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The Choctaw Journey Part 2: The Case for a Segregated Education

By Sandra Knispel

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wkno/local-wkno-957535.mp3

Philadelphia, MS – Segregation seems to fly in the face of every lesson learned from Mississippi's past. Still, for the Choctaw separate schooling is key to maintaining tribal identity.

The opening of the school day sounds much like any other school in America, with the sound of the school bell. And like many students across the U.S., the day starts with the Pledge of Allegiance, but you may not recognize it as such at the Choctaw high school near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

You may be forgiven for not recognizing the Pledge of Allegiance recited during Choctaw language class here at Choctaw Central High on the reservation near Philadelphia. Eighty-five percent of tribal members still speak Choctaw at home, but that number is much lower among the younger generation. Monte Favre , a high-school student who speaks Choctaw fluently, is the exception among his peers.

"I guess you can say it's the root of our culture, of our tradition. Without the language everything is gone," Favre said.

According to Roseanna Thompson, Choctaw director of education, the tribe is rightfully concerned.

"We started working with the Head Start Centers also. We do an immersion for the little children, because we realized we were losing our Choctaw language and we had to do something quick[ly]," Thompson explains.

In order to enroll at a Choctaw school in Mississippi you need the right pedigree. One quarter Native American to be precise; non-Indians need not apply. Dr. Greg Carlyle, a white Canadian, is the school's principal.

"We're dealing with the preservation of a culture that if different than the culture around. So, I guess it becomes an argument against assimilation," Carlyle says.

In Mississippi, every fourth Native American student in a public high school does not graduate. By contrast, the average Mississippi high school dropout rate hovers just below 17 percent. Sahinna Anderson, a senior at Choctaw Central, tried public school in fourth grade and lasted all of two weeks:

"I just felt like I was an outsider. There was nothing wrong with the people or anything. It's just - I just felt that, you know, I did not belong," Anderson said.

Her classmate, Laettner Johnson, went to a public kindergarten in Newton County. At age five he was just beginning to speak English.

"I started speaking in my own language, which is Choctaw and then the teachers got mad at me ," Laettner says. "Well, really gave me a paddling for speaking it because they said I'm not supposed to say things they don't know. I was like, What did I do wrong?' "

In first grade he transferred to Conahatta Elementary, a Choctaw school, and stayed in the tribal system.

"I liked that because I got to express myself. [Laettner speaks Choctaw] I just said, I'm happy I'm here,' " Laettner says.

Anecdotal evidence aside, statistics show that the Choctaw are on to something. The segregated high school here is proud of their now relatively low dropout rate of just 11 percent, less than half the rate for Native American students in the state's public school system. Principal Carlyle says his Indian students are different from non-native students he taught before.

"They may be more reserved than other students, at least initially," Carlyle says. "And [I] have just found that's through their culture. Just respect for elders and just holding back their thoughts, but they eventually will share them."

Of those who graduated last May, 62 percent went off to college. For the tribe they are a vital investment and are guaranteed a scholarship to the college of their choice. But will they return? Most say they plan to. But sixteen-year-old Lanena John, who wants to become an OB/GYN or lawyer is not necessarily wedded to her native soil. She says she'll be back regularly, though, especially to see her two little sisters:

"I just want, you know, help them see that there is more to life than just the reservation." John continues "And to open up their eyes and open their options, but to let them remember that they are Choctaw. And they should be proud of it."

Next week, in part three, we continue our journey with a look at Choctaw economic independence, the road from poverty to self-reliance.