School Funding

Denver charter school focused on Indigenous education fights to stay open

A Denver charter school focused on Indigenous education is at risk of closing.

The American Indian Academy of Denver open in 2020 during the height of the pandemic in an effort to educate Indigenous students, who have long been among the most underserved in the district.

But the school is now struggling with low enrollment and a lack of funding, two factors that have doomed other charter schools in Denver. Like AIAD, many started with a vision to provide a unique educational model, but struggled to build sustainable schools.

The situation at AIAD is so dire that Denver Public Schools, which has flagged its concerns in several notices, is considering the unusual step of revoking the school’s charter.

Grant Guyer, chief of strategy and portfolio services for the district, said district leaders support the mission of the IAAD. But, he said, “there are a number of concerns that make us question the academic experience offered to students.”

Students and staff fight back. At a school board meeting last month, they pleaded with school board members to recognize the value of the school.

“The school provides many exciting opportunities for students to learn about their culture as Native Americans and their history,” said student Joy Keene. “This school is very different from other schools. Even if it’s small, all the teachers listen to you.

Terri Bissonette, the founder of the school, said the concerns about registrations and funding are legitimate. But she said the school needs — and deserves — more support from the district.

“It’s easy to shut us up and push us around, and that’s exactly what happens,” she said.

School’s academic and personnel issues laid bare

The IAAD was unanimous and enthusiastic Denver School Board Approved in 2018. The school planned to focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and science, and to teach lessons through what Bissonette described as an Indigenous lens.

For example, state standards dictate that sixth graders learn how European explorers came to North America. “When you learn this unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said in 2018. “I would take this unit and flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would come.

The school opened fully remotely in the fall of 2020, and Bissonette said the year went well. But when the students returned in person last year, she said, “we weren’t prepared for what our student body came into the building with. There was a lot of commotion. »

Over the past two school years, the district has issued four memos to the school — called “notices of concern” — that have shed light on the AIAD’s struggles.

The most recent advisory, published in mid-October, is the most comprehensive.

AIAD had just 134 students last month, about half of what was expected, the notice said, and an $820,000 budget shortfall, making it difficult for the school to hire the necessary staff. .

Among other concerns identified in the advisory:

  • Low test scores. Just 1% of middle students at AIAD scored fluently or higher in math on state tests last spring, and 14% scored fluently or higher in reading.
  • Disruptive behaviors and low student engagement. A report from a site visit in April noted that less than half of students were constantly engaged in learning and 20% or more had their heads down or slept, had headphones on while teachers spoke or had conversations. parallels.
  • A large number of students drop out of school. Last year, 28 students, or nearly 20% of the school population, transferred mid-year.
  • Not enough mental health personnel, such as psychologists and social workers. The notice says leaders are concerned about “the number of students at risk of suicide or other unidentified safety risks.”
  • High turnover of certified special education staff and paraprofessionals, which the opinion suggests could prevent students from having their needs recognized or met.
  • Overreliance on fundraising to fill budget gaps. The notice indicates that these funds are often grants or one-time reimbursements, which are not sustainable.

The school’s charter could be revoked

Schools Contract runs until June 30, 2024. But the district can revoke the AIAD’s charter at the end of any semester for a host of reasons, including financial insolvency.

Guyer said the district has not yet recommended doing so, but a critical deadline looms. Unless AIAD raises $428,000 by January, according to the latest notice, the school will run out of money and be unable to make payroll or run the school.

Bissonette said the district shares some responsibility for the AIAD’s struggles. For example, she said that the AIAD contracts with the district to serve its special education students, and she wondered why no one had sounded the alarm sooner that the AIAD was understaffed. That mistake led some families to file federal civil rights complaints against the school, she said.

“Equity would support the most vulnerable population in the way that we need,” Bissonette said. “The treatment we have endured over the past two months is a direct example of institutionalized racism. We are a small population. We are easy to steam roll.

The AIAD’s possible shutdown is separate from the more high-profile recommendation to shut down 10 primary schools and colleges. These schools are run by the district and Superintendent Alex Marrero has recommended closing them due to declining enrollment.

However, the struggles of the AIAD are part of a larger pattern. Charter schools—which are state-funded and district-licensed but independently operated—are also struggling with registration. Twelve other charter schools in Denver have closed in the past five years, and another school, STRIVE Prep – Lake middle school, will close at the end of this school year.

These thirteen charter schools have all closed voluntarily. The situation with the AIAD is potentially different in that the district could force the closure.

Parents and students praise the work of AIAD

Student Dandy Cabrera Gonzalez told the school board at the October meeting that AIAD “is the best school I have ever seen in my entire life.” Dandy is learning the Navajo language, which is one of the two native languages ​​taught by AIAD. Lakota is the other.

The languages ​​are just one example of the unique programming provided by AIAD, Bissonette said in an interview. The school also partners with county Indian education departments to send students to an overnight summer leadership camp and with parks departments to bring Indigenous knowledge and land recognition to parks. local, she said.

Last month, she said, the students participated in a traditional bison harvest in partnership with the Denver Parks Department, which maintains two out-of-town bison herds.

AIAD also offers audio production through local nonprofit Youth on Record and acting classes through Su Teatro, one of the nation’s oldest Chicano theaters.

“It’s not easy being an urban native,” Danielle Frost, mother of a seventh-grader at AIAD and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, told the school board. Often times, Indigenous culture, traditions and languages ​​get lost in big cities, she said.

“It’s so important that AIAD has a chance to succeed and give these kids and families the community that so many of our students and families lose because we live here,” Frost said.

Jenni Trujillo, dean of Fort Lewis College in Colorado, a tribal-serving institution, said one of the most important things educators can do for any student is foster a sense of belonging.

“Students should celebrate their ethnic heritage and be proud of their heritage,” said Trujillo, who is not affiliated with the AIAD. “Once you have that, you can focus on your academic identity.”

These positive connections to Indigenous heritage are what Christina Zaldivar, whose family is Southern Ute and Navajo, said her seventh-grade son missed at his last middle school, where other students bullied him for hair. long. The teachers were friendly, she says, but they didn’t stop the other kids from pulling her son’s ponytail.

At AIAD, she said: “My son hasn’t had any problems since the beginning of the year because everyone is alike.” At AIAD, she says, her children feel safe and loved.

Principal Rachel Bachmann, who worked at another school in Denver for 14 years, said she never saw her Indigenous history reflected in the curriculum until she came to AIAD.

“It’s the work we said we were going to do,” she said, “and we’re doing it, in fact.”

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at [email protected].