Stories from the Indie Charter Symposium in Albuquerque

Updated: Dec 6, 2019

I recently returned from the 2019 Independent Charter School Symposium in Albuquerque, New Mexico and it was extraordinary. The range of topics, the variety of schools represented, and the generosity and warmth of Albuquerque all resulted in a rich, thought provoking three days. Those who stayed one more day had the option of visiting four truly innovative schools. This school visit gave us the chance to see transformative educational practices in action.

The four schools are entirely different from one another, except in two essential ways: All of these schools are focused on providing a rich, challenging education for all students. And all of these schools actively engage in reflection, collaboration and conversation, continuously adjusting their practices to better serve children, families, and the community. Teachers and administrators discuss this process openly and confidently. There is no one-recipe-fits-all anywhere in sight, no apparent compliance with a formula. Other than that, the four schools could not have been more different!

Our first visit was to the Albuquerque Sign Language Academy, an inspiring and motivating charter. How could this kind of school be possible in my state?

We were welcomed by students and adults and offered breakfast while we were introduced by the school’s director, Rafe Martinez to the history and development of a school born from the needs of the community and the fierce determination of parents to make sure their children had the best education. Before the school was formed the state offered pre-K and K for children deemed unable to hear in 5 New Mexico cities, and then shipping them off to a residential school in Santa Fe. Those options broke up families and did not include services for students with other learning challenges. ASLA keeps hearing and deaf children together in an inclusive environment.

We were escorted on our tour of the school by two confident kids who both signed and spoke in English, answering questions and explaining what was happening in each room. Some of the young people working turned out to be graduates of the school.

One issue they struggle with is that there are no colleges training teachers to work in a dual language environment like this, and to build community with children having an enormous range of abilities and challenges. So they are developing their own training and working with other institutions to expand even further. The Academy manages to be a creative, joyful place despite the entirely inadequate quarters. Indeed, Rafe told us they had just been named the area school with the most need for a new facility. I hope that happens soon.

We then went on to Explore Academy.

For the first time in a long time I wanted to be a teacher again.

Indeed, we were told that teachers only left when they retired from teaching. I can understand why.

The above description of Explore is clear, but perhaps doesn’t communicate the sense I had of entering a bustling hive: lots of people happily busy. Upon arrival they handed us the hefty book of seminars and flavors (class themes) that the students choose from to build their unique curriculum every month.

The innovation of this curriculum became clear in a math class. The teacher and students were busy with angle measurements and comparisons, but they stopped long enough to explain how the seminar worked. Students knew what math standards were addressed throughout the whole course, which itself lasts a month. Over the next few weeks they would study repeating patterns, changing dimensions, stage settings, and mural designs to learn these standards. Then, they choose a project, complete it, and report on it. In the report, students identify which of the standards their project meets, why, and which it does not meet and why. Imagine using standards in this productive way.

When asked by one of the visitors why they chose this school, one boy talked about how he felt more confident here. Another student responded that her chronic condition causes absences, and Explore Academy supports her when she cannot be present by allowing her to participate digitally.

The next school was the Native American Community Academy (NACA). We were too late to see elementary students in class but we did meet them later on the playground.

Again we were greeted warmly and told about the history and development of a school committed to creating a positive and inspiring learning community.

The core values of NACA recognize that education is more than academic training and should address language, culture, personal wellness, as well as family and community connectivity. In one history class we observed, Columbus was on trial, with the teacher as prosecutor and students serving on the defence team or as jurors. The posters and bookshelves were not bland and levelled products but a rich collection of Native American poets, writers, artists and historians. In another class students were wrestling with the motivations of a Sherman Alexie character. Out on the playground, younger kids warned us about the mud and told us about their garden.

We had been traveling in a rather luxurious bus but from NACA it was a short walk to our scheduled lunch at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center https://www.indianpueblo.org/ Great food but I suffered a sudden longing as we only had time to eat and then move on to the next school.

The last school visit of the day was to the Public Academy for Performing Arts, or PAPA. We were met at the door by a band of guitar players and their mascot, a panda (no need for fierce animals when you don’t have sports teams, we were told).

We were handed bags including a water bottle and ushered into a round room with a domed ceiling and a wooden platform floor. The three collaborating teachers explained that we were going to see a number from the broadway musical they would present in April. A few dozen students appeared and performed. We then separated into groups for school tours, led by students. We learned that all the classes included mixed age groups. My group got to watch a modern dance class warming up, a film teacher and two students who were waiting to show us clips from a senior project vampire movie, and a chorus. The school, located in a former elementary school, has no theater of its own – but that doesn’t stop them. Only a small proportion of the students plan to go into the arts after they graduate. It is certain that the focus builds confidence, persistence and communication skills, regardless of what subject students go on to study.

These visits demonstrated the power of independent, self-managed charters. At each site we witnessed committed teachers and curious students eager to attend school every day. This serves as a reminder that education works best when it is dynamic and created in response to the needs of a community instead of replicated across sites. All in all, the school visits closed us out of the conference with remarkable examples of the schools that CPICS represents.

Dorothy Bukantz has worked as a classroom storyteller in independent and charter K-5 schools and informal settings for more than 45 years.


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