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ABQ Charter School Set to Expand ‘Culturally Relevant Education’ to Other Grades

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A fledgling charter school serving Native students in Albuquerque, New Mexico is poised to expand its student population.

Native American Community Academy, a small public charter school offering grades 6 through 12, this year celebrated its fourth class of high school graduates. The school, which opened in 2006 with 85 students in grades 6 and 7, next fall will welcome its first-ever incoming kindergarten class.

It’s part of a plan to expand the school to include grades k-12 in the next five years, said Anpao Duta Flying Earth, head of the school and one of its co-founders.

“We’ll grow a grade every year,” he said. “Next year we’ll have kindergarten and first grade, then as those students progress we’ll keep adding grades until we have the full k-12.”

The step marks completion of a vision more than two decades old, Flying Earth said. Twenty years ago, members of Albuquerque’s Native communities started discussing ways to better meet the unique needs of Native students. The result was Native American Community Academy, housed in the last standing building of the old Albuquerque Indian School and located across the street from the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.

Courtesy Native American Community Academy

Native American Community Academy students dress up to compete in the school’s pageant.

Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico, supports the 31st largest school district in the nation, with 142 schools scattered across 1,200 square miles. Of the district’s 87,000 students, only 4 percent are Native.

“One of the first things that came up in our preliminary discussions was the idea of holistic wellness,” Flying Earth said. “We wanted to focus not just on intellectual growth, but also take into consideration emotional wellbeing, physical health, how students are doing in terms of relationships with their families, neighborhoods and tribes.”

Now in its 10th year, NACA supports 394 students from 60 different tribes and 18 different ethnicities, Flying Earth said. Between 85 and 90 percent of the student population self-identifies as Native, and they come to the school from Albuquerque or surrounding areas, including nearby pueblos.

“I think our student body represents the full continuum of how people identify as Native Americans,” he said. “We have the whole dichotomy of students who are exploring what it means to be Native American and students who are constantly and consistently engaged in culture, language and tradition.”

NACA has gained a reputation for its consistent focus on Native culture and language, said Kara Bobroff, executive director of the school and one of its founders. Bobroff, who previously worked as a teacher and assistant principal at other schools, said a kind of “cultural fragmentation” takes place in mainstream public schools.

“Language programs often are dependent on location of the schools and available staff, and that changes by grade or school,” she said. “Even schools on reservations are not necessarily grounded in the community’s core values.”

Courtesy Native American Community Academy

Literature classes at the Native American Community Academy focus on indigenous authors.

NACA strives to offer reliable cultural education for students throughout their k-12 years. All students have access to five different Native languages, including Navajo, Lakota and Tiwa. Additionally, all required classes are viewed through a Native lens: social studies focuses on Native American history and literature classes focus on Native writings.

“Each class has its own take on the indigenous perspective,” Bobroff said. “The idea is that 90 percent of the time students are in school they’re learning about things that are relevant from the past and present and coming up with ideas about how they can be involved in their Native communities.”

It’s an approach Flying Earth calls “culturally relevant education.”

“Obviously we’re paying attention to state standards and requirements,” he said. “But we’re not compromising our culture.”

For Maggie Seawright, a 2013 graduate from NACA, the experience was life-changing. Now a junior at Dartmouth College, Seawright started attending NACA in seventh grade—the second year the school was open.

Seawright, who is Lakota, attended elementary school in Albuquerque, where she was one of three Native students.

“It was a good experience, but there was not a lot of support from the school or the system the school was in,” she said. “I had that hunger to understand my culture. I went to powwows and knew a couple of words in my language, but I really didn’t have the opportunity to explore it.”

Seawright discovered NACA at a community event and, though she was only 11 at the time, immediately asked to be enrolled. That decision has shaped her life, she said.

“I got to take classes in my Lakota language, but it didn’t dawn on me until later that this was an amazing opportunity,” she said. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today with knowing my language or having the connection with my ancestors.”