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New Denver High School Modeled After HBCUs

A new public high school founded upon the principles of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) is scheduled to open its doors in Denver in fall 2021.

The Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy — named in honor of the billionaire philanthropist who made news when he paid off the debt of Morehouse College graduates back in 2019 — will take an interdisciplinary project-based approach to education, allowing students to earn college credit while still enrolled in high school. It will also lean heavily into a science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) curriculum. Robert F Smith

“As a learner and leader at a historically Black university, I understand the impact of being in an unapologetically Black space complete with rigorous academic experiences, rich traditions, caring intergenerational relationships, strong community and an incredible sense of pride,” said Shakira Abney-Wisdom, the founding principal of the school and a doctoral student at Florida A&M University.

“HBCUs embolden sense of self and empower individuals to create tangible change and have a global impact,” she added.

That’s what she wants for the students who enroll at the school. Based upon its four Pillars of Excellence, the school will encourage civic responsibility, academics, pride and a commitment to social justice.

“The purpose of this school is to nurture the next generation of leaders through deep understanding of self, reverence for a powerful past and hope for the possibility the future holds,” said Abney-Wilson. “Our school is designed to elevate Blackness — culture, history and impact — and support the development of scholars and contributors in every aspect of society.”

The creation of the academy comes as Denver educators are grappling with how best to improve the experiences of minority students in the city. About 13% of Denver’s 92,000 students are Black, 53% are Hispanic and nearly 1% are Native American. Test scores and graduation rates indicate that students of color trail far behind their White counterparts.

While the doors to the founding ninth-grade class won’t officially open until August 2021 for the 2021-22 school year, Abney-Wisdom and her team are busy spreading information about the school.

Smith, who is CEO of Vista Equity Partners, is a native of Denver Public Schools.

“When I think about what it took to create the STEAM academy, it occurs to me it wasn’t actually about starting a school,” he said. “It was about building a village.”

The Smith STEAM Academy is one of three new schools that will open in Denver next fall.

“We are living through an extraordinary time,” said Smith. “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.”

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