Published: May 31, 2019

This year, students enrolled in personal wellness classes at the Native American Community Academy (NACA) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, took a different kind of final exam.

The young learners at this middle and high school in the heart of the Southwest collected herbs and other plants from the surrounding region. They then learned how to distill those ingredients into traditional teas and compresses—following medicinal recipes used for generations by the region’s native peoples.

It’s par for the course at this public school where more than 90% of students are Native American, said teacher Reed Bobroff.

NACA asks "how can we actively use the teachings of our ancestors to help our students develop as healthy and competent native people,” he said.

That mix of indigenous knowledge with state curriculum standards also is one reason why the school caught the eye of researchers at the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) based at CU Boulder's School of Education.

In May, the center designated NACA as one of seven 2018–19 Schools of Opportunity. This recognition program for public high schools, now in its fourth year, pursues a not-so-easy to answer question, said Adam York, a research associate at the NEPC: How can school's close the "oppotunity gap" for students, or the idea that not all kids have access to a good education?

2018–19 Schools of Opportunity

This year’s honorees cross the United States from seaside Maine to urban Los Angeles. But they all have something in common. Like NACA, these schools stretch their limited resources to provide meaningful and challenging learning opportunities to all of their students, not just a few gifted pupils.

“They’re pushing back on the ways in which the mainstream media talks about schools,” York said. “These stories are showing how schools do many amazing things in the face of the challenges from an inequitable society.”

Opportunity gaps

When the Schools of Opportunity first launched in 2015, York said the idea was to recognize a different kind of successful school.

He explained the project doesn’t look at standardized tests scores when evaluating places of learning—data that tends to favor schools from affluent communities.

Instead, the project recognizes schools that deliver opportunities that research suggests do the most good for students, despite imperfect circumstances. Many Schools of Opportunity—there are now 52 in all—have a large percentage of students who receive free and reduced lunches. Others serve heavily immigrant or refugee communities.

“We wanted to explore what it would mean if we recognized schools for the ways they were addressing opportunity gaps,” said Linda Molner Kelley, co-director of the project and a former director of Outreach and Engagement at CU Boulder. “What are the things the schools can do to address some of the discrepancies in education?”

The program evaluates possible Schools of Opportunity based on 10 criteria drawn from rigorous research. They include how schools “create and maintain a healthy school culture” and “provide rich, supportive opportunities for students with special needs.”

But, Kelley added, these schools have also taken a number of different paths toward meeting the same guidelines.

Some, such as this year’s Clark Street Community School in Middleton, Wisconsin, have gotten rid of grades entirely. Others, such as the Salt Lake Center for Science Education in Salt Lake City, encourage their students to get outside and explore nature.

“There is no single profile for these schools,” Kelley said. “They meet the criteria because they know their local contexts, and they’re working with their communities to use their resources to do things a little bit differently for the students and their families.”

Student wellness

Schools of Opportunity don’t receive extra funding for their recognition. But Kelley and her colleagues hope they will serve as role models for their peers across the country—showcasing the creative ways high schools can use their slim funds to meet the needs of their pupils.

One of this year’s honorees, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Early College in Denver, is a prime example. Less than two decades ago, MLK, located in a mainly Hispanic and black neighborhood of the city, had gained a reputation as one of the worst schools in Colorado. Today, its graduation rates far exceed the Denver average. 

Principal Kimberly Grayson credits that turnaround, in part, to the school’s focus on being “trauma informed.” In recent years, she has hired three full-time mental health professionals to help her students navigate complicated problems—from losing loved ones to seeing their parents get deported.

“If I truly care about my kids, I can’t ask them to go into a classroom and forget their baggage,” Grayson said.

She hopes other high schools across Colorado will take note. “To see the school come so far and to have this recognition means the world to us,” Grayson said.

NACA’s Reed Bobroff echoes those sentiments. As a young man, he was part of the school’s first graduating class and has since returned as its arts integration coordinator.

“I’m super excited for this opportunity,” he said. “I know how hard our teachers and staff work to create a school that balances our own traditions and the Western educational tradition.”

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