Honoring Nations: James Ransom and Elvera Sargent: The Akwesasne Freedom School
Ransom, James and Elvera Sargent. "The Akwesasne Freedom School." Honoring Nations Awards event. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Tulsa, Oklahoma. November 1, 2005. Presentation.
"[Mohawk language] My name is Elvera Sargent but my Mohawk name is [Mohawk language]. My name means "˜she is given room or space'. I've been the manager of the school for about four years now but I've been involved with the school for about 10 years. The school is 25 years old this year and this year we have 76 students. We have 76 students in pre-K to grade eight. Pre-K to six is all total...they're all taught in the Mohawk emersion and with a lot of culture integrated in that. Our students in seven and eight are taught in English and that's to prepare them for public school but our dream is that we have eventually go up to grade 12 or even college level. But that's a huge dream and I don't know if I have the energy to do it because it seems like when we teach them our language for eight years and then the last two years we're teaching them in English but it's kind of like we're taking away what we just worked really hard to give them. At this time too we also have a three-year adult fluency program, which we're training young women to become teachers to replace our current teachers. We're in our third year. We started with 20 students but today we only have 12 left. But that's okay. We know that these 12 are committed to learning it and eventually replacing our current teachers. Some of the moms of our kids are in that program. I think we have nine parents that have been studying the language so that they can in turn talk to their kids when their kids get home because that's a problem right now is our kids don't have anyone to talk to when they get home. I have poll presenters. Jim Ransom is going to go next and he was a parent in the school for a few years but he's been helping us and stayed involved with the school although their kids have graduated high school."
"Thank you and good morning. I guess what...I wanted to make three points with the board here and thank you for allowing us to be here today. First, the Freedom School represents to me one of the best examples of tribal sovereignty that I can think of. It's grassroots, it has a dedicated Mohawk staff and it involves committed families. It's not only emersion but it uses ancient traditional teachings as its curriculum base. And finally it's community supported. It accepts no state or federal funding. Doing so creates financial challenges but it gives it the freedom to do what it does best. The second point I wanted to make is the influence it's having on the larger society. While it's sponsored by our traditional government in our community, its influence has spread positively to the public school district where I do have jurisdiction. Most of our students attend what's called the Salmon River School District. Out of 1,600 students, over 1,000 are Mohawk. It's the only school district in the State of New York that has a majority Native American student population. Thanks to the efforts and the contributions from former Freedom School staff, some of which I stole and put into that school district, and from their students who come up through the school district, what we've accomplished is that today our Haudenosaunee flag flies at the school alongside the American and Canadian flag. Our former staff teachers the Native Studies program at the school; before they had a non-Native teaching it. The Native content and curriculum in the public school system is enhanced. At graduation the school board passed a resolution allowing traditional clothing as an alternative to cap and gown, the only school district in the entire state to have that happen. Over the past 10 years, as the Mohawk student percentage has increased from 50 percent to over 60 percent, academic performance has gotten better, not worse. And finally, we send more students to college than any other tribe in the state. You have to add up all the other reservations to equal the numbers that we send. On a final note, personally, as Elvera mentioned, I know the Freedom School works. My daughter graduated from there. This year she graduated from Salmon River ranked third in her class and the highest ranked Mohawk, an accomplishment I'm very proud of. She knows who she is and she can compete in the larger society. That's what the Freedom School is about. Thank you."
Mohawk language teacher:
"[Mohawk language]. My name is [Mohawk name]. It means "˜I was the first to speak.' I graduated from the Akwesasne Freedom School in 2001 and then I went to Salmon River High School where I was inducted into the National Honor Society. And I was ranked in the top 13 out of 96 students, and then I went back to the Akwesasne Freedom School because I want to be a Mohawk language teacher. I'm a Mohawk speaker right now. I speak fluent. I went back to help my school. I'm taking a year off before I go to college to make sure that I want to be a teacher and to get a feel for it. Now I'm a teacher there and I know that my school's going to...I teach there now because I want more students to come out like me who want to go back and help and right now, like she said, we have pre-K to grade eight but that's not good enough. We need day cares, language nests so that the students when they go into the school they will be ready and willing and then we want the high school too. So right now, I'm working with students who went to school with me at the Akwesasne Freedom School and I want to try to start to get a day care there where the people who have graduated can go back and teach at the day care, the language to the younger generation so that they're ready to come into the school. They will go through until grade eight, they can probably learn all the way up until grade eight in the Mohawk language instead of up to grade six. Then we will have our high school where you can be taught in both the language and English and then you can go on to college. Thank you."
"Questions from the board?"
