Kara Bobroff

Inspired by Kara Bobroff

Open space.

Throughout my interview with Kara Bobroff, founder of the Native American Community Academy (NACA) and the NACA Inspired Schools Network, I kept encountering open space. I would ask a follow-up question to a point she had made and then, instead of clarifying, she would pause and carve out an adjacent point, causing me to pause instead of racing toward the next question.

In search of a clearer understanding of what indigenous education means, I posed question after question, each one more pointed. In reply, she told me a story about how the NACA staff talks about indigenous education and what it means to them. Many of the staff members themselves also ask for clear lines that indicate what indigenous education is and what it isn’t. Instead of defining it, she explained, she will affirm that each of them understands it from their own experience. Each has their own personal connection, their own story to tell. As she spoke, I realized that Bobroff’s leadership style was to accompany those on their journey of learning and creating their own meaning. Her job as a leader was to create the open space for people to engage in their own inquiry.

As she batted my questions away, opening space, I found myself spinning in a moment of disorientation and then landing with a slightly different perspective. Instead of trying to draw out her definition, I was now listening more carefully, using my heart as well as my head. What might indigenous education mean for young people at NACA trying to make sense of their world and their future? I began to listen more carefully to what it might be like to learn to take on responsibilities in my community and in my family. I opened my heart to what it might be like to build a positive identity while holding the history of my people, with all its beauty and tragedy, while navigating a world still fraught with stereotypes and discrimination that tap into the genocidal horrors of my government. I realized that Bobroff’s leadership style was in fact an invitation to participate in making meaning that shapes and re-shapes the world.

I have not encountered this type of leadership before and am not sure where it would fall in the range of leadership styles. I’m guessing that it is a form of indigenous leadership shaped by Native American cultures, where wisdom emerges and the experiences of the community create meaning. Perhaps it is a uniquely Bobroffian form of leadership. What I do know is that it needs to be recognized as a powerful leadership strategy that could be valuable in any organization – especially those that are most challenged and most need to tap into the collective wisdom and collaborative creativity of its team. Perhaps it might be called emergence leadership or connective leadership, sitting not to far from adaptive or distributive leadership.

This invitation to participate is a common theme in the development of NACA and its community-led process as well as the strategy to develop a networks of schools that are inspired rather than replicating NACA.

Assimilation is Not an Option

The launch of the Native American Community Academy was a combination of Bobroff’s personal and professional life experiences. “Growing up in Albuquerque, I didn’t have any role models or access to curriculum that allowed me to build a positive identity as a Navajo and Lakota young woman. My eyes were opened when I first encountered the history of education in the Navajo Nation when I was in college. Even though the boarding schools no longer existed, much of the philosophy still did. Assimilation was unacceptable.” And she began to wonder what a school designed around indigenous education might look like.

Her professional journey as an educator started at Jefferson Middle School in Albuquerque before moving to Marin County outside of San Francisco and then to Shiprock, New Mexico. As she climbed the career ladder to principal, she was also learning about different types of schools – education for gifted students and for those in special education; those based in affluent communities and those serving hard-working, low-income families; those that were high performing and those in school improvement; and those with no diversity and those serving the community she cared most deeply about, Native Americans.

As she learned from each of these experiences, she increasingly began to think about what a high performing school that could fully transfer knowledge around culture, identity, and language and tap into the deep-seated strength of diverse communities might look like.

The Development of the Community-Led Model

“The difference between the high performing school I taught at in affluent Marin County and the low-performing school in Shiprock was that the district didn’t have the accountability to the community. There was little encouragement for parents to be engaged. There wasn’t any type of student council or leadership structure. Whereas the community in Marin was valued, engaged, and demanding, in Shiprock there was a divide between the school and community.” Thus, Bobroff and a growing number of strategic advisors who shared her vision began to get to know the Native American community in Albuquerque over the span of a year and a half. The conversations multiplied, one leading to another, until over 150 people had been involved in shaping a vision for the school. Bobroff highlighted, “Everyone had their own story, their personal narrative. Some were based on negative school experiences and others were about the moments when they began to understand the power of indigenous education. NACA emerged through these personal connections.” The result of this process was three outcomes that would drive the design of NACA: Students would be prepared for college, secure in their identity, and healthy.

Community engagement didn’t stop with the launch. The community-led model means that community is ever-present, intertwined with the school itself. One can’t separate NACA from its broader community. This took me a bit to understand as there were three very important aspects that, once again, I had to listen to carefully with an open heart.

  1. The NACA community includes staff, students, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and the two dozen community partners. Drawing upon the concept of kinship in Native American communities, the NACA community is a place in which people feel connection and solidarity. It is a responsibility to one another, a reciprocal or mutual accountability if you will, that is generated from the trust and respect within the community.
  1. A core value of NACA is community/service. It is easy to misunderstand this value as simply creating a community of learners or community service. Rooted in the history of Native Americans, the idea of community stretches from the past to present, and into the future. “Our success is about the collective and about the individual. We want our kids to do well individually. It is also important to our future – for our self-determination – that we build our collective strength as well. We all share this responsibility, ” Bobroff explained.
  1. The community-led process is ongoing because the community is ever changing. I stumbled over my own ignorance until Bobroff gently reminded me, “There isn’t a monolithic approach to Native Americans or Native American culture. Students each bring their own individual histories. We want them to develop an identity that taps into the richness of their lives.” With students from sixty different tribes, eighteen ethnicities, and five languages, each has their own racial and cultural identity, each has a different story of who they are. Thus, the community-driven processes that undergird NACA are in fact multicultural, having implications for any school and any community in America.

