The Native American Community Academy is, by title, exactly what it purports to be.
It is a “rez” school in the traditional sense that it’s populated with Native American students, and some of them drive upwards of 50 miles — one way — just to get here.
But, this particular APS Charter school is also an anachronism.
The NACA campus, one may be surprised to learn, is located smack in the middle of a southeastern Albuquerque neighborhood, a couple of blocks from Highland High School and far from the boundaries of any pueblo or tribal lands.
“It’s so unique,” NACA boys basketball coach Josh Dunlap said.
NACA has only been playing basketball a few short years. First as part of the Albuquerque Charter School League, then two seasons as an independent.
Now NACA, with about 340 students in grades 6-12 who come from 37 different tribes, is competing in a district for the first time — District 3-2A, with the likes of Bosque School and Laguna Acoma.
Often, students make longer commutes to attend school than they do for road games.
Indeed, for many of the athletes, commuting is simply a way of life. NACA, which opened in 2006 has students who live near Laguna or Acoma make the daily 100-mile round trip to Albuquerque, and they sometimes must endure grueling 16-hour days when there’s a game or late practice. NACA also attracts students from other area pueblos as well as from Albuquerque itself.
“I appreciate that all my teammates who do not live in Albuquerque make it to every practice,” said Joshua Aragon, the boys’ senior captain. “But it is kind of tough.”
NACA shares a campus with Wilson Middle School, just south of the San Pedro/Zuni intersection. NACA’s classes occupy the portables that surround the permanent structures used by Wilson students.
It isn’t an ideal scenario — in fact, NACA is due to move to a new renovated facility near 12th Street and I-40 later this year, on the site of the old Albuquerque Indian School — but the school’s students are passionate and loyal to its ideals.
“We can be ourselves,” said a senior on the girls’ squad, Shantael Booqua, who lives in Albuquerque but hails from the Zuni Pueblo. “At other schools, you can’t really express who you are.”
Only grades 6-10 have classes on the Wilson site. NACA’s juniors and seniors bus to the University of New Mexico Law School in the morning, then are bused back to NACA/Wilson at the end of the school day.
It’s all part of a complex set of social, academic and athletic circumstances at one of New Mexico’s most unusual set-ups.
“We have a lot of things you don’t see anywhere else,” said Aragon.
Beyond the geographic demands faced by a faction of the student body, NACA’s basketball programs are not exactly of the standard issue variety.
First, consider NACA’s facilities, which do not include a gym. The four teams — two middle school teams, two high school teams — practice either at Van Buren Middle School or the Cesar Chavez Community Center, both of which are near NACA.
Only three weeks ago NACA staged its first-ever official “home” game, and that was at the Isleta Pueblo Recreation Center, which is 13 miles away. It’s been nothing but road games for years on end.
For practices, which can begin as late as 7 p.m., athletes who don’t have the option of driving home after school ends at 4 p.m. and coming back for practice must creatively kill three hours. With nowhere else to go, sometimes they just hang around the outside courts.
“They have to love this game to play for NACA,” Dunlap said.
Transportation is another headache entirely. Passenger vans must be rented for road trips — home games, too — and first-year head coach Dunlap (age 24) is not even old enough to drive the van himself. He must be 26. He said he asks parents to drive.
Moreover, NACA can’t afford to buy warm-up outfits for its players, nor can it afford to feed the teams either before or after games.
“They’re very resilient,” said Dunlap, a former Hobbs player who was part of the Eagles’ last state championship team in 2008. “I try to put myself in their situation. I’ve been told that us just getting the team to a game and being competitive, that’s a victory.”
Before Tuesday night games against Estancia, the boys were 10-12 this season, the girls 9-11.
Students say there are plenty of advantages to attending NACA. Most of them are social. None really involves basketball, except as an extra-curricular activity.
“This school can give me better opportunities,” said sophomore guard Josh Wade, who lives in Laguna. “I feel like I can open up more and express myself more.”
The NACA setting does foster strong relationships, said the girls’ varsity coach, Jennifer John.
“I think mostly it is about having a place where they could be with other native peoples, within an urban area,” John said.
“It’s like another community away from our community,” said Audrey Calavaza, a senior on the girls’ team. “It’s a balance between our culture and the city.”
John has longevity at NACA, having built the girls’ program from the start.
“It’s inspirational, just to watch them grow and develop, not just as players, but also as young men and women,” she said.
The basketball teams continue to improve, although they’re not yet ready to challenge established 2A schools.
In terms of creating longevity and success for the basketball programs beyond these winter months, it sure isn’t easy. One of the hurdles is creating a viable offseason, John said, simply because of the distances involved with some players, and because they’d also have to find a regular gym in the summer months.
For their part, the student-athletes aren’t complaining.
Calavaza’s mother, for example, works at Highland High. Audrey’s brother attends West Mesa. The family lives in Acoma, 50 miles away.
“It all works out,” Audrey said with a smile. “You get used to it. But some days are long days. It’s the life of a student-athlete.”
Why not stay closer to home and attend Laguna Acoma?
“My mom thinks it’s too small for me,” Audrey said, adding, “I never knew there were city natives.”
Indeed, a large number of NACA students live in Albuquerque or at least a short drive away.
“My mom didn’t want me in a bigger school,” said Leandra Abeita, a sophomore from Isleta Pueblo. “She figured I would do better (at NACA).”
Said Wade, whose mother is a dental assistant in Albuquerque: “On some days, it’s a killer, when you’re tired and exhausted. But I’ve gotten used to it.”
It’s that attitude and endurance that inspire both John and Dunlap to keep at it, to help put NACA on the proverbial map.
“I’m trying to build that school pride, that school tradition,” Dunlap said. “This is the bottom. We’re trying to build this little by little.”