ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Hidden in a corner of this city, amid a gleaming office park, strip malls, vacant lots, Interstate 40, and perhaps the city’s nicest Starbucks, is a two-story school that holds one of the country’s most promising educational models for Native American students.
The Native American Community Academy sits in New Mexico’s biggest city because that is where its students are. Today, more than 65 percent of Native Americans live in urban areas. In the Albuquerque school district, many are falling through the cracks, as invisible as the reservations that dot New Mexico’s landscape.
Despite their growing numbers, Native American students are often struggling in Albuquerque’s public schools and urban schools across the nation, advocates say. They are 237 percent more likely to drop out and less likely to graduate from high school than white students, typically lagging two to three grades behind in reading and math, according to a report released by the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators.
Over the last decade, the Native American Community Academy (NACA) has begun getting noticed because it has quietly built an educational model that is closing these achievement gaps. Now, its success is fueling the creation of similar schools around New Mexico and the country.
This fall, the NACA Inspired Schools Network will have five schools open in New Mexico, with five more on the way. The network is building these schools on NACA’s model of strong academics and college preparation that promote Native American culture, identity and community.
This charter school and its ideas did not spring from the policymakers and think tanks fighting over how to reform the nation’s education system, though it holds lessons for them.
Instead, it came from a tight-knit network of Native American organizations in Albuquerque, who started with a simple and powerful idea: They asked tribal communities and families what they wanted. Then, together, they built a middle school and a high school. From that grew a movement.
On the outside, NACA looks like any other middle school, with kids playing basketball, typing on their smartphones and gossiping on the steps of the stucco building between classes. Inside, it’s quieter, with signs of tribal culture everywhere: greetings in Navajo on doors; Native paintings along the hallways, and the school’s core values – respect; responsibility; community/service; culture; perseverance; and reflection – posted on many of the walls.
(Source: The Center on Standards & Assessment Implementation, which has more information on the topic.)
This focus on tribal identity is the heart of the Academy’s approach, which focuses on meeting students where they are, showing them the tribes they are from and getting them into college. This approach is working. Last year, 67 percent of NACA seniors graduated from high school on time, only slightly below the 69 percent statewide average for all students, and well above the 46 percent among Native students in Albuquerque Public Schools, according to a report by the NACA Inspired School Network.
“We prepare identity first,” says Leroy Silva, junior/senior dean of students and a member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation.
Since NACA opened its doors in 2006, networks of Native American families, tribes and community organizations have sustained and fueled its success.
Its ideas continue to spread through the national Native Voice Network, which is comprised of more than 30 organizations working to elevate Native American issues and have reached the Seattle-based National Urban Indian Family Coalition.
That connection inspired the Coalition to develop a new type of Freedom School, based on schools launched for Black students during the 1964 Freedom Summer but for Native American students, in five cities across the nation by 2018.
The hub that connected the Albuquerque and national networks is Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO), a grassroots organization. Early on, AIO helped NACA develop its pioneering approach and student leadership programs. Then, it shared those ideas with the National Urban Indian Family Coalition.
Achievement gaps, unfortunately, are not unique to Native American students. Across the country, Black, Latino and other students also are struggling in public schools.
If educators and policymakers are willing to listen, they could learn from NACA’s approach: its sharp focus on students’ cultural identities; its ability to connect those identities to academic work, success and college preparation; and its integration from the beginning with the communities it serves.
Tribal communities and families demanded and co-created NACA, says Anpao Duta Flying Earth, the school’s associate director/head of school, and that is why it is succeeding today.
“What we say is good for our community is actually a (model) and a framework that should be reflected for many people around the globe,” says Kara Bobroff, one of the founders of the school and its first principal.
“We intentionally and organically try to incorporate community into the ways in which we offer our educational program.”
A Different Kind of School
On a late spring school day, Tirzah Toya-Waconda is dishing out tacos and bananas to students as they emerge from classes and head for lunch and recess.
In the morning, the woman that students affectionately call grandma hands out muffins and fruit. In between, she returns to her job in the front office as its manager and parent facilitator.
At NACA, every staff member appears to hold multiple jobs. A dean of students also directs wellness programs; school directors serve as student advisers; and deans head leadership development trips to other cities and countries.
Students have visited Washington D.C., met with tribes in South Dakota and participated in ceremonies with the Indigenous in New Zealand.
“It takes all the community to help run this school,” says Toya-Waconda, whose son graduated in 2013. “Literally, we are a huge family.”
Community and food are consistent themes at NACA — the school’s signature event is its annual Community Feast — and it strives to ensure that students, teachers and parents are all well-fed.
The academy is so interconnected with tribal communities — students come from more than 60 tribes, including the Isleta Pueblo, Laguna Pueblo and Navajo Nation — that there are no clear lines where one ends and another begins.
