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Principal shares vision for new Denver high school modeled after historically Black colleges

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The Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy is set to open with ninth graders next fall.
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A new high school modeled after historically Black colleges and universities is set to open next fall in Denver, a school district working to improve education for Black students citywide.

The Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy will open in far northeast Denver on a campus it will share with a small high school that helps students catch up on missed credits. The Smith STEAM Academy will start with ninth graders and add a grade each year.

Principal Shakira Abney-Wisdom has spent the past five months solidifying the school’s vision and building the curriculum. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math.

Abney-Wisdom said she’s guided by three principles: centering Blackness to build students’ pride in themselves, making sure every aspect of the school is inclusive regardless of students’ native language or learning style, and creating connections across academic subjects so that an English lesson ties into an art project, which previews what students will learn in history class.

Her aim is that the Smith STEAM Academy creates an environment for Denver high school students similar to those at HBCUs and colleges that serve Hispanic and Indigenous students.

“Those institutions are designed fundamentally to elevate and explore the contributions of marginalized people and embody the rich history of what we contribute to society,” said Abney-Wisdom, who attended Florida A&M University, an HBCU. “At their core, they are designed to start with the learner and the learner’s identity and pride of self.”

About 13% of Denver’s 92,000 students are Black, 53% are Hispanic, and nearly 1% are Native American. Test scores and graduation rates show Denver Public Schools has not served students of color as well as it has the 25% of students who are white.

Abney-Wisdom first came to Denver in 2011 to serve as a City Year corps member tutoring students at Montbello High School before it was closed. She recalls working with a student who was valedictorian of her school in Mexico but whose intelligence was questioned in Denver because English was not her native language.

The girl’s science teacher forbade students from speaking Spanish because the teacher did not understand it. But talking to her classmates in Spanish was the only way the student could follow along with the lesson. Had the teacher allowed the girl to learn in Spanish, she would have shown herself to be among the most advanced in the class, Abney-Wisdom said.

Abney-Wisdom took a different approach when she entered a teacher training program at another Denver high school. She taught her science lessons in both English and Spanish, translated her slides into other languages if needed, and spent the first couple weeks of each semester on trust-building activities to help her students get to know one another.

She explored cultural holes in the curriculum rather than shying away from them. During a lesson on the 3.2-million-year-old skeleton known as Lucy, one of her students asked: “If they found Lucy in Africa, and she’s the oldest human, does that mean everyone is Black?”

“That was not part of the unit,” Abney-Wisdom said. “But it’s a place where students went because whatever we approach, we approach from the self. The curriculum was not designed for that approach. It was designed from a place of whiteness.

“When we take pieces out of the puzzle, we miss beautiful parts of the picture.”

The curriculum at the Smith STEAM Academy will aim to explore the full picture, Abney-Wisdom said. For instance, the district curriculum calls for students to study Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. But instead of focusing solely on the two main characters, the unit at the Smith STEAM Academy will explore the theme of love through texts written by Black authors, poems by Indigenous poets, videos of TED Talks, and the tone and beat of love songs.

“That is one example of the ways we’re centering Blackness, centering identity, and normalizing difference by approaching Shakespeare in a more relevant and responsive way,” she said.

The idea for the school came from a group called Warriors for High Quality Schools. Started by Black parents and sports coaches in far northeast Denver, the group called attention to the disparities between the schools in their neighborhood and those in other parts of the city.

The Smith STEAM Academy is named for Denver Public Schools alumnus Robert F. Smith, described by the district as “a Black American investor, inventor, engineer, philanthropist, and entrepreneur.” Smith founded a tech investment firm called Vista Equity Partners.

“We are living through an extraordinary time,” Smith said in a video. “It’s the first age in human history where ideas are the most precious commodity, and intellectual capital can be traded across the globe in an instant. For the students who attend the STEAM Academy, this means the only limitation in your lives will be your own capacity to dream, to work hard, and to build.”

The son of two educators, Smith graduated from Denver’s East High School. His philanthropic efforts have included donating $20 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and pledging to eliminate $34 million in student loan debt for 2019 graduates of Morehouse College, an HBCU in Atlanta.

Smith recently reached a $139 million settlement with the federal government that allowed him to avoid prosecution for tax evasion. Abney-Wisdom declined to comment on the matter.

The Smith STEAM Academy is one of three new schools that will open in Denver next fall, and the only one that will be run by the district. It is open to any student who will be in ninth grade next year. The process to apply starts in January. The two other new schools — the French American School of Denver, and a new DSST high school — are independent charter schools.

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