I always dreamed of returning to my hometown on the Walker River Paiute reservation in Nevada to be principal of my elementary school, Schurz Elementary. I never thought they would hire me – I am the first principal from the tribe in about 30 years. Now that I’m here, I am doing the most I can with whatever time I have.
When I got here last summer, none of our students had scored proficient in math on the state test, and only 6% had on the ELA test. After I read the last few school improvement plans, it’s no wonder. There, in black and white, it said that students were struggling in school because the community did not care about or see much value in education. This statement was signed off on not only by the principal, but by teachers and parents. If the adults in school are not expecting anything of our kids, why would they expect anything of themselves?
I was so upset and confused. I’m from here and I got a good education. Lots of other people from here are well accomplished – they have degrees or trades or are involved in the community. How can you blame the fact that these kids are not performing on a preconceived notion that their families don’t care about education? And why would parents endorse such a statement?
I spoke to some of the people who helped put that wording into the plan. The community just let the responsibility of education go to the school district, in every regard, because they did not feel like they had a voice. A lot of people are disenfranchised.
As for the educators and district leaders, most of the people involved in making sure those statements made it into the plan have left. We have a new superintendent now, who grew up in the district. For those who are still here, I think about what they have to gain by aligning themselves with this belief. What do I have to do to gain their favor?
Following the advice of my elders, and with support from my NYC Leadership Academy coach Patricia Hines, I am making changes, but not too quickly. At the same time, I know we don’t have much time; we have a lot to take care of now. We need to be strong and trust each other. We need to love these kids unconditionally and hold them to high expectations because I know they can do it. We just need to give them the tools.
I’ve had some wins: A few years before I came, because our school is so small, the district moved the middle school grades to a larger school 30 miles away – and the school’s entire sports program moved with them. You don’t take away sports from a small community. That killed all motivation for students who need more than academics to feel successful. With encouragement from our new superintendent, Karen Watson, we brought sports back. It’s been a good motivator for kids, and a way to bring the community in — we have home games at the tribal gym.
Meanwhile, I am working closely with the teachers to build up our instruction and our culture. Last year, teachers did not receive evaluations. I am setting expectations for lesson planning and being professional. If teachers question my decisions, that’s fine, just as long as we respect one another. I have heard about some teachers saying that Native American students cannot learn as well as white children. That’s just ignorance. All students are unique and have different learning styles. For Native American students to learn, they need their teachers to be culturally aware. I have told my staff that I have made mistakes with racism and made assumptions about groups of students, and that, when that happens, it helps a lot to say, “I’m sorry.” This is one way I am leading my teachers to become more culturally aware.
Having gone to mostly white-majority schools myself and experienced racism, I know how important it is that our kids see more people like themselves in school. I know there are many qualified native teachers across the state. I spend my weekends recruiting, looking for educators like me who want to come in and change the world. I have hired one new teacher who is from here. She has implemented some great stuff for ELA and is working with the other teachers. I have also been in contact with the Nevada State Education Association to ask about their recruitment efforts, to advocate and get that conversation going.
We also have a lot to do to help kids and adults deal with stress. Native Americans and their kids have so much historical and cultural trauma. The boarding schools that our grandparents were sent to, reservations, loss of language and our identity, struggles that we have had to endure for hundreds of years. These kids may not realize it, but they are carrying that weight of their parents and grandparents. We simply cannot ignore that. We have generations of uncles and aunts who despise the white man and western education because of the way their families were treated.
I recruited a Native American social worker who is coming on Fridays to address those traumas. Having someone like that on staff goes a long way toward helping our students and staff.
And we are getting our team trained on historical trauma and cultural competency. The staff has a trauma-focused book club. And we are bringing in facilitators to help lead conversations about culture, racism and white privilege. I can’t do this work without my own support system. Without my coach, I would be lost. I need her outside voice pushing me and my team. We need to step on the gas with this work around equity. Of course, I get pushback, including from my own people, who are thinking, “Who does this guy think he is? Is he trying to save us?” That is motivation for me.
I know that if I were to maintain the status quo of where Schurz was when I arrived in September and just do things the way I’m expected to, we would never make real change. We need to make change for the sake of every kid I see come off the bus each morning, and for all the kids who come after.
Verta joined the The Leadership Academy in 2018. Prior to that, she designed, managed, and delivered professional learning experiences and programs for sitting and aspiring school leaders at UnboundEd and New Leaders. Verta began her 20-year career in education as a teacher in Prince George’s County Public Schools, and then as a literacy specialist for the New York City Department of Education. She was principal of Bronx Arts for five years and served for several years as a leadership coach for principals and residents at New Leaders. Verta has a B.S. in communications and middle school education from James Madison University, and an M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University.