It’s arguably the biggest challenge facing many public schools in Minnesota: Disproportionately high numbers of black and American Indian K-12 students aren’t doing well academically, compared with their white peers. Along with Latino kids, they are the focus of any discussion about learning gaps or disparities.

Yet students with the same challenges as those in public schools can thrive at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and tribal colleges and universities (TCUs). Those institutions have long histories of educating students and producing high percentages of America’s professionals of color.

America’s 37 tribal schools serve more than 80,000 people in academic and community programs, while 105 black colleges enroll more than 300,000 students.

So what are they doing right that can help elementary and secondary schools get the same results? That question was the smart focus of a daylong forum last week in St. Paul called “Learning and Teaching with Fire: Lessons from HBCUs and Tribal Colleges.”

More than 100 local educators, community activists, lawmakers and business leaders gathered to learn about the schools’ best practices and discuss ways to apply them to younger students. The event was sponsored by the Center for School Change, the African-American Leadership Forum, St. Paul Indians in Action, UNCF (the United Negro College Fund) and Migizi Communications.

Many HBCUs and some TCUs were created when black and American Indian students could not attend other higher education institutions because of legal racial discrimination. It has always been part of their mission to serve kids of color and make special efforts to help them succeed.

It’s important to acknowledge the differences between colleges and K-12 schools and their students. A key difference is that students attend colleges voluntarily and are often paying at least some of the cost, meaning that most are more motivated and educationally engaged.

Even so, K-12 public schools can learn from their higher-ed brethren. During the conference, speakers from UNCF and the White House Initiative on HBCUs said the colleges use several effective practices, including:

• Promoting high levels of student-faculty interaction and assuring that each student has a “go to” counselor or mentor.

• Using “intrusive advising’’ to closely monitor student academic performance and to intervene quickly, if necessary.

• Adopting curricula that allow students to learn more about their history and culture.

• Helping students develop a strong sense of identity and self-confidence.

Perhaps one of the most important things the schools have is deep belief in what their students can accomplish — no matter what their background, income and, in some cases, previous school performance.

For example, about two-thirds of TCU students test into at least one remedial-education course. Yet within one or two years, many who begin at only a middle-school grade proficiency are ready to take college-level courses.

That takes intensive work with students, and it means surrounding them with teachers and staff members who have confidence in them. Creating a culture that doesn’t immediately label young people as “problems’’ or somehow deficient can work wonders.

“These are institutions that give hope to the hopeless, courage to the discouraged and belief in one’s self in those that might be nonbelievers,” said Brian K. Bridges, a UNCF vice president who spoke at the forum.

What works in HBCUs and TCUs is consistent with the strategies used in the highest-quality charter schools. In many of those schools, students and families feel a personal connection and pride in the institution.

Many local educators who attended the forum said in a survey that they plan to take some of the strategies back to their schools. That’s a positive development for Minnesotans who want to see the success stories in higher education replicated at K-12 schools.