The value that Native American nations place on deliberative experiential learning and oral reflection often is opposed to traditional practices in US schools. The inherent differences between those cultural approaches to learning have contributed to the large achievement gap between Native American schools and traditional public schools. Students who are Native American may attend schools on their reservations or public schools, where differences in cultural learning styles may not be addressed because the schools enroll few Native American students. (For example, only 5% of all Albuquerque [NM] Public School students are Native American.)
With those realities in mind, the Native American Community Academy (NACA) was founded in 2006 to create a school for Native American students in Albuquerque that would integrate personal wellness and cultural identity with academic success. It was the first collaborative charter school in New Mexico, and it is the only urban public charter school in the state that is designed to serve the academic, cultural, and wellness needs of Native American youth. The Native American Community Academy is a grades 6–12 Title 1 school that is located on two campuses. Grades 6–10 share facilities with an Albuquerque Public School middle school; grades 10–12 are housed in the law school on the University of New Mexico campus. Ninety-five percent of the 415 students are Native American, and they represent more than 50 tribes, including Apache, Cherokee, Cochiti, Lakota, Navajo, Taos, Tiwa, and Zuni. The creation of the school was based on the collaborative planning of parents, educators, and community leaders. According to Principal Kara Bobroff, “Our vision is of a thriving and dynamic community where students, educators, families, and Native community leaders come together, creating a place for students to grow, become leaders, and prepare to excel in both college and life in general. The NACA community designed an experience that helps students incorporate wellness and healthy life practices, community service, and an appreciation of cultural diversity into their lives.”
|Native American Community Academy
|Principal: Kara Bobroff
American Indian/Alaska Native: 95%
Black/African American: 1%
English language learners: 30%
Free or reduced-price meals eligible: 82%
Special education: 20%
Note: Demographic data was provided by school in spring 2012.
The school is guided by the belief that Native American students thrive in academic environments that include and value their languages, histories, heritages, and cultures. From that vision grew the requirements for Native American language study—Ds are not accepted for credit and each student must complete six hours of college credit prior to graduation.
Just as cultural stories are central to understanding the rich history and traditions of Native Americans, students’ personal stories are a key to understanding the school’s impact. Student after student speaks openly of feeling inferior, bored, and isolated at previous schools, whether they were public or parochial or on the reservation. Statistics support the grim assessment that Native American students struggle more than their peers. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation (2010), 13% of Native American teens in New Mexico are not in school and are not high school graduates, compared with the national average of 6%. Faircloth and Tippeconnic (2010) report that only 45% of Native American students in New Mexico graduate from high school on time, a lower percentage than all other races and ethnicities.
The school’s mission was to write a new story for Native American youth that is filled with hope and opportunity. After six years, students of all ages clearly articulate how different school is for them; how they feel a sense of pride when they freely express their identity; how they have learned to respect all other cultures; and most important of all, how they see a future built on a college education. Students express gratitude for being in an education setting that connects their individual background and culture to their academics. They see where they fit in—an essential variable for teenagers.
Core Values Drive Instruction and Operations
Every facet of the Native American Community Academy is grounded in the school’s core values. A close look at each value followed by implementation strategies illustrates how students and staff members live, work, and learn together as a community.
Connecting to College
Supporting first-time college-going students as they transition from high school to college presents many challenges for schools. These challenges arise earlier at Native American Community Academy because each student is required to complete at least six college credits before receiving a high school diploma, and many students start their dual-enrollment classes in the 10th grade. Close working relationships with the University of New Mexico and Central New Mexico Community College are vital to ensuring that every student succeeds. The school’s College Engagement Program works collaboratively with these partners to provide a comprehensive safety net that supports students and their families. The goal is to remove all barriers to attending college. The school’s schedule is flexible, transportation is provided to college campuses, and tuition is paid by the state of New Mexico.
The most unique of the programs is CNM Connect at Central New Mexico Community College. This program is aligned with the school’s core values and as such is committed to a holistic approach to student support. The partnership ensures that no high school student is isolated on the college campus and that every family learns how to support a student attending college. This coaching model eases the transition from one school to another. CNM Connect’s purpose is to help students identify their strengths, anticipate and remove barriers, navigate systems, and use resources. The seamless access to services and resources across schools makes it more likely that students will adjust to a college setting and ultimately get a college degree.
