DENVER — The sounds of a native flute broke the silence Tuesday night.
"It takes a lot of courage, a lot of energy, a lot of heart, spirit and energy to be able to do what you're doing today," a speaker said at the steps of the American Indian Academy of Denver (AIAD).
Surrounding elected tribal officials from Native American tribes, was a crowd of people ready to show their support for the school's future.
"We are seeking more support for [Denver Public Schools]. We really think that it is possible for them to do so," AIAD founder and head Dr. Terri Bissonette said.
Denver Public Schools (DPS) said the charter school is not on the board's agenda for any upcoming meetings, but it does have some documented challenges that cause concern for its future.
A unique curriculum
Bissonette said the school opened in 2020 during the pandemic, which already posed its own hurdles.
The school is known for teaching Indigenous education, with nearly two-thirds of the student body being Native American.
The sense of belonging the school has been able to provide for its 100-plus students is ever so important, she said.
"And allows a lot of our kids to really just shed the armor or the, you know, the defenses that they have to put up. And it just allows them to be kids. And I think that that's a gift that many of our kids don't have," she said.
Bissonette herself affiliates with the tribe Anishinaabe from the Great Lakes region.
In the school, they teach Lakota and languages that stem from Navajo (specifically Dené). She said it's the only school in Colorado to do so.
Issues lead to advocacy
According to a "notice of concern" memo sent from DPS to the school in October, and obtained by 9NEWS, the district has issued several notices of concern to the school over the last two years.
"The District was concerned that the school was not operating with sufficient financial reserves, as indicated by AIAD’s primary account being overdrawn in July 2021," read one notice.
Other notices include declining enrollment, understaffed mental health services, and high turnover among special education staff, among others.
Citing low student enrollment, the memo also lays out the needs that the school would have to meet to reach long-term financial sustainability, specifically with regard to paying staff.
"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," the memo read in part.
The memo concluded with the district requesting a meeting with the school's executive director and the school board "to discuss specific actions that may be taken as a result of the concerns shared in this notice."
In November, a memo obtained by 9NEWS, sent from Grant Guyer, Associate Chief of Strategic Operations to the school's board chair, laid out options for the future of AIAD.
"Given that AIAD is experiencing a significant cash shortage that may result in an inability to cover their critical expenses (i.e., payroll and facility lease) as soon as February 2023, DPS district staff has identified several possible pathways for the school," the memo read in part.
One option laid out was for the AIAD to surrender its charter. Another option was that the DPS school board vote to revoke the charter.
A third would be to renew the charter, with the memo describing that action as, "DPS board does not decide to revoke the charter, the school remains open beyond the 2022-23 school year provided they address all issues identified in the most recent notice of concern, and goes through charter renewal in fall 2023."
Other options included that the AIAD consolidate with a charter school or consolidate with another district school, but the district notes in the memo that they don't see those options as 'viable' or 'realistic.'
Fast forward to a DPS school board meeting on Nov. 28, and students, family members and other supporters of the charter school showed up for public comment in numbers to defend the future of the school.
"You have the opportunity and the responsibility to help our Indigenous children to succeed," one person said to the board.
"You already took our land, why are you trying to take our school?" Another said.
Following public comment, DPS Superintendent Dr. Alex Marrero said he and the board were "flabbergasted" that the community members were asking for the school to not be closed when he said there was no such vote or debate to do so.
"The advocacy is always welcome, but quite frankly, it's premature because no one is deliberating on a closure," he said. "The question that I think needs to be posed to the AIAD Board and all is why has the school received notices? That's an important question to ask because it speaks to what could or could not be happening at that school, followed up by how can you all support? Because clearly there is tremendous demand and need and willingness to support."
A DPS spokesperson added that no presentations have been made to the DPS superintendent about the closure of the AIAD. Also, the school is not on the agenda for the board of education for any upcoming meetings.
"Any decisions about the future of the school will be made by the board members of the American Indian Academy of Denver," a spokesperson wrote over email.
Hope for the future
Bissonette acknowledged that the school is indeed facing challenges, but said they're working to implement improvements.
"DPS has legitimate concerns about our school. we really did struggle last year. We're looking at, you know, creating a plan for instruction. We're having an outside person come in to audit our special education program to show us, you know, where the things that we need to tighten the policies, the procedures, the protocols that need to be added to make sure that we're serving our kids in special ed to the highest of our abilities," she said.
When it comes to enrollment, she argued that they have not yet had a normal recruitment season to show what they can do.
"And that's what we kept telling DPS is that please just let us have one semi-normal year to see what we can do. Unfortunately, that has not been the case," she said.
Other schools in the district have struggled with declining enrollment. Recently, a proposal to close several DPS schools was rejected by the board.
"The experience that we've had even with under enrollment, with staff turnover, all of those things – they're not unusual. There are many, many schools in Denver public schools and across the state that are experiencing those things, the treatment or the consequences that are being brought to us. That is what's unusual," she said.
Overall, Bissonette said she will continue to push for the school's future.
"We have a very active and dedicated group of parents and students that are going to ensure that the school continues in one way or another," said Bissonette.
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