One thing community leaders and families wanted was a school that supported a student’s whole life. Upstairs, an entire wing is dedicated to student wellness and family support, complete with a dental exam room, two social workers, individual and parent counseling and support for families struggling with housing and other issues. There is also the Eagle Room, a quiet place for “peaceful, culturally-based meditation.”
When parents identified suicide as one of their biggest concerns two years ago — it is the second leading cause of death among Native American youth between the ages of 15 and 24, according to Native Americans in Philanthropy — the school created a suicide prevention program.
A Glaring Need
The suicide prevention program is a stark reminder of the challenges many NACA students face. The vast majority of the school’s students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, some families live on $6,000 a year, and many lack a home computer.
In Albuquerque, more than one in four Native Americans live below the federal poverty line, the U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2013.
In the city’s public school system, these Native American students were getting lost, NACA officials say. With few if any students from similar backgrounds in their classes, they were disconnected from their tribal culture.
School data reflected their struggles. Among Albuquerque school district students, Native Americans not only had the lowest four-year graduation rate, at 46 percent, but also the lowest scores in reading, math and science proficiency among identified racial and ethnic groups, according to the New Mexico Public Education Department.
One of the main reasons Native students struggle in traditional public schools is that they are invisible, an unseen minority, NACA educators say.
Josh Haynes was one of those invisible students. After starting at NACA in sixth grade, Haynes left for West Mesa High School in ninth grade. There, his GPA fell to 1.8, and he found himself on track to earn a GED rather than a traditional diploma.
After his sophomore year, Haynes’ mother convinced Haynes, who is Navajo and Black, to return to NACA for his final two years of high school. At NACA, his grades rose to a 3.5 GPA and he became a state champion in the 400-meter dash.
“Honestly, man, I’ve always had this confidence,” says Haynes, who sports a tattoo on his arm declaring, “I am of this world.”
“It’s just that no one’s ever come to me to hear what I had to say.”
Haynes starts community college this fall and plans to enroll at the University New Mexico next year.
NACA was founded to give Haynes and other Native American students a place in three worlds: their tribe, their city and eventually college.
“It is the first urban charter school specifically focused on increasing the number of Native American students who choose the path of college — many as the first person in their family,” the NACA Inspired Schools Network says on its website.
“NACA integrates culture, wellness, language, community, family, and preparation for college into each child’s education, which integrates partnership with families and the larger NACA community.”
Official data tell part of the school’s success story. The academy received a “B” from the New Mexico Public Education Department on its 2015 report card, and standardized test scores among its students are rising.
Perhaps the best measure of the school’s success is the acceptance wheel that sits on the wall of its college counseling office, made up of banners from colleges that accepted NACA students: Yale University; The University of Chicago; Hampshire College; Wellesley College; New Mexico Tech and others.
Within two years of graduating from high school, 71 percent of NACA’s class of 2013 was enrolled in four-year or community college, according to a report from the NACA Inspired Schools Network, which was based on the best available data.
This success is fueling growth inside and outside the school. This fall, the academy will begin expanding from a middle and high school to a K-12 campus.
The Native American Community Academy’s success is reaching far beyond Albuquerque and even New Mexico.
Fifteen hundred miles away in Seattle, Janeen Comenote, the head of the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, was inspired by NACA’s success to launch a new generation of Freedom Schools.
The original Freedom Schools were born in 1964 as a response to school segregation in the South. These Freedom Schools were created to teach students African-American history and culture while also showing them that they could be agents of change in society, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, which resurrected these schools in the 1990s.
This newest iteration of the Freedom School will rely on NACA for inspiration and lessons, basing six-week summer schools on seven core elements: civic engagement; sovereignty; nutrition and food sovereignty; identity and culture; life skills; indigenous ecology; and a national day of social action.
Comenote has an ambitious timetable. Her team plans to spend the next 18 months creating the new Freedom Schools curriculum and then open five schools by 2018 in Seattle, Portland, Albuquerque and two other cities. Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, already have two American Indian-focused Freedom Schools, run by the Children’s Defense Fund.
Together, this new generation of Freedom Schools, the Native American Community Academy, and the growing network of NACA Inspired Schools are making Native American students more visible in big-city school districts — and more successful.
“Because we are invisible, we tend to be left out of most conversations about education…especially with the framework of big urban school networks,” Comenote says. “Efforts like NACA, are really important. It gives the student a place in the world; a sense of identity.”
Paul Nyhan is the senior writer for Equal Voice News. He has worked as a journalist at Bloomberg News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Congressional Quarterly. He has covered social policy for more than 20 years. This is a special report and part of “The Dignity of Living” series.
2016 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper