — when asked what non-tribal students could gain from Sovereign Community School. (He said the question “pops up a lot.”)

“The students that came to our school up there, they got to experience and deal with and learn all these things that they had no idea about Indian people,” Wilson said. “They were like, ‘Wow, we would have never been able to do this at our school.’ They were scraping buffalo hides and shooting buffalo and drinking blood from the heart.”

Gover and Wilson said school curriculum will enable all students to learn about their personal heritage.

“They might say, ‘I’m not just a white kid. I’m Irish or I’m German. I’m not just white,'” Wilson said. “We’ve been kind of brainwashed to see colors instead of who we actually are as identities. That’s a learned type of thinking that society has put out there for us: I’m a color, not a person.

“Any student who comes into our school is going to be learning about themselves and self-identity.”

Finding culture, meeting requirements

Balancing that push to find identities with meeting the requirements of state standards will be part of Carrie Lehi’s job. A member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, Lehi serves as Sovereign Community School’s language and culture teacher.

“We’re doing a master apprentice program where we match up fluent speakers from the tribes and have the students meet with them and interview them so they can learn their own language from their elders,” Lehi said. “The way we are teaching is to meet the needs of our community.”

Lehi grew up in the Bay Area of California, moving to Oklahoma a decade ago. Her brother, Tommy Orange, published a critically acclaimed novel in 2018 called There There. The book highlighted the experiences of Indigenous people living in urban areas, something Gover said Sovereign Community School intends to address in Oklahoma City.

“I think urban Indian perspectives are rarely talked about when we think about what it means to be Indigenous in the United States,” said Gover, who is enrolled in the Paiute Tribe of Utah and grew up in Reno, Nevada. “We think about poor people living on a reservation, yet most of us live in cities.”

Gover, who moved to Oklahoma five years ago as Teach For America’s chief of staff for regional operations, said his school is intentionally “inter-tribal,” meaning its curriculum is designed to apply to Indigenous students of any background, as well as non-Indigenous students.

“We center holistic student wellness at Sovereign to give kids the tools to self-assess and take care of themselves and eventually each other,” he said.

Wilson, who will turn 35 on Friday and spent Wednesday painting classrooms, worked as a counselor in Idaho. He said SCS’s “wellness” concept is critically important for students.

“Before a student is going to be able to pick up on anything curriculum wise or any type of knowledge that you’re trying to toss at them, they’ve got to be well and happy and overall feeling OK in a safe environment,” he said.

As physical activity is beneficial for student achievement and wellness, Sovereign Community School will feature basketball, cross country, track and stickball, a traditional Indigenous game that stands as the oldest field sport in North America.

“I’m excited to get all my sticks out and teach some kids,” Wilson said, noting the school’s contests will not be as rough as the competitive leagues viewable on YouTube.