Exclusive interview on the Mashpee Wampanoag school project

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe will have its own school – and sooner rather than later
The charter school is an initiative by the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project. That project is being actively pursued and developed.

Virtual Interview with Mwalim aka Prof. Morgan James Peters

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe will have its own school – and sooner rather than later. Amidst all the emotion that accompanied the appointment of Mashpee High School social studies teacher Brian Hyde as the next superintendent of Mashpee’s public schools, tribal members made it abundantly clear they found the current situation in Mashpee abhorrent and unacceptable.

This week we sat down with UMass Dartmouth associate professor Morgan James Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and a founding member of the tribal education committee. Professor Peters was asked both to share the tribal nation’s plans for educating its young people as well as to share the tribe’s plans for the new school.  

Cape Cod Today: Morgan, you use the name “Mwalim”. Is this a Native American name or does it hold other significance? It would be illuminating for our readers if you explained its meaning and proper usage. Should we say this is an interview with Morgan J. Peters, or Mwalim, Mwalim/Morgan Peters…etc.?

Mwalim: Mwalim is not a Native name. It's actually Ahramaic/Arabic and means "teacher" or "leader". It was given to me by a jazz mentor when I was in college. He made me find out what it meant. I began using it in 1991. This is an interview with Mwalim (a.k.a., Morgan James Peters).

Cape Cod Today: We understand that the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe (MWT) is likely to form a school in the near future. You have previously told us that the tribe is considering both a Commonwealth Charter School or a Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) tribal school. Can you tell us which way the tribe is leaning right now and why?

Mwalim: The charter school is an initiative by the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project. That project is being actively pursued and developed.

Pursuing a private school or alternative school has been a conversation for the tribal Education Committee since 2002. There was a recognized serious need for one for the students between 7th and 12th grade, particularly males, as noted through a survey conducted back in 2001. We also noted that tribal students who lived and went to school outside of Mashpee and Cape Cod; make up the majority of tribal students, and generally performed better academically. The critical need seemed to be for students in Mashpee. The Ed Committee has had a myriad of challenges, but a BIE funded school is still on the agenda. Members of the Committee felt (and feel) that we need to take accountability for the academic development and success of our students as opposed to leaving it in the hands of a system that continually devalues the traditionally disenfranchised elements of the community (Natives, Blacks, Latinos of all economic levels and poor whites).

Cape Cod Today: Our readers know that a charter school is funded by tuition assessments to students’ home districts. How is a BIE school funded?

Mwalim: BIE schools are funded through the Department of the Interior and requires an act of legislation on behalf of the tribe. For what ever reason, the tribe didn't make this a part of our compact when we got Federal Recognition, which is when this act usually takes place. Now it would take assistance for State Representation as an amendment.

Cape Cod Today: There are approximately 329 students of Native American descent living within an easy drive of Mashpee. What percentage of those do you anticipate would attend either a Wampanoag Language Immersion Charter School or a BIE Tribal School?

Mwalim: The immersion school, initially is going to deal with the lower grades. The BIE school would probably pull 1/2 to 2/3 of the middle school and high school population eventually.

Cape Cod Today: You have previously told us that the MWT anticipates many tribal members to return to Mashpee over the next few years. What is bringing them back to the area? How many students do you project this might add to the school?

Mwalim: Traditionally, Mashpee folks who ventured off for work or to see the world, end up coming home. This is nothing new. What has kept folks away for the past twenty years have been the inflated real estate costs and tax rates. That the town is trying to tax the houses right out from under our elderly and low income families is clear and obvious. The prospect of resources and employment are making more and more families hopeful that they can come back to Mashpee.

Cape Cod Today: Will yours be a K-12 school or focus primarily on elementary or upper school education?

Mwalim: The idea is to start with grades 7 & 8 and eventually grow up to twelfth grade, utilizing a pilot preparatory model. The seven arts and sciences, traditional horticulture, aquaculture, gardening, the arts.

Cape Cod Today: Has the MWT applied for a Commonwealth Charter? If not, what is your timetable for applying? How soon do you hope to open the school?

Mwalim: No, the tribe has not.

Cape Cod Today: The Commonwealth has previously granted a charter to a Chinese language immersion school in Hadley. Do you believe this precedent increases the likelihood that it would charter a Wampanoag language immersion school?

