Syracuse Post Standard
By Elizabeth Doran
At the Onondaga Nation School, the week begins and ends with pupils giving thanks in the Onondaga language.
All the schoolchildren gather in a circular room beneath a glass dome in the school’s cultural center. They sit around a large green turtle representing Mother Earth inlaid into the floor. Each week a different grade recites as much of the thanksgiving, called Ganonhannion (pronounced Gah-new-HAN-you), as they can remember.
It is one of many cultural traditions embedded into academic life at the school, which help make it a school unlike any other in Central New York.
“Education is important for everybody, and our school is part of our close-knit community,” said Tadadaho Sid Hill, the Onondaga Nation’s spiritual leader and father of three children. “Our school teaches our language and our culture, which is very important to us.”
The school is one of just three American Indian schools in the state. Its money comes entirely from the state and federal governments, as dictated by federal treaties. The state Education Department contracts with the LaFayette district to operate the school, which covers kindergarten through eighth grade.
“The school is very much an anomaly in the public education system,” said Robert Odawi Porter, a member of the Seneca nation, a Syracuse University law professor and director of The Center for Indigenous Law, Governance & Citizenship. “The state provides the resources, but it’s heavily influenced by the Native community, and yet still has to deal with all the tensions of staffing and curriculum.”
The school follows the state Education Department’s curriculum. Its pupils must meet all state requirements and take standardized exams in math and English language arts. At the same time, they learn the Onondaga language and culture in their classes, are given time off from school to attend cultural ceremonies and celebrate other traditions in school.
“It’s very hard to teach someone if you totally ignore their culture,” said Freida Jacques, the school’s home-school liaison and an Onondaga Nation member.
“This a tribal school, set in the geographic outline of the Onondaga Nation,” said LaFayette Superintendent Mark Mondanaro. “When you walk into the school, you will immediately see lots of symbolism and recognition of Native American culture. There are things that look similar in this school, but there’s always going to be very stark differences.”
The school has a history of fluctuating enrollment and persistently low standardized test results. Fourth-grade results show improvement: 33 percent of fourth-graders passed the ELA test in 2005; this year that rose to 54.5 percent.
Eighth-grade scores, however, have been dismal in past years. The state did not release the scores this year because so few students took the tests, but in 2002 just 14 percent of eighth-graders passed the state math test, down from 36 percent in 2001 and 40 percent in 2000. In 2000, 30 percent of eighth-graders passed the ELA exam. That dropped to 27 percent in 2001, 22 percent in 2002 and 10 percent in 2003.
The school is working to overcome its challenges with innovative approaches both inside and outside the classroom, including collaborative teaching, team-building through a ropes course for students and teachers, and increased teacher training with outside consultants.
School officials say pupils at the Onondaga Nation School struggle from the beginning to exist in two worlds, and that can suppress their achievement.
“Native Americans continually remind me that in the modern world, they feel compelled to live in both worlds to be successful, and I think it’s the quintessential struggle from the get-go,” Mondanaro said.
SU’s Porter agrees: “You can’t underestimate the continuing cultural chasm that has to be crossed by these students.”
Porter suggests looking at factors common to successful students, such as having a family that values higher education and not worrying about the basics of life. Those factors can be issues for Onondaga Nation School pupils, Mondanaro said.
“Just getting food alone can be a struggle for some, and you’ll see that reflected in the free and reduced lunch rate,” Mondanaro said.
Last school year, 59.1 percent of students were eligible for free lunch, and an additional 11.4 percent for a reduced-price lunch.
From the late 19th century to the early 20th century, about 500 boarding schools were designed to eradicate the indigenous way of life, including culture and language, Porter said. Many pupils’ grandparents recall the horror of such schools and that can extend today into mistrust of the public education system, he said.
Also, some history lessons in the state education curriculum run counter to Native beliefs, he said.
“It’s foreign to them and politically loaded, and that may extend into their other subjects, like math,” he said.
The school’s small size also can mean more peer pressure.
“Smaller classes can be harder on the kids, because they’ll stand out if they’re really good students and they might be teased,” said science teacher Denise Harris.
What’s clear at the Onondaga Nation School is the powerful sense of unity.
“I know everybody at my school,” says eighth-grader Janine Johnson, 13. “There’s not 1,000 kids in each of my classes. I know all the teachers, and I see my friends every day.”
Johnson said she likes learning Onondaga, a growing priority at the school.
That’s a key factor in Awhenjiosta Myers’ decision to send her four school-age children to the school. She said she’s pleased with her children’s progress.
“The school teaches our language, our religion and our culture, and it’s central to our nation,” she said.
Eighth-grader Priscilla Cronin said she likes her school, too.
“I like learning my language, and I like being with my own people,” she said.