Although the concept of community schools has been around for a long time, it has never gone so far to actually embrace the culture and values of the communities served by schools. In this way NACA is opening the door to new processes and structures that may serve our country well as we undergo the dramatic demographic changes coming our way. The U.S. Department of Education is paying attention – it is incorporating community-led schools into recent RFPs.

The NACA Design

The goals and values of NACA powerfully drive the design of the school. Bobroff explained that the values one starts with make a difference. “We wanted to infuse our core cultural values so that it is a world view that shapes what we consider as best practices and how they are implemented, that provides a lens to interpret experiences and guides how we relate to each other. We wanted to capture the strength of our communities and put that into the very core. We don’t want our children to have to change when they come to school. We want them to bring themselves, all of themselves. Everyone is talking about wholistic learning now. For us it isn’t an approach – it is a core value. It is about respect.”

NACA’s five goals reflect valuing all aspects of what it means to prepare teens for the transition to young adulthood:

  1. Build youth to be confident in their cultural identities
  2. Encourage youth to persevere academically
  3. Support physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness in youth
  4. Prepare youth academically and emotionally for college
  5. Strengthen youth to take their role as leaders

The overall pedagogy reflects adolescent development and cultural values. It starts with essential questions that allow teachers and students to engage in inquiry-based learning. Students can explore cultural connections while building the foundational academic skills that will prepare students for college. Rich experiential learning strengthens the inquiry-based approach. In order to preserve the languages of students while also preparing them to be competitive for college, Navajo is taught as well as other Native languages. Given the importance of well-being and helping student to have positive cultural identifies, the personal and support services are an integral part of the design of the school.

NACA Core Values

Transformation as an Avenue Toward Well-Being

“Many kids come to our school with a pervasive loss of hope,” Bobroff explained as we began to explore the concept of well-being at NACA. “Our responsibility is to help students develop a worldview of what is possible. We do this through relationships. Community is about being in relationship. We want the learning experiences at NACA to be transformative. The personal transformation is through creating meaning, and the collective transformation is through the continual process of creating community. Transformation is knowing that there is always a way to make something work. You can always find a solution.”

She continued, “As students begin to build hope, a healing process begins. We also tap into the hopes parents hold for their children. It is intergenerational healing, as parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents take strength in students making connections with their culture and language. As a community, we are in the process of healing from the damage of the training schools. We are creating a strong, connected sense of the future.”

NACA approaches wellness comprehensively and developmentally – intellectual development, social-emotional development, physical development, and spiritual development. Bobroff explained, “We want our kids to learn how to monitor themselves. The Wellness Wheel helps students learn how to self-assess. Are they at an optimal level or are they depleted?” Developing a positive identity through inquiry, reflection, and cultural connections is an important step in this. NACA also provides personal wellness classes for students grades 6-10 to help them in making healthy choices.

NACA is deeply committed to helping students be healthy and be able to manage their well-being by the time they grade. They have invested in a rich array of wellness and support services from case management, education, group therapy, individual and family counseling, and even wellness services for staff. Wellness services also tap into the Native American culture. A room frequently used by the NACA community is the Eagle Room, described asa peaceful, culturally-based meditation space provided for all NACA students, families and staff for self-reflection, meditation and prayer honoring our Native traditions.”

Inspiration Not Replication

There is a steady and growing stream of people making their way to Albuquerque to visit NACA, with almost one site visit per week. Bobroff explained, “There is plenty of literature and research on the issue of indigenous education, but little that fully embraces the community and the school. Much of what has been developed retains a deficit model or is simply an add-on.” Bobroff noted that the Maori indigenous education movement in New Zealand is the best example of how cultural values can be placed within the core of the school design in order to draw upon the strength of communities and preserve language and cultures while fully preparing students to enter college.

To support education leaders and to help strengthen the indigenous education movement, Bobroff founded the NACA Inspired Schools Network (NISN). She emphasized, “This isn’t about replication. We aren’t suggesting that other communities replicate NACA. They need to engage with their communities and draw upon their personal experiences in designing new schools.” NISN supports fellows that take a year to learn about the community-led process, begin the community conversations, and develop a strategic plan.

In listening to this strategy, I once again felt the core values vibrating. This time, it was perseverance for self-determination. It is too easy for those of us who do not carry the history of Native Americans in our lives to underestimate the importance of students being able to protect, defend, and shape their futures. Thus, NISN is designed to help build the leadership and the capacity in communities to transfer the knowledge and culture of their communities into the core of the school or other institutions, which are as much a part of the process of self-determination of its communities as is fully preparing students to make successful transitions.

There are three schools in NISN now, which will grow to six in the coming year. NACA will be opening an elementary school; Six Directions (6-2) will be opening in Gallup; and a new elementary school, Kha’po Academy, will be opening in the Santa Clara Pueblo.

At the end of my hour with Bobroff, I felt I had gone through a portal, or at least had been able to take one step through it, to understand the world through a different lens. It was just a glimmer, but a powerful one, that can inspire all of us in the youth field and in school design to create ongoing processes that allow us to engage more deeply in our communities and think more richly about how we support our young people in developing positive, powerful identities.