Mwalim: Yes, it definitely demonstrates that the Commonwealth values socio-cultural immersion education. What we have to look at is the fact that the Commonwealth instituted the Educational Reform Act in 1993 and began enforcing it by 1997. One thing that became clear was that the utilitarian model of public education in Massachusetts was not working. Standards and accountability had to be set.

Cape Cod Today: On the language immersion issue, we understand that the Wampanoag Language was nearly extinct a few years ago. Who will teach the language when the school initially opens? Will the students and faculty be learning the language together in the early days of the school?

Mwalim: There is a team of trained language educators as well as education specialists who have been taught the language. They are at the hub of the language project and the creation of the immersion school curriculum. I'm not versed on the particulars of the approach.

Cape Cod Today: A recent report underwritten by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation listed several Native American language immersion schools that perform better than the traditional schools from whence their students came. Have you reached out to any of these schools for help in forming the Wampanoag school?

Mwalim: As a member of the Advisory Board for Special Education of the Bureau of Indian Education, I am in contact with many of the schools and programs including the immersion schools. I have also reached out to other school models that have proven to be very effective in terms of social, academic, and cultural growth and proficiency, including charter schools, alternative schools, and culturally based alternative schools through out the USA and Canada.

Cape Cod Today: The Kellogg Foundation report indicates that when there initially are few fluent language-speakers, many immersion programs use technology to help students’ learning. Do you see technology as an important tool in rejuvenating the Wampanoag language in an immersion school?

Mwalim: Extremely. Not just as a teaching tool, but technology is the international language and means of exchange. Students are going to need to be rooted in technology as a part of their education in general.

Cape Cod Today: Will the school use virtual learning over the Internet to supplement core curricula? Would your school offer virtual education to students living outside our geographic area now that the Commonwealth supports virtual charter programs?

Mwalim: I don't believe this is part of the plan. As an educator, I've found that virtual learning is most valuable as a supplement to face-to-face exchange, even in a low residency model.

Cape Cod Today: The MWT government – nor any Wampanoag site – is not among OpenCape’s Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs). In recent interviews with OpenCape and CapeNet officials, we heard that they may be adding additional CAIs as funding permits. High speed broadband access may be critical to the school you are forming. Has (or will) the tribal government approached OpenCape about adding a CAI fiber drop at the tribal government facility?

Mwalim: Still awaiting an answer to that myself.

Cape Cod Today: Where would the school be located? Would the MWT need to construct a new facility or was the new Tribal Government Center planned with the capacity to house a school?

Mwalim: We are still fleshing out structure, needs and funding. Space is one of the last considerations.

Cape Cod Today: If you go with a Charter, would you seek assistance from the two successful charter schools already operating on the Cape? Do you consider your school a competitor to either Sturgis or Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School?

Mwalim: I don't see either school as competition. They are both excellent schools and kudos to the students lucky enough to get in on the lottery. Several Mashpee students have attended and done quite well at Sturgis Charter School and if we are not able to get ours off the ground, I would love it if my son could go to Sturgis. I've done a couple of programs for the Lighthouse back in the day as an arts educator and loved the learning environment and experiences they provided for their students. Advise and insight will definitely be sought from both schools.

Cape Cod Today: In a recent op-ed you reported that 100% of the Mashpee Wampanoag students in Mashpee schools failed the Grade 8 MCAS mathematics exam. What is the Mashpee school district doing to ameliorate these students’ math skills? Is the tribe itself providing academic support services to these students?

Mwalim: Both the tribe and Indian Education have been providing tutoring services to students. Indian Education is a program under the Mashpee Schools, so that is considered part of their effort.

Cape Cod Today: Commonwealth Charter Schools are enrolled via open lottery. Any student can enter the lottery. Would you see non-Wampanoag students entering the lottery? Are non-Native Americans welcome at the type of school the tribe is forming?

Mwalim: I'm sure there will be applications from non-Wampanoag students and anybody who can embrace a non Euro-centric (white supremacist) school is welcome.

Cape Cod Today: We are taught that many Native American tribal cultures practice tolerance of individuals’ uniqueness and sheltering of the oppressed. If a non-Native American child was bullied or allowed to fall through the cracks of their own school system, would your school welcome him or her? Would it be a better, safer option for that child?

