Program Making a Difference
“The definition of ‘posse’ is a group of people who come together for a common goal,” explained Paula Harp, director of the Partnership of Summer School Education (POSSE) program and the Making a Difference program at the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
Harp smiled as she described just what the POSSE program does for the youth of Durant and the surrounding area. It is evident the name given to the program is an appropriate fit.
“The main goal of the Partnership of Summer School Education program is to provide academic remediation to students in grades pre-k through second grade,” stated Harp. “It is the goal of the Choctaw Nation to provide a culturally enriched, safe and positive atmosphere for the students that participate in the summer school program.”
POSSE is available for eligible children pre-k through second grade, who attend school Monday through Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. as well as the “Jump Start to Kindergarten” group of students, who attend class Monday through Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to noon. It is a seven-week-long program, held at Washington Irving Elementary School in Durant, which began June 3 and will end July 25.
The selection of students to be accepted into POSSE is based on teacher recommendation and test scores; Choctaw tribal membership is not required. If the student is having trouble with reading or math during the school year, the teacher will suggest to Harp they need to be admitted into the summer school program.
Harp continued illustrating the goals of POSSE by listing examples of how the staff and educators conduct themselves: they work to inspire and empower the students; build on the strengths of the community; applaud students’ achievements; expand resources; work with communities, schools and organizations in the geographic service area; and plan, implement, expand, coordinate and evaluate the program itself.
According to Harp, the program has several objectives. The children will grow academically through remediation in reading and math; grow socially through cultural services provided; develop emotionally through the afternoon educational activities; feel safe and secure while being supervised by a competent and caring staff; and benefit in a positive manner as they are taught caring and cooperative attitudes.
“We currently have 184 students enrolled in the summer school,” said Harp.
Harp works closely with Durant School administration and staff to develop the curriculum for the summer school, in which she has an advantage because of her background. “Since I am a former teacher, it helps me a lot, because I know what the school day is like,” and since Harp was once a teacher from Durant ISD, the teachers she is now working with are some of her good friends. “We have a great working relationship; we just kind of know what the other is thinking and what we need to do.”
The Choctaw Nation helps with funding POSSE, providing the school with half of the needed funds. While the Nation provides funding for teachers’ salaries and supplies throughout the seven weeks, Durant ISD provides all other expenses, such as bus drivers’ salaries, bus fuel, air conditioning in the building, summer lunch program, etc.
Harp said Durant Public Schools usually accept around 300 children into kindergarten each year with about 100 of these students who have never gone to school. She described the program as being an exceptional program for children who have never experienced a school environment but are about to enter kindergarten. “Some kids, when they start kindergarten, have never been to school (pre-k) before,” she said, because it is not required. “They may or may not have been taught their alphabet, how to tie their shoes, etc.” During the seven-week period of Jump Start to Kindergarten, those areas are covered, she said. “We teach them quite a few things, so that when school starts, they are ready to go.”
Locating these children throughout the Durant area for Jump Start to Kindergarten proved to be a daunting but rewarding task. “We visited all the Head Starts and the Durant schools and found names for all Choctaw children who fit the age group,” explained Harp.
“The education department employees visited the homes of Choctaw children in the Durant school district and found Choctaw children who are going into kindergarten but have not been through pre-k,” said Harp. “We did it in one afternoon, each of us had a certain number of students to find, and we just went out and did it. It was a great group effort.”
To find children who are not Choctaw members for the Jump Start to Kindergarten program, Harp’s department organized a city-wide mail out. “We were trying to get the word out, whatever it took, we did it,” she said.
When it comes to the future of POSSE, promising plans are being made to expand the service area of the program. According to Harp, next year, the additional seven Bryan County schools will be added to the program: Achille, Caddo, Calera, Silo, Bennington, Colbert and Rock Creek Public Schools.
By the end of August, the schools are to tell her where the site of the summer school is going to be and who will serve as administrator.
“We’re not in the business of running schools, they’re the experts,” said Harp. “We are just helping to fund the extra expense.”
Harp said the success of the program with the Bryan County schools next summer will determine whether or not expansion into the 10 ½ counties will occur in 2015.
There are 85 schools that are either pre-k through eighth grade or pre-k through 12th grade in the 10 ½ county service area of the Choctaw Nation. “We’ve visited with every single one of them now, and they know what we’re going to do. They’ll have a choice,” said Harp. “Some schools may already have a summer school program,” she continued, “but the Choctaw Nation will help with funding if they choose to be a part of the program.”
Harp said they have also spoken to other Native American tribes about starting a similar summer school program in their area. “We’re hoping the whole state will get on board, and then we can really see a change in education in southeast Oklahoma.”
The curriculum chosen for the POSSE students seems to be making an impact by providing various activities to stimulate their minds. This year’s summer school theme is “The Great Outdoor Adventure,” said Harp.
The first two weeks of summer school had a camping theme, the next two weeks an aerospace theme and the last three weeks a Native American theme, in which Choctaw storyteller Tim Tingle visited the students and provided each child with their own book.
“Each grade level has a book,” said Harp. At the end of each theme period, the students were allowed to take their books home with them.
Harp said the children take a field trip every week as well.
“They really made an impression,” Harp said of the field trip the children attended at the Choctaw Nation Recycling Center. She laughed as she told how the parents were telling her their kids came home saying, “don’t waste water,” telling them how to recycle at home, turn the lights out and clean up the environment.
While POSSE focuses on younger students, the Making a Difference program’s goal is to help Choctaw students, grades nine through 12, graduate high school and have a next step after graduation, whether that is college, a trade school, the military or going right into the workforce.
“We go to the 63 high schools in the 10 ½ counties and visit with students who are Choctaw,” said Harp. “We are trying to make sure that they graduate high school, which is our first goal.”
Once the student graduates high school, it is the Making a Difference program’s job to help them decide what is next. The program will be two years old in July, said Harp, and has the potential to reach 4,000 students.
If a student is a participant in Making a Difference, they will have the opportunity to visit college campuses if they wish to do so. “We encourage them to attend college, but we don’t force them,” said Harp, who also encourages students to attend military academies or two-year schools.
Harp said the program has come a long way the past two years in terms of research. “When we first started, this was all pencil and paper. By the time we visited the school, a student could have missed 10 days of school; since we didn’t even know, we could not help,” she explained.
According to Harp, the students are the top priority for Making a Difference. “It is the most rewarding job I have ever had,” she said. “We may be the resource that helps that student. We hope the parents and students will call us to help answer their questions.”
The program gets a multitude of calls, said Harp, whether it is a parent, grandparent, school counselor, superintendent or teacher.
There is no deadline for joining Making a Difference. Harp said they accept applications every day, but believes it is more beneficial for the student to sign up as a freshman rather than a senior.
From children in pre-k to graduating seniors in high school entering college or the workforce, the Choctaw Nation shows the priority it places on education of its tribal members and the community through POSSE and the Making a Difference Program.
If you’d like to learn more about these programs, contact Paula Harp at 580-924-8280 ext. 2452, or visit their Facebook page.