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A Conversation with:

Valerie Kie and Ben Calabaza

The Native American Community Academy (NACA)-Inspired School Network (NISN) is a nonprofit helping Indigenous communities articulate, realize, and sustain their own definition of education. Valerie Kie is NISN’s Senior Director of Leadership Development, providing capacity-building opportunities and professional development for leaders in Indigenous education. Ben Calabaza is NISN’s Director of Communication, supporting its storytelling and outreach efforts.

We spoke last month about NISN’s core values and commitments, how they show up in the work, and how NISN adapts school design to meet the needs of the communities each of their schools serves.

Q: How did NISN arrive at the core values and six commitments that guide its work?

Valerie: The six commitments have been foundational to the inception of NISN. We were born out of a need to re-articulate Indigenous education. We found some success with Native American Community Academy (NACA), a district charter school here in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There was a lot of interest, and people were seeing success in terms of data, enrollment, and student experiences. There’s a huge urban Native population here in Albuquerque. Seeing a place where students and staff felt a sense of belonging, where Indigenous language and culture were part of the content, part of the curriculum, and the overall school design generated a lot of interest. NACA’s founders were being asked, ‘How can we do something similar for our specific community?’

So the six commitments are a framework for thinking about what will be a successful, sustainable school that gives way to Indigeneity and the community, articulating the focal points and what’s going to be the mission of that school. Those six commitments are:

  1. Academic excellence and relevance,
  2. Leadership in Indigenous education,
  3. Reflection and continuous improvement,
  4. Operating effectiveness and efficiency,
  5. Community transformation, and
  6. NISN core values and culture.

We don’t operate as a charter management organization. We’ve always let the communities we partner with tell us what the community wants, is dreaming of, and what that mission statement is. We leave it up to the community to lead that design process for their school. And so, a few years back, we started to examine the mission statements across all the schools in our network. What do they all have in common? And that led to our [driving] big ideas and core values: 1) identity development, 2) holistic wellness, 3) community-led design, and 4) academic relevance. Those came out of cross-walking mission statements from the network. And when we’ve opened schools after, they all seem to fit within those four big ideas. And so we’ve been able to say, this is [how] our communities define Indigenous education.

“We’ve always let the communities we partner with tell us what the community wants, is dreaming of, and what that mission statement is. We leave it up to the community to lead that design process for their school.”

Q: The connection between community and the design of the network is something that is also present in NTC’s Elephant in the (Class)room, particularly our Co-Design anchor. I’m wondering how the core values and the commitments show up in how you plan and deliver professional learning for educators?

Valerie: I think one of the commitments that shows up is reflection and continuous improvement. I was at NACA for nine years; I worked there in its second year, and we created this culture of critique. I was able to bring my unit plans and student work to share with my grade-level team and get feedback. That was an important practice in building my confidence and craft as a teacher. That’s been carried into NISN. I lead a team that [leverages] two professional learning avenues around two fellowships — our School Design Fellowships and our Growing Together Fellowship. In both spaces, we rely on critique protocols, sometimes known as a tuning protocol, where fellows are bringing a piece of work [for peer feedback].

[Feedback] is super important to the work that we do. We’re constantly doing step-backs or reflections as a NISN team. How did this convening go? What can we learn from it? What are our fellows telling us? Similarly, we’re also building coherence as an organization and trying to use the core values as a framework. [How do we build] shared language and common understanding? [How do we develop] our community of practice via critique protocols to deepen sharing and learning from one another? I think that’s the reason why the network was started in the first place: to learn from one another and to understand that knowledge needs to be shared and not hoarded.

Q: How do you personally interact with these core values and commitments? How have they and the experience of working at NISN shaped your outlook on education, personally and professionally?

Ben: Before joining NISN, I was a college instructor at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Seeing the preparedness or sometimes lack of preparedness made me question what the solution was to support communities to prepare Native students for college and how the students saw themselves. With my background in marketing and communications, I thought about what plays into the information or data I experienced so that I could understand my students’ educational journey…and not jump into a blaming mind frame and say, ‘The students are not ready for my class.’ I had to recondition myself to be empathic towards students and realize it is not their fault that they are unprepared.

Empathy is a value that NISN is continuing to develop with me. I now pause my thinking and do not react or assume situations as we collect school data. As an individual and Native person, my first lens is from the value of love, and it is hard to ignore this. We all care for our students and come from a lineage of strong, resilient, intelligent people. I appreciate that our work encourages communities and students to think differently about education, be confident, and know they are capable and responsible for continuing a legacy they have yet to see.

