Bringing Native Students Together Is Goal of New Charter School

After Terri Bissonette visited the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, she said she knew Denver needed its own Indigenous-focused charter school with a curriculum that brings Native students together.

“Our focus is on indigenous kids,” the Denver-based educator said. “One of the reasons why we need the school, why we created the school, is so that our families could start to become more connected to their culture.”

The Denver Public Schools Board approved the charter for the American Indian Academy of Denver for 6th-8th graders, with an anticipated opening of fall 2020. For now, the focus is on building community, with AIAD holding several events for Native families this summer. 

In August of 2019, the I Am Denver team tagged along for a campout at Tall Bull Memorial Grounds in Daniel’s Park, where we spoke to Terri and campers about the school, what it means to identify as Native American and why getting the community to come together is so important.

AIAD's Philosophy and Mission

I actually did a site visit to the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They are a highly successful public charter school. Their curriculum, their approach is through the lens, through the Indigenous lens. And when I went down to see that school in 2015 — I am a certified teacher, I'm an educator — I was just blown away with the things that I was seeing there. And so, I came back here to Denver and had a lot of conversations with community members, with parents, with elders, with kids, asking them, ‘Do you think that we need a Native charter school or a Native school here in Denver?’ And the answer was resoundingly ‘Yes!’ And so we started the process.

We are a community driven school, so we are constantly going to our community to get feedback and to ask for guidance with what things should be present in the school. I am a fellow now with the Native American Community Academy, so I frequently go down to Albuquerque to receive professional development training in indigenous leadership and also Indigenous education. Outreach for our school is extremely important and it's really critical to our mission.

The Indigenous definition of wellness is always within community. None of us as individuals can fully consider ourselves well until we are contributing to the wellness of our entire community. So, we are constantly reaching out to different community organizations and also individuals, families, all of the time.

We have a philosophy. We really do believe that as Indigenous people, we are inclusive of all Indigenous people of North America. So, it's not just federally recognized tribes, but it's also the tribal affiliations that may happen to be south of the border or north of the border as well. And so, we work a lot on how do we, how can we be inclusive of all those groups but also still honor individual differences. And we work really hard at doing that.

We are targeting families, we are a school of "yet" and "and." You know, our kids may not be able to do something yet, but we will always want to have high expectations and give that message that they are capable of doing anything that they want to do, anything that's put in front of them. We are a school of "and" meaning that we have a focus on cultural identity and academic preparedness. So we believe all students would benefit from coming to our school. However, our focus is on Indigenous kids.

The Native American students in [Denver Public Schools] do not do very well. The graduation rate hovers around 50%, and the Latino population hovers around maybe 67%. And so those are our target populations, those two populations. Native American graduation rates are the lowest in the country. So DPS is not unique. It is nothing special… It’s a very complicated and complex issue. Our history of education, to be honest, has been a very violent one. We were forced to go to boarding schools for almost a hundred years. And when you're a population that goes through that kind of trauma, it kind of sets up just continual, perpetual challenges in being in these school systems. And so that is really one of the biggest reasons why we believe these types of schools — you know, the school, like NACA in Albuquerque, our school, there's also some other schools that are NACA-inspired schools — are so important because they allow our kids to celebrate their culture while also being kids in the 21st century. And that's really, really important.