Denver's American Indian Academy in danger of closing

American Indian Academy of Denver.jpg
Posted at 5:03 PM, Nov 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-01 20:33:02-04

DENVER — The American Indian Academy of Denver saw a drop in enrollment this year and is on track to lose thousands of dollars in per pupil funding.

“We opened in full remote during the height of the pandemic, and went to hybrid learning in January of 2021. We thought at the time, it was the most difficult year any of us as educators had ever experienced. We did very well at it, though, we were able to maintain our student population, we enjoyed about a 94% average daily attendance that year, which was unheard of,” American Indian Academy of Denver Founder and Head of School Terri Bissonette said.

Denver's American Indian Academy in danger of closing

Bissonette said staff members were not prepared for the challenges that followed the return to in-person learning.

“I think all of us as educators were grossly unprepared for the mental health challenges and the behavior challenges that our kids were experiencing. And as a new school, unfortunately, we didn't have a school culture or like a pre-pandemic school culture to fall back on,” Bissonette said. “We experienced a high staff turnover, and then had a lot of student attrition.”

Bissonette said a lot of students decided to return to schools run by Denver Public Schools.

“ I think for a couple of reasons. I think, you know, when you're in really uncertain times, it propels you to kind of go back to things that you are familiar with… that school down the street has been there for 30 years,” Bissonette said. “We were at 170 (students), at the beginning of August, we are at 135 right now.”

Bissonette said Denver Public Schools wants the school to have 152 students enrolled.

Due to low enrollment, DPS reported the school will receive $820,000 less in per pupil funding.

“I think for DPS, the biggest concern is of course, they don't want schools depending on private funding, right, you have to get to the point where you can have sustainable PPR, per pupil revenue,” Bissonette said. “Year after year, the Native American graduation rate hovers around 50%. And that has not gone away. The Native American ethnicity group, almost always is at the bottom of every achievement, test assessment, you know, academic growth, all of that kind of stuff. And so, and that continues to be so, and this school is really dedicated to academic preparedness, but within the context of cultural identity.”

“When I was living on the reservation, I went to an all indigenous school growing up. It was fun. I went to school with a bunch of my cousins. And then…when I moved from the reservation to the city. It was like, culture shock,” American Indian Academy of Denver 9th grader Marshawn Duran said.

But Duran said she feels at home at her school, where her culture is a focus.

“I've learned a bunch about my culture that I didn't know,” Duran said.

Ninth grader Tanner Flowers said he also feels at home.

“Overall, my experience has been really great here. It's one of the best schools I've ever been to,” Flowers said. “It’s very powerful for me because I get to learn about my ancestors that were indigenous. My grandma was indigenous. But, she didn't really talk about it much, she didn't like to. But I get to learn more about that,” Flowers said.

Bissonette said students learn a lot about Native American history and native languages, like Navajo.

She said she hopes to increase enrollment and continue to provide an educational space where native culture isn’t just accepted, but is celebrated.