Parents, staff ask Denver Public Schools to keep American Indian Academy open


Leaders of American Indian Academy of Denver say the charter school is facing the possibility of closing as it struggles with low enrollment and a funding shortfall so great that Denver Public Schools predicts it could run out of cash in January if it doesn’t receive money via three grants it is waiting on.

Parents and students who attend the school, which opened in 2020, asked the district’s Board of Education on Monday to keep American Indian Academy of Denver open. They are also planning to rally in front of the district’s central offices Tuesday evening.

“We’re asking them for time,” said Terri Bissonette, the head of the school and a founder in an interview. “I’ve been asking them since last spring — please let us have a semi-normal year to give us some time and to regroup after this global crisis that we just lived through.”

She said the district is placing “immense” pressure on the school.

“(The district) basically told our board that unless our board agreed to surrender our charter at the end of the school year they are going to make the recommendation to have the school shut down in December,” Bissonette said.

Johanna Flood, 15, right, speaks with her mother Robin, Sicangu Lakota, by her side during public comment at a Denver Public Schools board meeting on Nov. 28, 2022. Leaders of the American Indian Academy, a charter school started in 2020, say the school is facing pressure from the district to close because of low enrollment. Dozens of parents, kids and supporters of the school turned out to voice their opposition to the possible closure. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

During Monday’s meeting, Superintendent Alex Marrero and staff acknowledged they are concerned about the school but he said there are “no plans” to revoke the American Indian Academy of Denver’s charter.

“No formal decision has been made regarding their future,” he said.

American Indian Academy of Denver enrolls sixth- to 10th-grade students — most of who are American Indian/Alaskan Native and Latino children — and teaches from an Indigenous and social justice perspective, according to its website.

In October, the district sent the school a notice outlining its concerns, which included missing enrollment projections. American Indian Academy of Denver has 134 students, which is below the projected enrollment of 260 pupils for the 2022-23 academic year.

In Colorado, school funding is tied to student enrollment. That means American Indian Academy will receive about $820,000 less than originally budgeted for in their application, according to the notice.

The school isn’t alone in facing declining enrollment. Districts across the state are facing similar situations and earlier this month DPS considered shuttering as many as 10 schools because of low enrollment. The school board ultimately voted against the closures.

“We just don’t understand why the DPS administration is coming after us so aggressively as if we’re atypical,” Bissonette said.

Kaya Duran, 15, a member of the Apache, Lakota and Navajo tribes, speaks during public comment at a Denver Public Schools board meeting on Nov. 28, 2022. Duran, who is the student body president at the the American Indian Academy, spoke emotionally about the importance of the school to her. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
Kaya Duran, 15, a member of the Apache, Lakota and Navajo tribes, speaks during public comment at a Denver Public Schools board meeting on Nov. 28, 2022. Duran, who is the student body president at American Indian Academy, spoke emotionally about the importance of the school to her. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

The district said in its notice that American Indian Academy of Denver relies heavily on fundraising, such as grants, to sustain its operations. It expects to receive $900,000 in grants this year, but only about half of that money has been committed or received by the school as of October, according to the document.

“If the school is unable to obtain the remaining $428,000, AIAD will run out of cash in January 2023, rendering them unable to meet payroll obligations or continue school operations,” according to the district’s notice.

In the document, the district also raised other concerns including low test scores, disruptive behaviors among students and high turnover among special education staff and paraprofessionals.

Bissonette acknowledged the school has had a bumpy start. The school opened during the pandemic, which hurt its ability to recruit students, and it has fallen short of its enrollment goals. Students also struggled as they returned to classes in person, a change that was even harder for them at a new school, she said.

The school hired a psychologist and social worker, which was a hit to the school’s budget, she said.

“It was very difficult of us to adequately address the needs of students,” Bissonette said, adding “We have a funding gap we need to overcome.”

Families with children at American Indian Academy of Denver are holding a rally at 6 p.m. Tuesday outside of DPS offices downtown. The school board moved its meeting to Monday, a decision the district said was made “out of respect for the history of our Native American families” because Nov. 29 is the 158th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864.

From left to right, Billie Marie Garcia, her mother Catherine Alire, both Pueblo Apache, Dustin Baird, Oglala Lakota, Kaya Duran, 15, Apache, Lakota and Navajo, Johanna Flood, 15, and her mother Robin Flood, both Sincangu Lakota, attend a Denver Public Schools board meeting on Nov. 28, 2022. The group were present in support of the Denver charter school American Indian Academy, which may close due to lower-than-expected enrollment. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)
From left to right, Billie Marie Garcia, her mother Catherine Alire, both Pueblo Apache, Dustin Baird, Oglala Lakota, Kaya Duran, 15, Apache, Lakota and Navajo, Johanna Flood, 15, and her mother Robin Flood, both Sincangu Lakota, attend a Denver Public Schools board meeting on Nov. 28, 2022. The group was present in support of the Denver charter school American Indian Academy, which may close because of enrollment and funding shortfalls. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)



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