Children in Lourdes Ascencio’s class groaned last Friday as they hung their heads, slouched their shoulders and trudged along.

Inside a room decorated with language arts and math posters in English and Spanish, the third- and fourth-graders were acting out “agotamiento,” the Spanish word for exhaustion, and other vocabulary they would come across as they read “Diario de la Antártida,” an artist’s log of her four-month-long visit to Antarctica.

But this wasn’t a reading component of a Spanish language class; it was a language arts class taught in Spanish at Mexicayotl Academy in Nogales. At the dual-language charter school, there are no formal Spanish language instruction classes. Instead, language arts and social studies classes are taught in both languages, math is taught in English, and science is taught in English until the upper grades, when Spanish is sometimes incorporated.

“On the border there’s political and economic and social realities that … in order for people to have the strength for doors to be open, (school) has to be in two languages,” said Baltazar “Balty” Garcia, director of Mexicayotl Academy, which enrolls nearly 200 students in grades K-8.

In 2000, Arizona voters overwhelmingly passed the English for Children ballot initiative that ended bilingual instruction in mainstream public schools. Now, students wishing to learn or practice their Spanish can take Spanish class, while those who are not fluent in English learn the language during a temporary transition period by taking self-contained language classes for a minimum of four hours per day.

Advocates of the change said the bilingual education system made it difficult to identify English language learners, and they questioned the efficacy of educating children in two languages. Specifically addressing bilingual education in the local community, then-Nogales High School teacher Kathy Scott wrote in a 2001 column for the Nogales International: “In a community such as ours, where just about the only time a Spanish-speaking student hears, reads or writes in English is within the classroom, spending only a short amount of time on any given day using English was not enough to give students the fluency. And it is fluency, not mere conversational skill, that is needed to be successful in high school where state standards rule the curriculum.”

However, publicly funded charter schools like Mexicayotl, situated at the end of a strip mall on the corner of Mariposa Road and Grand Avenue, and Colegio Petite, a new K-3 school at Mexicayotl’s former location on Morley Avenue, are exempt from the state’s bilingual instruction prohibition. Educators and parents at the schools say students greatly benefit from learning in a dual-language setting, especially in the context of a bilingual community.

Colegio Petite’s bilingual model “is exactly what my child needs, especially starting off in kinder so she can get accustomed to being a truly bilingual citizen of Santa Cruz County,” said Gabriel Galindo of Nogales. He raised his daughter Lucero in a bilingual household, but said he was afraid she would lose her Spanish skills if she attended a mainstream school.

‘Read the world’

While Spanish speakers can become bilingual through their English lessons, and English speakers can learn Spanish through classes at mainstream schools, Garcia said, being “bilingual and biliterate are completely different.”

His wife and Mexicayotl Principal Veronika Garcia said with biliterate, or dual-language education, students go beyond being able to read, speak and understand both languages. She said they can understand cultural contexts and academic concepts in English and Spanish.

Biliteracy, Veronika Garcia said, means “being able to read the word so you can read the world.”

The Garcias said their students’ Spanish literacy is so advanced that many of their eighth-graders pass the AP Spanish exam, therefore entering high school with college credit. They also said some of their graduates are eventually accepted to universities in Mexico.

Upper-level students at the school also fare well on the English Language Arts segment of the AzMERIT standardized test. Mexicayotl saw 53 percent of its seventh-graders achieve proficient or highly proficient scores on the Spring 2016 test, compared to 41 percent of seventh-grade students statewide. Eighth-graders were above 80 percent passing, compared to a state average of 33 percent.

Students at the lower grades did not perform as well on the ELA test, however, which gave the school an overall ELA performance of 32 percent passing, below the 38-percent state rate. Speaking for a story published last October, Balty Garcia explained the lower language scores in the early grades as part of the process of bilingual education, in which students need more time to catch up to the state’s language standards.

Operating since 1998 and named after a movement to revive indigenous Mexican culture, Mexicayotl’s other defining trait is intercultural education. Balty Garcia said this component is intertwined with the school’s language program.

“There’s two languages involved in who you are, (so) then you can’t separate the culture from the language. Language is culture and vice-versa,” he said.

Nogales resident Jesus Mena said his kindergarten daughter Camila was raised in a bilingual household, but when she attended an English-only preschool, her Spanish and English skills both suffered. Her language skills have greatly improved at Mexicayotl, he said, and now Camila even tries to teach her lessons to her 2-year-old sister.

‘50/50 model’

Deedrick Martinez, principal at Colegio Petite, said that being immersed in both languages throughout the day, as opposed to taking English or Spanish lessons at mainstream schools, allows for more consistent practice.

“In this community you have both languages that are equally important here,” he said. “You’re in a border town.”

Martinez said Colegio Petite’s bilingual education follows a “50/50 model.” Math and science are taught in Spanish while language arts and social studies are taught in English. The school’s free afterschool program, which offers sports, art and computer classes, is conducted in both languages.

Students are tested in Spanish and English at the beginning of the year and if they are found to be behind or advanced in either language, they are occasionally pulled out of their classes for extra practice, he said.

During these pull-outs, called the “We Care” program, Martinez said, “We specialize on the specific skills that the students need in order to become proficient in both languages.”

The students’ progress is then monitored throughout the year.

Galindo, the Colegio Petite parent, said he fondly remembers his high school experience of taking a world history course in Spanish.

“It just broadened my mind and opened it up. It was just a great experience for me and I just want to have that for my daughter as well.”

Colegio Petite opened this fall and serves 80 students. Like Mexicayotl, it is a free, nonprofit public charter school and is operated by The Leona Group, a for-profit charter school management company headquartered in Arizona and Michigan. Martinez said Colegio Petite will extend to include fourth-graders next year, and fifth-graders the year after. He is unsure if it will remain an elementary school or expand into middle and high school.

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