If your children attend a school where barely a third of fourth-graders were proficient in reading or math and the school’s principal was retiring, what would you do?
That is, what kinds of questions would you want to ask about the people the district was considering to fill the job? Would you want to know about their training, about the last school they had worked at, about what kinds of other qualifications they had? Or would you simply want to make sure they shared the same race as your children?
The Onondaga people of upstate New York chose the latter. And when they didn’t get their way, they decided to keep their children home from school for the last two weeks of the school year — time in the classroom that these kids can ill afford to lose.
There were 20 candidates to lead the state-funded K-8 Onondaga Nation School in Nedrow, which is run by the LaFayette School District. In addition to the regular public-school curriculum, students are also taught their people’s language and culture.
But the school has some serious problems. In addition to its abysmal academic performance, 10 percent of kids have been suspended, almost all are poor enough to be eligible for free lunches and at least a quarter of students are being taught by teachers who aren’t highly qualified by New York standards.
So who could lead the school out of these circumstances? Many parents liked the idea of Simone Thornton, a veteran teacher at the school, who also happened to be a member of the Onondaga Nation and who attended and sent her children to the school. Sidney Hill, the leader of the Onondaga Nation, said that it seemed like promoting Thornton to principal was “a no-brainer.”
But the district’s school board determined she didn’t have the requisite leadership experience or the necessary certification and instead offered the job to Warren Smith, an assistant principal in a nearby district, who is also a colonel in the Army Reserve.
The parents’ objections to Smith have nothing to do with his qualifications. They don’t like the fact that he isn’t Native. And that he has served in the army.
Hill objected to the board appointing a person with a military background because it evoked the history of Indian boarding schools. “We don’t need someone to be grabbing us by the hand and telling us, ‘Oh, come along with me, I’ll take care of you,’?” he told The New York Times. “We’re mature people. We can make mature decisions for our children.”
The notion that someone who has served in the armed forces is disqualified from leading a Native school is outrageous on its face — but it also makes no sense at all. The army wasn’t in charge of the boarding schools. Some of the boarding schools were unobjectionable and many Indian parents sent their kids to them voluntarily.
And American Indians have among the highest rates of service in the armed forces of any racial or ethnic group in the United States.
I have no idea whether Smith is more qualified to lead the district than Thornton is, but the fact that she and her children attended the school does not frankly recommend her for the job.
Unfortunately, many schools that serve native populations are caught in a difficult cycle. They graduate students who are often unprepared for secondary and post-secondary education. Colleges don’t want to fail the students in these populations who actually matriculate, so they are pushed through anyway.
But these same students then come back and want to work in the very communities that didn’t prepare them well in the first place.
Since the parents seem to care more about whether the teachers are Native than whether they’re qualified, there’s no accountability. As Ben Chavis, a Lumbee Indian who ran the high-performing American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, Calif., told me, “These people are more interested in giving Indians a job than educating Indian kids.”
Unless the LaFayette board holds its ground and hires the best person for the job, regardless of race, nothing is likely to change for the next generation.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.