Bilingual charter schools aim to churn out college grads

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Imagine a bilingual school that has students earn college credit courses as early as sixth grade and offers them the opportunity to get an associate’s degree by the time they graduate high school.

Mark Casavantes

Mark Casavantes, Superintendent of Academic Opportunities Academy in El Paso, Texas. (Photo/ Mark Casavantes linkedin)

Two educators from Texas have spent months building the blocks for an education model that does just that–and more.

Mark Casavantes, a former math teacher and assistant school principal, and Wes Clarkson, a retired math teacher and former principal, plan to open several charter schools, starting with five in New Mexico, that deviate from a traditional public school model.

Their schools will teach first through 12th grade, but students who enroll before the sixth grade can work simultaneously on an associate’s degree in nursing or computer programming. Those students will be preparing for such programs as early as first grade and may begin earning college credit in sixth grade.

Along the way, English-speakers will be merged into Spanish-language courses and vice versa, until students are able to speak, read and write in both languages.

Wes Clarkson

Wes Clarkson, Associate Superintendent en Academic Opportunities Academy in El Paso, Texas. (Photo/ Wes Clarkson linkedin)

Casavantes, who will serve as the schools’ superintendent, told VOXXI the model is designed to have students who graduate high school both bilingual and with job skills, “so that they can be self-sufficient in the job market.”

The first five schools are set to open August 2013 in several southern cities in New Mexico: Deming, Anthony, Las Cruces, Alamogordo and Carlsbad. Projected enrollment for each campus is 300 students, with approximately 25 students per grade level.

Casavantes and Clarkson, who will serve as the schools’ associate superintendent, eventually hopes to open more schools in other southern cities in Arizona and Texas.

The schools, which will be called Academic Opportunities Academy, intend to serve homeless youth, foster children, students who come from low-income families, recent immigrants, Spanish-only speakers and students with special needs.

“We seek to serve special populations that we feel need more help as well as students who have not been successful in public or private schools,” Casavantes told VOXXI.

bilingual school

First grader Alondra practices vocabulary with a poster showing words in both English and Spanish at Hillcrest Elementary School in Elgin, December 6, 2011.(Photo/ Marta Garcia/Chicago News)

Classes will be taught in “an open main classroom area” where students will not be separated by grade level but by what they know. Students will also be pulled into “conference room style classrooms” according to the concepts they need to learn. Each classroom will hold a maximum of 12 students.

Tutors will also be available to assist students. There will not be a bell schedule; teachers will have the flexibility to determine how long classes last based on the students’ needs.

Grading standards will be higher than traditional schools. Students will have to master a 90 percent or higher on each assignment or redo it until the standard is met.

Casavantes said that by setting strict grading standards, “students are going to learn the material at a higher level” and it will help assure that they are “getting a good quality education.”

Also, each student’s academic work will be recorded in a database that will help teachers monitor his or her performance. Casavantes said the database will help determine “what the students know and don’t know and then put them into individual plans that will help them fill in those gaps and progress to where they should be.”

Deborah Santiago, vice president of policy and research for Excelencia in Education, told VOXXI the charter schools’ model “has a lot of appeal” especially because of the students it aims to teach and its bilingual program.

bilingual charter school

EXAMPLE OF BILINGUAL / Bethany Rickard, a graduate of DelVal’s TCIP program teaches technology classes entirely in Spanish at a bilingual charter school in Philadelphia. (Photo/ DelVal)

She said the schools’ concept of having individualized education plans for students who need extra help “makes a lot of sense” considering its target population of students. The individualized attention by teachers, she said, is “very constructive and produces positive results.”

Santiago added that the charter schools’ model of teaching students college classes is “a good idea.”

“We’ve learned through research that middle school is a critical time when students decide whether they are college material or not. Teaching them college level classes at an early age could influence students to continue their education after graduating from high school,” Santiago told VOXXI.

And although she calls the educational model “very commendable,” Santiago warns that the charter school operations can be very expensive to operate.

“In general, charter schools are very costly and often close for economic reasons, not academic reasons,” she said.

Casavantes and Clarkson said they are working to solve “that problem” by seeking grants and private donations.

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