Services include everything from life coaching and learning strategies to personal financial planning and career-option exploration and everything in between. Achievement coaches work with students and their families on:
- Stress management
- Time management
- Test anxiety management
- Financial education workshops
- One-on-one financial coaching
- Creating a personal budget
- Scholarship information
- Financial aid
- Benefits screening and application help
- Public educational benefit
- Emergency food/clothing/housing
- Child care
- Legal help
- Exploration of career pathways
- Workshops on academic excellence
Source: Central New Mexico Community College. (n.d.). CNM Connect. Retrieved from www.cnm.edu/student-resources/get-help
Respect means showing your concern for harmonious relationships and honoring yourself, your peers, your family, your elders, your ancestors, your teachers, your school, your community, and your tribe/nation. People who show respect have courteous regard for others’ feelings and values. Respect helps people get along better with each other.
Students describe the school environment as one in which they “grow together” with each other and the adults around them. Parents participate in weekly parent community meetings that encourage their involvement and input. The goal is to build the capacity of parents as the students’ first educators. Parents report that the school climate provides a sense of belonging for them and their children, many who previously have been alienated from school. Community partners attribute the lack of administrative barriers and the ease of working with the school to this culture of respect. Bobroff will partner with anyone interested in working with Native American populations. In her mind, relationships are the key. This respect extends to teachers, who say that their opinions are valued and that she always takes the approach of, What is going to be most useful to us and, therefore, the students?
We are responsible to our People, past, present, and future, as well as our environment and other living things. Being responsible is a form of trustworthiness and entails being accountable for your words, actions, and conduct in all that you do.
Quarterly student-led parent conferences help students learn that they must take responsibility for their education. Seniors recall how nervous they were as sixth graders and credit their teacher advisers with “getting them through” the process. During the conferences, it is the students’ responsibility to talk about personal wellness, academic achievements, and challenges. It is the advisers’ responsibility to guide students and their parents in devising plans to meet those challenges. Those plans are long-term working documents because advisers and students are paired from first enrollment through graduation.
As the founding principal, Bobroff knew that to implement the community’s vision, she had to hire as many Native American teachers and school leaders as possible. She also recognized the need for ongoing professional development opportunities for the entire staff. To meet those responsibilities, she worked collaboratively with the University of New Mexico and Central New Mexico Community College (CNMCC) to found and host the Growing Educators for Native American Communities initiative. This initiative is a post-baccalaureate alternative teacher licensure and professional development program. Participants complete six courses (equaling 18 credit hours for secondary education and 21 for elementary) and engage in supervised field experiences at the Native American Community Academy, while developing relationships with colleagues, families, and students in their communities. A yearlong fellows program provides opportunities for new school leaders to gain hands-on experiences that they can take to other Native American communities.
We belong to the NACA community as well as the communities of our neighborhoods, cities, pueblos, reservations, and nations. This means that, along with rights, we have the responsibility to provide service to make our community a better place for all.
The principal sees the school as the center of a rich, diverse community. She understands that to support her students, the entire community must be a resource. She has been tireless in forming alliances with universities, colleges, Albuquerque Public Schools, businesses, health and social services, and Native American tribes. For example, the University of New Mexico and CNMCC support dual enrollment, alternative teacher licensure, and professional development; AmeriCorps/Vista provides tutors and offers after-school programs at the school. School-based health centers provide students with easily accessible, user-friendly, age-appropriate preventive, primary, mental, and dental health care. Behavioral and nutritional counseling are integrated with extended-day learning and family services, and the Tiwa tribe provides an instructor for the Tiwa language and culture class.
In recognition of her efforts to integrate the community with the school, Bobroff has been honored locally and nationally. Echoing Green selected Bobroff as a 2005 Fellow for her bold idea to “create a small 6–12th grade charter school that uses culturally-appropriate programs to nurture the success of the Native American population. Her remarks about the award are typical of how she views her role: “I was honored, (but) locally, I asked not to have any attention brought to the award [because] I believe it takes an entire community and team to make change. I have learned over the past seven years that there is no job too small or too large that it can’t be achieved with the support of a strong community. Being entrepreneurial to me means doing whatever it takes and drawing on all the resources you can to make a difference and demonstrating perseverance. This attitude transfers to the students who are out in the community for internships and service projects.”
We honor and value our own cultures and those of others. We recognize we are influenced by many cultures, including Indigenous, youth, and contemporary western cultures and are mindful in how this affects the development of identity.
The staff is committed to fully integrating Native American learning methods into daily instruction. This integrated curriculum includes courses in storytelling, oral traditions, community presentations, and Native American languages and literature. Curriculum advisory teams guide lesson planning using the Understanding by Design model as a planning tool to assist teachers in designing curricula and assessments that deepen students’ knowledge and understanding. Teachers work together to write and evaluate common assessments that align with state standards and the Common Core State Standards.
