More immigrant families embrace school choice | PostIndependent.com

More immigrant families embrace school choice

Recent immigrants Samuel and Iliana Bernal had been sending their daughter, Annette, to a private school in Mexico before relocating to Garfield County earlier this year.

Private school is a more affordable option for some families in Mexico, as compared to the often-expensive private schools in the United States, Samuel Bernal observed.

So, when his employer relocated him earlier this year to radio station La Tricolor Aspen, a division of Entravision, he and Iliana went school shopping for Annette, who's in fifth grade, and her 5-year-old brother, Leonardo, a kindergarten student.

Although Samuel speaks fluent English, being primarily a Spanish-language household, he said the children hadn't been exposed to as much English language instruction in Mexico as they would have liked.

"We wanted to find a good system that is more focused on one-on-one instruction," Bernal said. "We knew about Montessori, and that it works well, but we didn't know if it would be an option."

They were happy to discover that Ross Montessori School in Carbondale is a tuition-free public charter school operating under the Colorado Charter School Institute.

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"They were very welcoming to us, and we are very happy with the progress of our children in that school," Bernal said. "Because it's a small school, there's more personal attention given to the kids and they can really focus on needs."

Though the family lives in New Castle, since Samuel works in Basalt it's easy to bring Annette and Leonardo to and from school in Carbondale every day.

Ross Principal Sonya Hemmen points to Annette as an example of the success Montessori education can have in teaching second-language students.

Hemmen recalled that she started school this fall speaking maybe one complete sentence in English. By October, she was already comfortable with the language and making strides to being on par with many of her classmates.

discovering choice

More and more Latin American immigrant families are finding that the traditional public education schools aren't the only choice when they come to the Roaring Fork Valley.

While area public school districts offer a lot of support and have had tremendous success educating children from immigrant families, especially students who are just learning English, it's not the only option.

Two public charter schools in the area — Ross Montessori and Two Rivers Community School in Glenwood Springs — operate under the state system.

Two others — Carbondale Community School and Aspen Community School — are operated by the nonprofit education organization Compass under charters with the Roaring Fork and Aspen School districts.

At their inception in the 1990s and early 2000s, charter schools often had a reputation as "white-flight" schools. Anglo families, especially more affluent ones, were more inclined to seek out alternative education models and choose charters. That tended to leave a disproportionate ratio of Latino students in the regular public schools.

But enrollment of Latino students, including those needing English language instruction, is steadily increasing in charter schools.

This year, 22 percent of Ross Montessori's 290 students identify as Hispanic or Latino, Hemmen said. Another 5 percent list other ethnic groups.

In addition, a little more than 15 percent of Ross students are classified as English language learners. About 20 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch, a primary poverty indicator for public schools.

Two Rivers Community School, with its emphasis on second language acquisition and projects-based learning, is a more natural draw for Spanish-speaking families. The school also draws about 40 percent of its students from the Garfield Re-2 school district, even though it's located within the Roaring Fork District.

This year, Two Rivers expanded to 300 student with a major building renovation. It now has a minority enrollment of 38 percent, most of which identify as Latino. Twenty percent of students at the West Glenwood school are ELL and 22 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Those numbers are still far lower than the 55 percent Hispanic/Latino enrollment in Roaring Fork Schools as a whole. Some individual schools in the district tip the scales at more than 65 percent Latino.

The district-chartered Carbondale Community School has also struggled to attract a student mix that mirrors other area schools.

The school intentionally caps its enrollment at 135, with an emphasis on a small-school, small-class, more individualized approach to learning. CCS has hovered around 12 to 18 percent Latino enrollment in recent years, with only about 5 percent of those students classified as ELL.

That prompted the RFSD school board to push for a change in the enrollment-capped school's student lottery process, giving more weight to students from families where "primary household language is other than English."

“That has been successful,” Principal Sam Richings-German said, noting that the school enrolled five kindergarten students this year from primary Spanish-language families. “We went from 11 to 16 students in one year.”

In addition to charters, several tuition-based private and religious schools are also on the menu of school choice in the area, and most offer tuition assistance for families that are in financial need. Among them are St. Stephen Catholic School in Glenwood, Liberty Classical Academy in New Castle and the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork in Carbondale.