Mwalim: The focus of the school language school is to create generations of youth who are fluent in the language. The focus of the BIE school would be to provide a solid, safe and culturally relevant education for tribal youth.

Cape Cod Today: Where will you find teachers for the early years of the school? Would you hire teachers from traditional public schools to teach core academic subjects, with tribal teachers managing the cultural and language piece of the curriculum? Would it be necessary (or useful) to bring in teachers who have worked at other Native American schools or is cross-pollination between different tribal curricula not desirable?

Mwalim: We actually have several teachers in the tribe, many of who teach off Cape, as they are not able to find placements here. I imagine it would be a combination of tribal, non-tribal, but native and a few non-Native teachers would make up the faculty.

Cape Cod Today: We understand that there are currently not many trained teachers in the tribe. Is the tribe in a position to offer college scholarships to qualified tribal students who wish to be trained as teachers and would agree to return to teach at the tribal school?

Mwalim: There are not many "certified" teachers, but we do have trained teachers, traditional teachers and so forth. The tribe is unfortunately not in a position to offer that to any of our members and we are looking at resources to generate such opportunities.

Cape Cod Today: Where do you see education heading for children of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in three to five years?

Mwalim: In the wake of the home-coming popularity contest, called a superintendent search that we just witnessed, I would say that the tribe needs to act fast. We have a bit of window dressing and fancy dancing; or some more out-and-out flagrantly arrogant dismissal coming our way, given the recent events. Outcomes in Mashpee are fairly predictable as the same people keep getting away with the same garbage while people stand by.

The bottom line is this: accountability resides with us as community members and parents to provide for the positive social and academic development of our children. While the kudos and accomplishments of the current Quashnet School administration could be sung for days, there is the world after sixth grade seems to be the hump for most children and the biggest hump for our children. In an op ed piece, I said, "The only enemy is mediocrity, and those who militantly cultivate it." Three members of the present Mashpee School Committee have clearly embraced the stance of the enemy. We can yell day and night about the teachers, their incompetence, racism/ racial bias, etc., or we can decide enough is enough; recognize the Mashpee Public Schools for what they are, and take the educational destiny of our children into our own hands.

In short, in three to five years I hope the children of the tribe will have more choices, if nothing else.

Conclusions

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has a lot on its plate right now.

While working towards a casino in Taunton, constructing a tribal government center in Mashpee and practicing self-determination as a relatively new sovereign nation, the MWT is also working on many levels to create its own educational system for both tribal citizens and others who are not well-served by traditional education models.

With a 4% population growth in a single year and some $4.3 million in potential charter tuition at risk, the MWT is holding most of the cards for education growth on the Upper Cape and South Coast. How the tribe plays those cards will determine not only the success of tribal children but will echo through school districts across southeastern Massachusetts. If the MWT student population continues to grow as the overall population of the Upper Cape continues to fall, the disposition of Native American students over the next five years may well determine whether Mashpee remains a non-regional school district and whether other towns can maintain critical mass for many programs.

Cape Cod Today will continue to chronicle both the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s progress on establishing its new school and the collateral effect on town’s school districts.

Editor’s Note:

Following publication of this interview, we received the following email from Ms. Jessie Little Doe Baird, founder of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project:

Dear Editor,

Your post regarding the language immersion school needs some adjustment. i recommend you call the language project directly and ask for the Charter Coordinator and the Curriculum Specialist on Monday morning for accurate information. There were also several articles in the Mashpee Enterprise regarding the subject matter at hand.

In brief:

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is not opening a Charter School. The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project (WLRP) is not the tribe. The WLRP is opening a public charter Wampanoag language immersion school.

The school will open in 2015 with grades kindergarten, first and second grade with a maximum student body somewhere under 40 students. We will be adding a grade each year, but backfilling the classes such that each year, the entering students will only be kindergarteners.

Most subjects will be taught in Wampanoag. The WLRP is a non-profit that has been in existence since 1994. It has its own committee and Board of Directors. WLRP serves and is comprised of the Herring Pond Tribe, the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, and the Assonet Band of Wampanoag. WLRP is creating the charter and curriculum under a grant from the Administration for Native Americans.

You can obtain information about the WLRP and its initiatives and history at WLRP.org and you can also call the WLRP office at (508) 419-6281.

Best,

jessie little doe baird

Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project Founder

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