How One District Is Improving Native American Achievement

On most days of the year, traffic in Tahlequah, Okla., is a five-minute wait at the town’s busiest intersection. But once a year, over the Labor Day weekend, this small, rural town on the easternmost edge of the state is a mob scene, as thousands of visitors stream into the area to celebrate one of the largest American Indian festivals: the Cherokee National Holiday.

This year was no different, except for the fact that the Cherokee Nation gave equal billing to Oklahoma, which is celebrating its centennial as a state. It was a notable acknowledgment, considering the history between the two.

Thriving and culturally rich, Tahlequah today shows no outward signs that it marked the end of the Trail of Tears, a sordid and shameful piece of American history where the federal government forced the relocation of 17,000 Cherokees from present-day Georgia into the territory, which later became part of Oklahoma.

“There hasn’t been a lot to brag about in the last 100 years,” says Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith, listing a series of efforts by the state to disperse the Cherokee population, sell off their lands, and withhold rightfully earned revenues from the tribe.

In fact, it hasn’t been until the last 15 years that the state and the Cherokee Nation have found some common ground, mostly in education. In 2006, Tahlequah Public Schools -- where 60 percent of the district’s 3,500 students are American Indian -- either beat or closely matched the state average in every grade and subject tested. And as a state, Oklahoma’s Native American students, which represent about 20 percent of the student population, outperformed all other American Indian students in the U.S. 

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