A Denver charter school focused on Indigenous education is fighting to stay open

Student Antonio Garcia speaks in favor of the American Indian Academy of Denver at a school board meeting in May 2018.
Antonio Garcia speaks in favor of the American Indian Academy of Denver at a school board meeting in May 2018.

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

The American Indian Academy of Denver opened in 2020 during the height of the pandemic with a goal of educating 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 Denver charter schools. Like AIAD, many opened with a vision of providing a unique educational model but struggled to build sustainable schools.

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

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

Students and staff are fighting back. At a school board meeting last month, they pleaded with board of education members to recognize the school’s value. 

“The school has many great opportunities for students to learn about their culture as a Native American and their history,” said student Joy Keene. “This school is very different from other schools. Even though it is small, all the teachers listen to you.”

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

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

School’s academic, staffing woes laid bare

AIAD was unanimously and enthusiastically approved by the Denver school board in 2018. The school planned to focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math, and 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’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said in 2018. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

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

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

The most recent notice, issued in mid-October, is the most extensive. 

AIAD had just 134 students as of last month, about half what was projected, the notice says, and a budget shortfall of $820,000, making it hard for the school to hire necessary staff. 

Among the other concerns identified in the notice: 

  • Low test scores. Just 1% of AIAD middle students scored proficient or above in math on last spring’s state tests, and 14% scored proficient or above in reading.
  • Disruptive behaviors and low student engagement. A report from a site visit in April noted that less than half of the students were consistently engaged in learning and 20% or more had their heads down or were sleeping, had headphones on while teachers were talking, or were having side conversations.
  • A high number of students transferring out of the school. Last year, 28 students, or nearly 20% of the school population, transferred out mid-year.
  • Not enough mental health staff, such as psychologists and social workers. The notice says leaders are concerned about “the number of students presenting with suicide risk or other safety risks that are going unidentified.”
  • High turnover of licensed special education staff and paraprofessionals, which the notice says may lead to students not having their needs recognized or met.
  • An over-reliance on fundraising to fill budget gaps. The notice says that such funds are often one-time grants or reimbursements, which are not sustainable.

School’s charter could be revoked

The school’s contract runs through June 30, 2024. But the district may revoke AIAD’s charter at the end of any semester for a host of reasons, including financial insolvency. 

Guyer said the district hasn’t yet recommended doing that, but a critical deadline is looming. Unless AIAD raises $428,000 by January, the latest notice says, the school will run out of cash and be unable to make payroll or operate the school.

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

“Equity would be supporting the most vulnerable population in the way that we need it,” Bissonette said. “The treatment we’ve experienced in the last two months is a direct example of institutionalized racism. We are a small population. We are easy to steamroll.”

AIAD’s possible shutdown is separate from the more high-profile recommendation to close 10 elementary and middle schools. Those schools are run by the district, and Superintendent Alex Marrero recommended closing them because of declining enrollment.

However, AIAD’s struggles do fit a larger pattern. Charter schools — which are publicly funded and authorized by the district but run independently — are also struggling with enrollment. Twelve other Denver charter schools have closed in the past five years, and another school, STRIVE Prep - Lake middle school, will close at the end of this school year. 

All thirteen of those charter schools essentially closed voluntarily. The situation with AIAD is potentially different in that the district could force the closure.

Parents and students praise AIAD’s work

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 two Indigenous languages AIAD teaches. Lakota is the other. 

The languages are just one example of the unique programming AIAD provides, 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 acknowledgements to local parks, she said.

Last month, she said, students participated in a traditional buffalo harvest in partnership with the Denver parks department, which maintains two bison herds outside of the city.

AIAD also offers audio production through the local nonprofit Youth on Record and theater classes through Su Teatro, one of the oldest Chicano theaters in the country. 

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

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

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

“Students need to celebrate their ethnic heritage and feel pride in their heritage,” said Trujillo, who is not affiliated with AIAD. “Once you have that, you can focus on your academic identity.”

Those positive links with Indigenous heritage is what Christina Zaldivar, whose family is Southern Ute and Navajo, said her seventh grade son was missing at his last middle school, where other students bullied him for having long hair. The teachers were sympathetic, she said, but they didn’t stop other kids from pulling her son’s ponytail. 

At AIAD, she said, “My son has had no issues from the beginning of the year because everybody looks the same.” At AIAD, she said, her children feel safe and loved.

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

“This is the work we said we were going to do,” she said, “and we are, in fact, doing it.”

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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