The week begins and ends the same way for the students at Ha:san Preparatory & Leadership School.
The students gather, usually at the center of the school’s basketball court, for “song,” a series of Native American prayers for anything ranging from health and wellness to rain.
If it’s Thursday afternoon, which is the last day of the week at the school, many of the students will board buses and make the final trip of the week back to their homes in Sells and nearby areas, an approximately 60-mile trip that can take up to two hours.
However, the trip between Sells and other areas of the Tohono O’odham Nation and Ha:san’s University of Arizona-area campus has proved to be worth it for many students, who see it as an opportunity to escape drugs, gangs and other distractions on the reservation.
The school, which is 100 percent Native American, reached a milestone this year, with almost half of the 45 students in its senior class getting accepted to universities, mainly the UA, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University.
There were about 12 students out of a similar-sized senior class in 2012-13 who were accepted to a university, said Ryan Smith, a college prep teacher at the school.
“It was definitely something that surprised me,” Smith said. “I’m very happy, but as far as my class, I make it a requirement to at least apply to a community college and a university.”
In addition, four students traveled to Yale University last summer for a program where they studied computer programming and biostatistics.
However, Ha:san has obstacles to overcome, including a D grade from the Arizona Department of Education in its accountability ratings for the last two years.
Three successive D’s relegate a school to an F level.
For a charter school such as Ha:san, an F can lead to closure.
School officials are working to help the students with test-taking strategies, as well as integrating more Native American literature into lessons, said Dustin Williams, Ha:san’s assistant director.
“At the end of the day, there has to be a buy-in. Something has to be worth it for them to succeed,” he said.
The school’s staff and students are still encouraged by the senior class’s success, even as they look to improve the school’s academic standing. The school has emphasized its focus on college through the Yale program, partnering with the UA, and the college-prep class, in which students not only apply to colleges, but also learn how to fill out forms for financial aid, scholarships and other things.
“We feel getting them surrounded by the college life as much as possible starts to just make them want to be in the college life,” Williams said.
The college-prep class is an elective, but just about all graduating seniors take it, unless they have enough credits or need to retake another class to graduate.
Smith described the class as “rigorous” and said he pushes his students past any obstacles they might encounter.
“I up the rigor. I push them really hard,” he said. “If I don’t run the class in that manner, I’m doing them a disservice.”
The school also emphasizes cultural activities, such as the traditional songs, prayers and other Native American storytelling events.
For the students, that’s just as important as the academics.
“They teach a lot of culture,” said senior Sebastian Pablo, 17.
Pablo has been accepted to the UA but is also focusing on Yale after participating in the program there last summer.
Pablo wants to study chemistry, psychology or another science, he said.
“I thought it was a very good school, but I thought it was out of my league,” he said.
Senior Josia Listo, 17, was accepted to the UA and ASU, but he hasn’t made any decisions yet on where he wants to go or what he would like to study.
He has some concerns about paying for college, as well as how far the schools are from his home.
For now, Listo wants to focus on future success and enjoying whatever career he chooses, he said.
“I try not to let it be a distraction.”