As the leadership team said, teachers are “expected to provide an opening and a closing to their classes that are in alignment with both best teacher practices and traditional Native American protocol. The actualization of this practice can be as simple as an acknowledgement of the students as they walk in and a ‘do-now’ exercise ending with a reflection time to end class or next steps for homework. Either way, the formal start and end of a class are held in high regard so as to enable a high level of classroom management and personalization between teacher and students.”
Indigenous people have endured because of the perseverance and determination of those that came before. We make our ancestors proud by remaining constant to a purpose, idea, or task in spite of obstacles. We engage our innate strengths and build relationships with others that support us in developing to our full potential.
The wellness program is a clear example of how a school can teach perseverance. By using a tool called the Wellness Wheel, students regularly assess their level of wellness holistically. Self-assessments are made in intellectual wellness, social-emotional wellness, community and relationship wellness, and physical wellness. This then allows staff members to engage students in conceptualizing what wellness means on a personal level to make their education more meaningful. There is a required wellness class, and students set annual wellness goals. Students use their Wellness Wheels as the basis for their quarterly parent conferences.
To sustain that emphasis, the school houses a student support services wing that provides free, culturally sensitive mental and physical health services, nutrition education, and social services. Also the school has implemented a schoolwide nutrition policy that restricts what kind of food and snacks are acceptable at school. Fast food, soda, energy drinks, and junk food are not allowed on the campus. Advisers and students regularly discuss the Wellness Wheel to look for balance in each part of the students’ lives. These concepts come to the forefront as students begin to plan for college and perseverance in the face of new challenges becomes essential. Advisers work collaboratively with the college engagement program director to help the predominantly first-generation college students and their families overcome obstacles to higher education before and after graduation.
Indigenous thinking and learning is a reflective process involving a deliberate looking inward, self-awareness, and contemplation of deeper meanings. We support this reflective practice to encourage thoughtfulness, personal growth, profound learning, and meaningful change.
Reflection is a major component of continuous improvement. The school is committed to the philosophy of the Coalition of Essential Schools, which stresses the importance of demonstrating mastery through projects and other assessments. For students, that means being able to revise goals and academic work to achieve mastery. Students report that their teachers “always want them to explain their answers and then rewrite.” They quickly add that they can count on their teachers for individual help as well as “enough time to do the work better.”
For teachers, reflection means sharing and critiquing lessons with one another. The goal, as CNMCC and NACA staff member Josh Krause said, “is to build a ‘culture of critique.’ Ultimately, the only way to do that is to have a community constantly engaged in making their work public and searching for incremental improvement in whatever that work is, for the edification of all.” Professional development in techniques of criticism is based on the work of Ron Berger in his book, An Ethic of Excellence. Krause emphasizes that the reflection process by definition is ongoing and long-term—always a work in process. Krause said that “with teachers and students both freely sharing their work, improvement does happen.”
Reflection is the value that brings the community together as a whole and reminds everyone of the need for balance to maintain emotional and intellectual health. Staff and students participate in reflection circles and staff members have their own Wellness Wheels that they use throughout the school year. The Eagle Room—a peaceful meditation space that all students, families, and staff members can use for self-reflection, meditation, and prayer—is one of the most widely utilized programs at the school that supports this value. Students who are dealing with worry, stress, trauma, or any emotional hurt may use the room anytime during or after school.
Mission + Values = Achievement and Opportunity
The entire school community is committed to preparing students academically and helping them become secure in their identity and health. The school’s core values of respect, responsibility, community/service, culture, perseverance, and reflection are woven into every classroom and program on campus. It’s reflected in professional development activities, in the professional learning communities, and in the school’s work with parents and community partners. The most important outcome of this fidelity is in the academic achievement of the students.
Educators across the state have come to view the school as a holistic model for successfully improving the academic achievement of Native Americans. The University of New Mexico has honored the principal for her innovation. When visitors come to the school seeking advice, Bobroff tells them to “go with your gut and what your heart tells you—your vision for change. Be organized; plan and assess your progress. Find those who share your dream and vision. Always remember who you are and what you are about; the rest will come with time. Life is sweet. Patience, perseverance, dedication, family, and good friends will see you through.”
- Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2010). Kids count data book. Retrieved from http://datacenter.kidscount.org/DataBook/2010/OnlineBooks/2010DataBook.pdf
- Faircloth, S. C., & Tippeconnic, J. W., III. (2010). The dropout/graduation rate crisis among American Indian and Alaska Native students: Failure to respond places the future of native peoples at risk. Retrieved from Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA website: http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu