The Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy, a public school in Denver, opened its doors in an effort to immerse Black students in an HBCU-esque learning environment. The school welcomed its inaugural class on Aug. 23, and it was composed exclusively of freshman students who will hopefully go on to attend historically Black colleges and universities.
“There is a persistent erasure of the Black experience, of Latinx and indigenous experiences in this nation and world,” Principal Shakira Abney-Wisdom told Denverite. “Our focus is to really center the experience of those of us who have been marginalized and minoritized. We are not, by nature of our existence, ‘less than.’ But our stories have not been valued in the same ways.”
“Our school’s existence is just an act of resilience and resistance to oppressive structures in society,” she added. “This is a sanctuary, really, a safe space for our scholars to be all that they are, and to grow, to challenge themselves, to challenge one another, to accomplish the goals that they have.”
Abney-Wisdom also noted that the school bases its lessons on Black History 365, a curriculum that integrates stories about people of color in each aspect of learning. Additionally, the administration is working on partnerships with HBCUs to foster meaningful connections between students and college alumni in an effort to create “intergenerational relationships” and mitigate systemic hardships.
Initially, the plan was to name the facility after Michelle Obama, but the former first lady’s foundation politely declined the request. The science, technology, engineering and mathematics academy was then named after Black billionaire Robert F. Smith, who drew national attention in 2019 after he pledged to pay off the $34 million student loan debt for the graduating class at Morehouse College. Smith also grew up in Denver and worked as a chemical engineer and investor before becoming the richest Black man in the country.
Another important aspect of Smith Academy is its location. It’s in the northeast corner of Denver, which is home to predominantly people of color. Prior to the creation of the new school, many students were traveling long distances for better educational opportunities.
“We wanted to create a high-quality option in our neighborhood, because a lot of our kids were going outside of our neighborhood, traveling long distances across the city, to find quality options,” one of Smith Academy’s co-founders, Samantha Pryor, said.
Abney-Wisdom also shared how rewarding it’s been to watch the school turn from an idea into a reality and to see the faculty grow exponentially.
“I joined the work in June of 2020, and so it’s been exciting to go from being the only staff member on the school-based team to then recruiting nationally and internationally for our educator positions,” she said. “And now they’re here. So it’s really surreal and special.”