Brian C. McK. Henderson:
"I think that one of the biggest challenges to any society is the preservation of one's culture and the culture clearly starts with one's language, and I think you should be congratulated for this effort that now is over 25 years and obviously you still have many challenges including the challenges of running them and running the school and attracting teachers. I really have two questions for you. The first one is that obviously you're on the U.S. side of the Mohawk Nation. I just wondered how do you compare your efforts with the efforts across the border and do you get more or less support relative to the Canadian side in terms of the facilitation of government to help in this process of getting more resources or getting more funding? And lastly, do you have anything that is being, I guess, described as an outreach program to the state authorities to help either create the facilitation for teaching of teachers in advanced Mohawk studies, if I can use that term, that could be assisted through the state since obviously the school district is already starting to embrace the program in a way which is additive to the local school district?"
"I can answer part of the question. We do get some support from the Canadian, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. Their school board receives money from the government and our students that are enrolled with the Mohawk council, that funding comes to us, but it doesn't cover our overhead or management. So we do all kinds of events to raise money. We write proposals to foundations but we haven't had much time to do that lately. And a lot of...with the border being there also a lot of our students...we have more than half of our students and half our teachers are from the Canadian portion of the reserve. Maybe Jim can answer..."
"Yeah. I'm a little bit embarrassed to say that historically the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe has not been a big financial supporter of the school. I've been in office now for two years. We're working to change that and I'm hoping that over the next couple years we'll make tremendous changes in our financial support of the school."
"You had another question with the state."
"Training of teachers..."
"We didn't go to the state when we...we do have a three-year program right now that we're training teachers. With that we have a non-profit organization and we applied to the Administration for Native Americans and they funded us for this three-year program. But we want to keep the control I guess of what and who and how we teach. That's why we've kind of stayed away from the state. We don't want them to tell us basically how to do the job that we do."
"What I've learned is that having a piece of paper doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to be a good teacher and that equally as much just because you're fluent in Mohawk doesn't mean you're going to be a good teacher either. It's a combination of things and it's really the drive within the person, that internal instinct of wanting to help children. I think it's that combination that makes the Freedom School work is we have individuals like that in that school district. I think we're always trying...they're always trying to enhance it even further through formal education, but trying to balance it and make sure we don't forget our traditional teachings and one of them says, "˜Stay in your canoe. Don't go into the ship.' And I think the Freedom School tries to stay with that."
"What freedoms do you enjoy by being self-supporting and independent?"
"What freedoms? Our curriculum, we basically teach our kids what they need to know as [Mohawk] people. And we can teach them what we want them to know basically, to know themselves. Does that answer your question?"
"I think that you can't overstate that and that...the value that my daughter got from going there in the class that she graduated with, the sense of knowing who you are, having an understanding of your language and then combining that with a public school education makes for better students in my opinion."
"One other question, follow up to that. As you enjoy this freedom of your own curriculum and your own teaching and all of those things, what kinds of assessment or standards have you begun to look at or develop for your own selves when you talk about the attainment of language by your students?"
"I think our teachers look at how well our students speak, their vocabulary, how much do they know. Every activity that you do today, anytime, there's a lot of language involved in it. There's a lot of science, there's a lot of math in all of that. We have some samples with us of some of the things we...like for example, we recently had a...we took our kids fishing and then showed them how to prepare the fish and showed them which fish was good to eat so you got a lot of science in there because we're also located just down river of industrial plants, so there's a lot of PCBs and we can't eat all the fish that we need to, which is also affected our health. So I think I'm getting way off your question."
"Can I add that I think a lot of times we tend to focus on the Mohawk immersion part of this, but the other part that the Freedom School offers is the culture and within our culture respect is probably one of the most important principles and that school teaches respect. Respect for one's self, respect for each other, respect for the natural world. And when they enter the public school system, the teachers in that public school system notice that difference about them that they come there respectful and willing to work with everybody else. So I think that's something that's usually not thought of when you talk about the Freedom School."
"As you probably well know, through Indian Country many students are not finishing high school and fewer are going on to college. I think the preparedness rate in Indian Country is like about 16 percent. It's the lowest of any ethnic group in the United States. I suspect the same is in Canada. We've had other schools, we've looked at other schools and many schools do teach culture and community, but often their students still don't go on to college. They're not being prepared for college, but you seem to have a very good record in that way, graduating students from high school and going on to college. So what advice would you give to other people? What is the secret of a traditional education as well as motivating people to go onto college and to serve their community?"
"We have a philosophy and we...again, it's based on one of our traditional teachings. We call it a 200 percent education. We want our children to get the 100 percent education that every other student gets in mainstream society that a public school system offers. But, we also want them to have a second hundred percent about who they are, about their language, about their culture so that they're grounded as they go into the public school system. And that's what the Freedom School provides is that second hundred percent. The problem that I see is that unless you have that second hundred percent, it's difficult to achieve the first hundred percent. And you see it, it manifests in low academic performance, in low attendance. As our students gets older, they start challenging what they're hearing, but they're not grounded in who they are so they don't have a base to challenge it from, but they certainly have questions. And I think the Freedom School helps to ground them so that they can learn from the larger society as well. And the ultimate benefit is that the second hundred percent benefits the first hundred percent in the non-Natives. It's always good to learn about another culture so combining the two benefits all of the students."