A success in any language

Joe Enge

Trying to be everything to everybody is a sure recipe for failure.

Yet, to maintain its education monopoly, that’s what the Nevada public school system attempts to do. No matter how diverse the specialization – from college preparation to kids with Down Syndrome, from career and technical education to English as a second language – the public ed system insists that it, and only it, be employed to address the issue.

The result is what we see: a system regularly failing the often unique needs of our students.

Indeed, the sheer size and broad scope of the traditional system – based on where students live rather than on their needs, interests or abilities – hobbles even the most dedicated and talented teachers.

Charter schools, however, are flexible enough to be able to target the unique academic needs of individual students and broader populations as well.

The Mariposa Academy in Reno is a prime example. First opening its doors for the 2002-03 school year, it brings a specialized, clearly focused approach to its education mission: providing dual language instruction to native Spanish speakers from kindergarten through the sixth grade.

Founders Jesse and Estela Gutierrez recognized that many Hispanic students were unable to flourish within the traditional public school structure because they lacked the foundational grasp of Spanish needed in order to expand and succeed in English.

The school’s Dual Language Program, in which students learn both Spanish and English, runs from kindergarten through the third grade. From the fourth grade to the sixth, instruction is conducted primarily in English, with students receiving Spanish enrichment. This model is based on research that shows tremendous academic benefits to solidifying the native language while learning a second during these years.

“We use immersion education, meaning that language minority students and language majority students receive subject matter instruction through their primary language and secondary language,” said Sandra Jimenez, the Academy’s director. “This model’s purpose is to develop and maintain students’ primary language as well as become fluent in written and oral English.”

Jimenez said one of the great advantages of charter schools is their ability to be flexible in their teaching methods while still meeting the state’s academic standards. She considers the standard ESL approach used in traditional public schools to be a “subtractive” method, by which Spanish-speaking students lose their native language. ESL is often one-way instruction, not immersion but, rather, submersion of the primary language. The Academy points to research demonstrating that continuing to develop a child’s native language actually facilitates the process of learning English.

Central to the Academy’s philosophy is that knowing more than one language increases a person’s thinking abilities. Bilingual children have greater mental flexibility. Anyone who has learned a second language will recognize the reflexive learning of his own language that takes place upon seeing different linguistic constructions in another. In many languages, an adjective is placed after the noun it modifies – for example, “car red” instead of “red car” – a phenomenon that makes students aware that there are alternative ways of expression.

Above and beyond language reinforcement and acquisition, the Mariposa Academy connects the two worlds of Spanish (in the home) and English (in the school). Many Hispanic students have a weak grasp of their native language and lack a full appreciation of the benefits schools can provide, making academic success even more challenging. As Jimenez explained, “For many of our Hispanic parents, like my own, it’s not that they don’t value education, they don’t understand it. But they do understand the opportunities that come with education and they value hard work.”

The school plans on breaking ground Oct. 1 for a new building for grades four through six, with an auditorium to replace the existing modular classrooms. The new auditorium will allow all of the students to meet together. Current space limitations allow only one grade at a time to meet in the cafeteria area. The long-term plan is to eventually build a “Mariposa Village” between the current building and the new one, serving as a community plaza for families, Hispanic businesses and events.

As Nevada’s Hispanic school enrollment numbers continue to increase, this little charter school of 177 students has a lot to teach us. It is a shame that Nevada has such an anemic number of charter schools: a mere 20. (Arizona has almost 470.)

We should reform our restrictive charter school regulations and allow such schools funding equal to traditional public schools. Allowing students and parents greater choice will mean allowing everyone more opportunities for success.

Joe Enge is education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.