Students at Southern Arizona’s Ha:san Preparatory and Leadership School have one foot in the contemporary world and the other in the traditional—with both moving forward.
“Combining traditional culture with college prep is a rare commodity in our specialized world,” said school director Robin Kauakahi, as she pointed proudly to statistical evidence that both are possible. “You can get academics at other educational institutions, but you can’t get the cultural curriculum that is taught here.
“Since our inception in 1998, some 2,000 students have come through our doors with many going on to college after they leave us. With pride we note, half of our current senior class has already been accepted to major four-year universities.” That’s a far cry from the 17 percent of Native American high school students who begin college, according to the American Indian Education Foundation.
The charter high school is designed for Native students with a mission to serve as an academically rigorous, bicultural, community-based high school. “While we have a mixture of a lot of different tribal representation, our demographic is primarily O’odham and Yaqui with some Hispanic students speckled in the student body,” said Assistant Director Dustin Williams.
For this year’s 150-member student body, some represent a first for their families. “Many in our current class represent first generation students, the first one in their family to go to college,” said College Prep instructor Ryan Smith, Chemehuevi/Navajo. “There’s not a whole lot of dinner table conversation about college, because no one else has yet had that experience. Parents are supportive, but they rely on us to guide their children because they don’t have the related experience to help directly.”
A lot of effort on the part of students is also necessary in order to learn who they are and what they can become. They are bussed from the vast Tohono O’odham reservation to the school, a trip of between one and two hours, just to get to their classrooms. “It’s a choice of going to school down the street as opposed to attending a school where you have to travel up to two hours to get there and then spend four days away from home,” Smith said.
Their academic week begins and ends with a series of Native American prayers before the six daily class periods get underway. Depending on the day, Smith could discuss anything from the intricacies of college admissions to curriculum requirements for a field of choice, like nursing. Other instructors teach science or math. Later in the day, O’odham instructor Lois Liston holds a traditional language class aimed at developing a sense of identity and self-worth as part of tribal history.
“We have students who are the cream of the crop as well as students who bring negative issues with them (along with a desire to turn their life around),” Smith said. “One of my biggest challenges is trying to instill in students the concept that learning doesn’t stop at high school graduation where you get your diploma and then get to kick back. Not true. Your life is just beginning at that point and I urge them to apply for college, not necessarily to become a rocket scientist, but to have that sheepskin that will assist them in getting a good job.”
The small school faculty of about a dozen instructors are kept busy trying to be both advisors and administrators and many wear more than one hat. Science teacher Clint Burnside is also listed in a support staff role as bus driver.
Williams is a self-described “visionary,” always thinking of the future and what more can be done to eradicate any stereotypes concerning non-Native involvement in higher education. “The most surprising discovery for me was just how intelligent these kids really are. They just need an opportunity to take that next step.”
As a college prep instructor, Smith works daily to open the doors to those opportunities. “We want students to finish high school, and then some,” he said. “We push them to go to that next level. Students come here to assimilate more of their culture, but I also want to create a reputation that we’re a college prep school.”
It’s a difficult balance to keep both a cultural emphasis in balance with adherence to standardized testing and staff continues to look at ways to improve the school’s academic standing. But with half of the current senior class already accepted as university freshman that mission is on its way to being accomplished.