Valerie: I’ve always known how to play the game of school: just do your work, make it nice and neat, and you get good grades. so I did that through high school. My mom had me at a young age. She was only 16 and didn’t get to go to college, and that was always her dream. So I knew that I wanted to do that for my mom, probably wanted to do that more so for her than [for] myself. I knew what to do superficially to get there.

I went to a college that was full of privilege. I always say that people had the best education that money could buy, and what the heck am I doing here? I felt like an imposter. But it was the first time I was able to take Native American studies courses, and I was able to learn the true history of what happened on this continent. I was in my little bubble growing up in Laguna, New Mexico. It took me going to college, having to pay and take out loans for my education, that I learned [about the forced removal of Indigenous people from their homelands]. That was one of the biggest social injustices I ever learned about and it took me having to pay for my education to get that knowledge. I knew then that I never wanted another Native youth to feel as inadequate as I did, or to question their worth, or to have that sense of ‘I don’t belong here.’ That was what propelled me into teaching.

I connect that back to identity. I went to a Native American boarding school in Santa Fe and got very little of that [history]. But hearing those stories of resilience despite everything that federal policies did to eradicate our people … we’re still here. I felt that sense of pride. What can we do with that medicine or that strength if students get to hear that message from a young age?

How do we build our kids up and let them know that they come from genius? How do we get them to build a healthy sense of identity? As a Native literature teacher at NACA for nine years, that really was an impetus for me when I was helping to design curriculum. What texts are we reading? What are those themes that we can pull out so that students can make those personal connections to the texts and those connections to what’s happening in the world? And of course, how do we use ELA skills to make that all come together?

I still feel that imposter syndrome, [even now] as a leader in Indigenous education. Why do I get to do this amazing work? I’ve always been told that I’m not enough, [so] how do I [and others like me] continue to be okay with being leaders in this work? It’s those core values of love [and] of perseverance, those things that have been instilled in us that really help us stand in this place. I mean, I’m in so many spaces with educators from around the country, and nobody’s doing the work that we’re doing at NISN, and sometimes it’s isolating, but sometimes it’s really freeing because they’re still working in Western constructs of education. But it’s really amazing to work with people like Ben, and our Executive Director, Duta, who are really pushing the edges of what education could look like for our communities while still working within the public education frameworks, too.

“…nobody’s doing the work that we’re doing at NISN, and sometimes it’s isolating, but sometimes it’s really freeing…”

Q: When you think about what you all are doing to first of all get people in the door and then develop them, grow them, and retain them, what are the sorts of things that you do that contribute to staff wanting to stay at a NACA-inspired school or at the network itself?

Valerie: [It starts with] asking, what does leadership look like in the context of an Indigenous school? And so I think it’s carving out intentional space where we bring educators together, asking them their why, and we do that through the frame of, ‘Where do you get your medicine and what is your leadership stance?’

I think one of the other things that we consider our ‘special sauce’ is getting our educators out on the land. We do land-based healing and learning when we can. We convene our folks in person, and we visit each others’ schools so that they get to see what this could look like. A few years ago, we took our school and fellows to South Dakota and did a buffalo harvest. That was a learning experience for all of us because there were times when some of us were teachers and some of us were learners. We unpacked that as a whole group – staff and fellows – and [asked each other], ‘How do we take this experience back to our schools and do something similar for our teachers and students?’ In a nutshell, that’s the dreaming space. How do we get folks in that space to take experiential learning and think about how it connects to their local context and the community in which they teach, and [how can] they make it their own?

Ben: The unique thing about NISN is its embodiment and belief in holistic wellness. You can only share that model or idea if you practice it. So, holistic wellness is a big component of what I’ve observed in my seven months of working with NISN – a genuine commitment to wellness. NISN considers the mental wellness of its staff by acknowledging the stress one might experience in a week: multiple meetings, presentations, travel, and in-person training. We recognize that recovery time is needed to reset before joining the team again, and regular check-ins allow staff to express their energy level to supervisors.
I’ve valued that NISN’s [leadership] wants us all to be at our best mentally and physically, so we prioritize holistic wellness, as our work can be demanding.

Want to learn more? Watch our Profile in Practice with NISN from The Elephant in the (Class)room as an example of the Co-Design Anchor for Equity in action.