In a striking white building on Indian School Road in Albuquerque, New Mexico, small groups of Native American students excitedly fiddle with batteries, tiny light bulbs, wires and metal lids, laughing together while learning about electricity. Other classrooms throughout the building echo with passionate readings of Native American poetry, the scratching of colored pencils tracing family trees and boisterous Lakota language games.Decades ago this historic structure housed the Albuquerque Indian School, one of many controversial boarding schools established to forcibly assimilate Native American children, but it has now been transformed into the Native American Community Academy (NACA). Established in 2006, NACA has embodied a growing movement of educators and academic leaders dedicated to maintaining the cultural identity of Native American students while preparing them to excel academically and in life.
“NACA has given me a lot of confidence to be who I am and to step up as a leader,” said Maggie Seawright, a junior at NACA’s high school, which is located on the University of New Mexico campus. “Exploring our history, our language and celebrating our cultures has helped me strengthen my identity. And it has challenged me to learn more.”
NACA provides an environment where students can learn about, and be proud of, their history and cultures. These elements are integrated into every aspect of the school’s curriculum, and the effect on academic achievement is evident in their students’ success. NACA graduates have gone to universities across the country, from Yale to the University of New Mexico, and many of them will become the first generation in their families to graduate from college.
After the school first launched, the flood of national and international interest made it clear: this was a model that could redefine and inspire indigenous education. Nationally, many Native Americans struggle with low academic achievement (only about half graduate from high school), high rates of poverty and alarming rates of suicide among their youth.
“There was so much excitement about the school and we were constantly getting questions about how people could start to do this in their communities. We wanted to share what we were learning, so we decided to start the NACA Fellowship,” says Kara Bobroff, NACA’s founder and principal.
With the support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), the fellowship began as an intensive professional development program that allowed educators and school leaders to work alongside NACA teachers to gain skills and experience. But people wanted to spread what they were learning farther. So five years and 35 participants later, the effort has now evolved into the NACA Inspired Schools Network (NISN), which now also serves as a comprehensive incubator to launch more community-led schools that serve Native American students throughout the state, and eventually the country.
The NISN is an exciting step in training a new generation of leaders who will create culturally-based schools and programs to meet the needs of Native American students. The three-year fellowship provides an intensive residency year to delve into school design, community engagement and transformative educational innovation, while progressively building upon each year to ensure each fellow is prepared to launch his or her own school.
“This is where the rubber really meets the road, where the larger vision meets the practical,” said Anpao Duta Flying Earth, associate director of NACA. “We’re equipping these leaders to ensure their schools are successful, which takes a lot of planning and thoughtfulness. From the budget to class structures, we support them in being very intentional and grounded in values.”
Beyond the impressive development opportunities and program support, Bobroff says one of the most important contributions of the fellowship is the emphasis on engaging the communities where the schools will open. NISN fellows partner with families, local organizations and community leaders to listen to their concerns, values and their vision for how education can be a transformative power for children and for their communities.
“We’re excited about the next generation of how the education of our children will be developed and realized. The next wave is shifting to community-designed schools and community-led networks, creating stronger and more sustainable education,” said Bobroff. “We’re aiming for 10 new schools in New Mexico by 2017 that embody excellence and relevance for Native American students.”
Though the fellowship itself will be small, serving five to 10 NISN fellows at a time, the NACA team is working on multiple efforts to advance the frontlines of indigenous education. Not only will they continue to share their learning and connect native educators through a new online network, but they’ve also developed an alternative licensing program with the Central New Mexico Community College. The program, called Growing Educators for Native American Communities (GENAC), began in 2011 and trains teachers in the approaches they need to teach Native American students, embracing their history, cultures and values.
These programs are yielding incredible leaders and continuing to grow. Several fellows and GENAC students have come back to work at NACA, while others are have gone on to other communities.
Gavin Sosa served as a NACA Leadership Fellow and, with the guidance of his design team and the local Native American community, will open the K-8 Dream Diné Charter School in Shiprock, New Mexico, this fall. By engaging the elders and native families in the community, Sosa built support around a unique curriculum that combines the culture and history of the Navajo Nation with typical academic subjects. Students will be taught in both Navajo and English so that they are equally fluent in both languages. School leaders hope to create a new generation of Navajo students – those who can sustain their culture while also excelling in school.
“We’re really starting to see what excellence and relevance in native education can mean,” Bobroff said. “It’s an amazing opportunity right now to completely rethink the whole system and how we can have a lasting impact, not just on our students, but in all our communities for generations to come.”