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.

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.

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.

The rally will include a remembrance of the massacre, which occurred when U.S. soldiers attacked a camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho people in southeastern Colorado territory, killing more than 200.

Some of the speakers on Monday wore shirts that read “DPS has a strange way of celebrating Native American Heritage month.” Students spoke about how they feel supported at the school and how they are able to learn more about their heritage and culture.

Veronica Lightning Horse Perez said her son, who is a seventh-grader at the school, experienced bullying at other schools because of his long hair and was told to cut it.

American Indian Academy of Denver teachers understand her son’s beliefs and spirituality and his grades have improved, she said in an interview.

“My boy’s thriving,” Perez said, adding, “They know what he’s been through because they’ve been through it.”

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