St. Stephen's in particular is a popular choice among Latino families, given the cultural importance of the Catholic faith. About 40 percent of St. Stephen's students this year are Latino.

"We've definitely seen a dramatic increase in our Latino student enrollment," St. Stephen's Principal Glenda Oliver said. "It is a cultural shift for some of these families, because in Mexico Catholic schools tend to be very exclusive.

"They want the same thing as our other families — a safe environment, a Christ-centered, faith-based education — but they also want a good education," Oliver said.

"It's humbling how many sacrifices people are willing to make to make sure the next generation has a better life," she said.

Alt models ATTRACT

Alternative education models offered by charters and other schooling options have proven successful for second-language students, say leaders of those schools.

"As an educational philosophy, Montessori can be a brilliant choice for second-language students," Hemmen said. "The curriculum has been the same for 125 years, and those who trust and ask questions really fall in love with it."

That's not to say it's the right choice for every family, she said.

Montessori education places an emphasis on smaller, mixed-aged classrooms, fewer interruptions in the school day, specialized educational materials, integration of academic subjects and an environment that "sparks interest and independence," according to a description of the model.

"We like to say that Montessori is for all children, but not for all families," Hemmen said.

Ross and other charter schools work to dispel a perception among recent immigrant families that they charge tuition. Montessori is known worldwide, Hemmen said, but of 5,000 Montessori schools in the United States, only 500 are public charter schools, she said.

Before the K-8 Two Rivers Community School had its current charter approved by the state, it attempted to negotiate a charter with the Roaring Fork School District as an official expeditionary learning school. After that proposal was rejected, it approached the state with a tailored bilingual and projects-based learning model.

"This school is all about celebrating language, so our Spanish-speakers are very important," said Adriana Ayala-Hire, co-director at the school with Rebecca Ruland-Shanahan. "Our approach gives them a good perception of who they are."

Students from Spanish-speaking families are taught with a goal of becoming literate in both Spanish and English. Same for the native English speakers, she said.

The school's upcoming "Demonstrations of Learning" presentations will include a section where students are to present their projects in Spanish, and another portion in English.

"Our goal is to get students to be highly biliterate by the time they leave here and go on to high school," Ayala-Hire said.

Two Rivers students are expected to be prepared for second-, third- or even fourth-year high school Spanish when they are freshmen. Many will be ready for AP Spanish, she said.

Projects-based learning can also help students from immigrant families by giving relevance to what is being taught, added Ruland-Shanahan.

"Right now, we have a teacher who is focusing on immigration issues," she said. "Students are being asked to do podcasts on someone they know who has immigrated here. A lot of these kids are learning the stories of their own parents."

At Carbondale Community School, Compass leaders are stepping up their outreach to the Latino community, including a Latino parents group discussion just this week, Richings-German said.

“We talked a lot about what makes this school great, and how we can do better in meeting the needs of Latino families,” she said. “Diversity is important to us, and our high quality, individualized instruction supports second-language students.”

Some Roaring Fork Schools have also embraced alternative models. Glenwood Springs Elementary and Middle schools are official EL (expeditionary) schools, and the newly opened preK-8 Riverview School uses an English/Spanish dual language model, alongside projects-based learning.

"The core practices behind EL are universal, which is great for all students," GSMS Principal Joel Hathaway said. "Part of the EL school design is also around diversity, respect for others and valuing different histories, talents and cultures.

"All of that definitely aids in helping our English language students become more verbal and more able to clarify their thoughts in another language," he said.

immigrant impact

The Post Independent continues its occasional series looking at the impact of the area’s large immigrant population, this time focusing on the challenges and some of the success stories in area schools.

This week’s series

Schools and immigrants: Impact hits downvalley harder

Schools lag in hiring teachers to match student demographic

Enrique Gonzalez: Mentors key to immigrant student success

Schools looking for new ways to celebrate diversity

Brisamar Lopez: Diversity leads to understanding

Helping immigrants adjust and thrive in the Roaring Fork Valley