State's First Latino Academy – An Effort to Build on Basics


By Doug Maine
Teachers and parents hope they have found the formula needed to engage students at the Burns  K-8 school in Hartford’s Frog Hollow neighborhood. It has been renamed the Burns Latino Studies Academy. With its focus on Latino studies it becomes the first of its kind in the state and perhaps the nation.
The change comes in hopes of  engaging  the students at a school that has been one of the state’s worst performing schools with just slightly more than a quarter of students proficient in reading on the 2012 Connecticut Mastery Test. This new approach to improve academic progress at Burns  is similar to the creation of other theme schools, a concept found more and more frequently in the educational arena because in many instances they have produced encouraging results.
The Latino studies aspect of the school is a work in progress. The faculty and administration are incorporating Latin American/Spanish examples, history, cultural explanations, etc. into regular lessons to demonstrate a relevance for students between their cultures and academics.  It’s an approach similar to the sports and medicine magnet school where academics are interwoven with athletics. Additional resources include reading coaches and increased efforts to involve parents. Educators hope the start of the school year marked a fresh start for the pre-K—grade 8 school.
The transition requires a massive amount of work and research on the part of teachers. They have to go outside the world of textbooks and curriculum guides to develop their own supporting materials tailored to students in the grades they’re teaching.
Though the Latino studies theme is unique and appeals to many students and parents in the school’s predominately Latino neighborhood, educators know it’s not a magic bullet that will instantly produce higher test scores. “The Latino studies theme in and of itself will not move the school forward. It’s just a component of it,” said new Principal Monica Brase. “Part of the improvement is just creating a positive environment.”
Though it might not produce drastic or immediate gains, she and Eduardo Genao, assistant superintendent for early literacy and parental engagement, who served as the school quality officer at Burns last year, say that implementing the Latino studies theme is important.  “It focuses the curriculum on a theme. It differentiates Burns from the other schools and because we have a choice system of schools, it has an appeal to families that are attracted to that theme, and it creates a healthy competition between schools,” Genao said.
Just as in other schools with themes such as Asian studies, sports and medicine, green technology and law and government, “that theme gives students exposure to that world, that field,” he said. “You can just imagine students being exposed to Latin America in terms of history, agriculture, commerce, politics… It’s not just about language,” Genao said. “What they should know is the richest guy in the world (Carlos Slim) owns telecommunications in Latin America.”
In implementing the Latino studies program, “we’ll make sure the word Latino is not just associated with Puerto Rican. Latino culture in Hartford is diverse,” he said.  The theme notwithstanding, Genao said, “the curriculum is still guided by the national common core standards.” He compared the theme to the seasoning a cook might add to the basic ingredients of a soup. “The theme focuses and enhances a curriculum,” he said.
Connecting with Parents and Students’ culture
The school’s fresh start was celebrated with a couple of events the week before school opened, including a celebration of Latino pride, with food, music, games and other activities. That was part of an effort to connect with parents “before school (started), when nobody’s worried about grades,” Brase said. With about 97 percent of the school’s approximately 660 students being of Latino heritage, “not having the Latino studies, I think, is sending a message to the parents,” the new principal said. “I think the students in the school should celebrate the Latino culture and the food and the music, and learn about themselves.”
“The Latino studies theme should be incorporated throughout the curriculum,” Brase added. For example, when students study US history, they could compare and contrast what happened here with what took place under similar circumstances in a Latin American country, she said.
To help the school’s teachers flesh out the theme, the school is being assisted by a theme coach. “The teachers need the ability to meet with each other and brainstorm with each other and work with the coach,” she said.  Along with the theme, she said, “most of the students are taking Spanish,” with a special program for students in grades K-5 and a new teacher hired just to teach Spanish to students in grades 6-8.
Brase doesn’t speak Spanish, a qualification that was important to the committees that she interviewed with for the position, but she can relate to students and their parents in other ways. “I understand Spanish, but I have a hard time speaking it back. I’m bi-cultural; my mother’s Japanese. I understand not being comfortable going to school,” she said, recalling that the only mention of Japan or Japanese culture in school when she was growing up was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at the start of World War II.
State Funds Making a Difference, Too
Another major factor in efforts to improve students’ academic achievement is an additional $354,000 in support the school is receiving from the state for a new K-3 literacy initiative. That has enabled the school to hire a literacy coordinator and coaches who are working to help the school’s youngest children improve their reading and writing skills, said Genao.
The literacy specialists are being supervised by Dolores Cole, executive director of early literacy and parental engagement, who before July 1 was principal of “the highly successful Noah Webster MicroSociety Magnet School,” Genao said.
About 42 percent of the students at Burns are English language learners. “I was told we have the largest percentage of English language learners of any school in the state,” Brase said.
Latino studies and school choice
Burns “used to be a neighborhood elementary school that was not succeeding,” Genao, the assistant superintendent, said. Its conversion into K-8 community school with a Latino studies theme is all tied to reorganization and reform efforts that Hartford Public Schools began implementing in 2006-07.
“About six years ago, Hartford undertook an effort to replace schools that were not succeeding and open up new schools,” adopting a portfolio approach that offers families a choice of schools throughout the system. Every year, families apply to get their children into the school of their choice, indicating up to four preferred schools in case they are unable to get into their first-choice school.
The school system’s portfolio includes theme-based elementary and middle school academies, magnet schools, district/neighborhood schools, charter schools and open-choice non-district schools.
Brase noted that the design specs for the Latino studies academy, which were created about four years ago, were never fully implemented at Burns. She came to Burns after interim principal Tim Sullivan took over in February, finishing out the last school year there and developing a personal bond with the school community.
“There was something about this school; I felt I couldn’t turn my back on them. The students deserve a school where they enjoy being and learning,” Brase said.
Already, she’s seen positive changes in some of her students. “Right now it’s really exciting for me because many middle school students are really excited about doing things to help make the school a better place,” she said. They may have been energized by a visit by pop star Jason Mraz, who along with volunteers from the school and other community groups, planted several trees and did landscaping work on school grounds just three days before the start of classes. There are also members of Leadership Greater Hartford’s Third Age Initiative volunteering at the school and serving on Burns’ school governance council. Some of the students were also talking about going to a nursing home to help the residents, Brase said.
“We’re a community school, so we’re not just about educating the students but about serving the community,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do, but we have a lot of good people working together,” Brase said.
Brase and Genao were pretty clear that it’s the community school approach — which includes medical care, recreational activities, meals and mental health support for both students and their families — and extra reading help (Burns was just one of five schools to get that state grant for the literacy coaches) that are going to be most important to helping the students progress, despite whatever horrible situations some may face at home or on the streets, partly by helping their parents get the support they need and by seeing that students are well fed and coming to school every day.
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