Denver’s Only Indigenous School Closes Doors
By Emily Maxwell
June 15, 2023
On Friday, June 2, while thousands of students and staff affiliated with Denver Public Schools were thrilled about the end of another school year, Denver’s first and only Indigenous school closed its doors for the last time.
“We opened AIAD so that we could serve the most severely underserved population in Denver Public Schools, which is our Native American and Indigenous students,” said founder Terri Bissonette.
The school taught an Indigenous-focused curriculum that sought to provide an accurate portrayal of ancestral history, gave students tools to think critically about real-life issues, and offered hands-on outdoor learning opportunities to foster a lasting relationship with land and water.
“We took a group of high school students to Hawaii over spring break. The topic of conversation for them was what are the impacts of climate change that our native Hawaiian relatives are already experiencing in Hawaii,” said Bissonette.
Photo by Emily Maxwell
It was truly a first of its kind for Colorado, where the Front Range serves as the ancestral homelands of more than 20 Native tribes. In fact, students traveled from more than 30 different zip codes to attend — some for two hours each way every day — for instruction that included Diné and Lakota language classes and Lakota life skills.
“These kids show up. We've created a safe place for them to be and a place for them to be proud of who they are,” said Bissonette. “A lot of them at the beginning were very shy … were very intimidated because they didn't realize that there is power behind knowing who they are.”
Bissonette, whose family is part of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe of the Great Lakes Region, was inspired to launch the school by the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque. Bissonette was a fellow at the public charter school, which serves approximately 97 percent Native students, in 2016.
In 2018, AIAD received charter approval within the Denver Public Schools system. A year later, they opened their doors for the 2019 school year, only to be greeted by a global pandemic months later. Bissonette and her staff made routine house calls to keep students connected during that difficult time.
Photo by Courtney Blackmer-Raynolds
When classrooms finally reopened, only two students unenrolled as a result of the pandemic, but the school struggled to grow enrollment numbers, which contributed to its closing. Next school year, students will once again be dispersed throughout the city.
“I finally feel like I have a place where I belong and where people understand me,” said tenth-grade student Autumn Whatley. “For me it's just kind of like scary thinking about going to another school where they treat you differently.”