Tribal Language School Seeks To Grow


Members of the Mashpee School Committee and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council discussed the potential formal recognition by the school committee of the tribe’s early childhood Montessori language immersion classroom.

The discussion took place during the Mashpee School Committee’s second meeting with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council Wednesday evening, June 6, at the Mashpee Wampanoag Community and Government Center on Great Neck Road South.

The first meeting, in October, marked the first time the school committee held its regular Wednesday meeting on sovereign Mashpee Wampanoag land.

The shared conversations aim to promote a spirit of inclusiveness and partnership between the school district and the tribe, said school committee member Nicole D. Bartlett, who worked with Patricia Keli’inui, the tribe’s public relations and communications manager, to arrange the meetings.

New school committee chairman Christopher C. Santos called the meetings “a very big step forward” in opening lines of communication.

Before the discussion about the Montessori school recognition, Superintendent Patricia M. DeBoer and Nitana Hicks Greendeer, the tribe’s director of education, shared highlights of the growing partnership between the schools and the tribe since the October meeting.

Carla A. Riley, coordinator of the Mashpee Public Schools Indian Education Program, also provided an update. Ms. Riley introduced Autumn Jackson, a junior at Mashpee High School, who proposed the idea of creating a canoe-shaped wooden planter and bench near the high school entrance as part of a plan to create Wampanoag-related student installations at each of the three schools.

The superintendent and school principals will discuss the project, which might be Autumn’s senior project next year, Mr. Santos said.

Among the highlights were the expansion this September of Wôpanâak language classes at Mashpee Middle-High School, which launched at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, to include a new level 2 course and to allow 8th graders to join the existing level 1 course.

Ms. DeBoer also noted a professional development program for Mashpee teachers and administrators led by Jessie (Little Doe) Baird, vice chairman of the tribal council.

In addition to Mashpee High School basketball games at the tribe’s government and community center earlier this year as well as guest speakers from the tribe at the schools and history-themed field trips, Quashnet Elementary School hosted a Wampanoag Day in March and Kenneth C. Coombs School recently hosted a Wampanoag Culture Week.

The Coombs school hopes to create a seasonal event celebrating Wampanoag culture, said Assistant Principal Scott I. Shepherd, who is a tribal member.

“We need to express who we are as a tribe and as Wampanoags,” he said.

“The first year [of the partnership between the schools and the tribe] has yielded a lot more than I expected,” Ms. Baird said. “It’s been very successful. The town could look at this as a model.”

David W. Weeden, a member of the tribal council and the Mashpee Planning Board, said he was impressed by the attentiveness and respect shown by the Mashpee students during his visits to the schools.

He urged the school administrators to look for opportunities to involve tribal students in science, technology, math and engineering-based programming in the younger grades. Education in these subjects could lead to lucrative jobs and careers on Cape Cod in fields such as fish and wildlife, forestry management and ecology, he said.

Ms. Bartlett thanked all those who helped to put the meetings together and to grow the partnership.

“It shows that we’re walking the walk,” she said.

Ms. Baird agreed, saying that the two groups are not only relaying information but also “listening and being responsive to one another.”

“And we’re acting on it,” she said. “That’s what we’ve done so successfully this year.”

During the discussion about the tribe’s early childhood Montessori language immersion classroom, which is called Mukayuhsak Weekuw: The Children’s House, program director Jennifer Weston provided the school committee with a detailed overview of the “federally funded language nest” operated by the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, on tribal grounds.

The tribe initially launched Mukayuhsak Weekuw at a site in North Falmouth in September 2016 with 12 students, as part of an effort to revitalize the Wôpanâak language, which had not been regularly spoken for more than a century.

The private school, which has seven full-time teachers, follows a hands-on Montessori philosophy and serves preschool and kindergarten children (ages 2.9 to 6) who live in Wampanoag households where families use the Wôpanâak language together every day, Ms. Weston said.

“Mukayuhsak Weekuw is not yet accredited,” she said, “but we hold our teachers to high standards for training and certifications.”

Since most students at the school will attend Mashpee public schools as of grade 1, Ms. Weston said her team provides documentation of its curriculum to the school district on how its instructional techniques align with state Common Core standards.

Ms. Weston said the school is planning to grow to serve lower elementary (grades 1 to 3) students in the near future, with the hope of adding grade 1 in September.

Receiving recognition from the local school committee is the state's regulatory process for private schools, she said, but if that does not happen by September, tribal parents who wish to keep their soon-to-be 1st graders in Mukayuhsak Weekuw next year are considering going through the approval process under the state’s homeschooling guidelines.

“We’re looking for recognition from the local school committee, not approval, since the school is on sovereign land,” she said.

Ms. Weston requested that the school committee grant their recognition by the end of the year and ideally by the start of school in September.

By Steven Withrow, Mashpee Enterprise