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Charter school provides greater choice to Colorado Latinos.

Principal Lawrence Hernandez is quick to correct anyone who tells him low-income parents do not care about their children's education. Pointing to his charter school as proof positive, he says, "The most powerful thing they've done is to have chosen an option for their kids."

In fact, it was seeing "the urgency of parents who wanted something better for their children" that compelled Hernandez, his wife, Annette, and several community activists to create the Cesar Chavez Academy (CCA) six years ago as a public school choice for the largely rural and Latino community of Pueblo, Colo. "For the longest time," he explains, "the parents who had influence always got what was best for their kids, and sort of everybody else--which was the other 90 percent of people in the community--would hope that their children got a good education. But when we came along, what we really did was galvanize the entire community."

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By drawing on charter privileges that allow greater autonomy than traditional public schools in exchange for promised results, CCA offers students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade a longer school day, smaller classes and a more rigorous curriculum requiring any assignment receiving a grade below 80 percent to be redone. According to the results from last year's state exam, its students in grades 3-8 outperformed others at both the district and state levels in reading, writing and math by an average of 25 percentage points. For the past three years, CCA--which was recently featured in a publication from the U.S. Department of Education spotlighting K-8 charter schools that have closed the achievement gap--has ranked in the top 8 percent of schools statewide based on overall academic performance.

Attracted to the school's special features, Lynn Rodriguez was one of the first parents to enroll her children at CCA. She transferred all three of her sons, hoping the school's tutoring programs, in particular, would help shore up her oldest son's skills.

Her expectations were exceeded. "[Compared to] what they were learning in their [traditional] public schools," she said, "at Cesar Chavez Academy ... it seemed to me they were getting their education two years ahead. All my boys have always said, 'They teach us to think at a higher level.'"

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Since the 2001 opening, enrollment at CCA has more than quadrupled, from 240 to 1,100 students, while 3,000 are on the waiting list. (Spaces are awarded by lottery.) A number of parents drive their children from as far as 30 miles away for one of the school's coveted seats. The principal's two youngest children attend the school as well as most of the staff's.

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To meet the rising demand, in 2004, Hernandez, along with a committee of parents and business and community leaders, also founded locally a college prep high school, which now has 500 students, and next fall will open another Cesar Chavez Academy in an area in Colorado Springs with similar demographics.

While CCA was intended to serve Pueblo's low-income population--of which nearly one in three Latinos lives in poverty--now it is more common to see "in the same classroom a child of a doctor or lawyer sitting next to a child of a migrant farm worker," said Hernandez. "That's a powerful statement for the kind of choices parents are making for their kids."

Based on the founders' philosophy that "schooling is most effective when it respects and reflects the history and culture of the children and families that it is intended to benefit," Latino traditions are celebrated throughout the school. Students take Spanish every day. After-school activities include playing in the "Mariachi Aguila" band, which recently placed second in an international competition. Adorning the walls is various artwork of an aguila, or eagle, the symbol of the Mexican-American civil rights movement led by the school's namesake, Cesar Chavez.

Raised in Pueblo in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood, Hernandez understands firsthand the challenges faced by many of the families his school serves. He was the first in his family to go to college (afterward earning his master's and doctorate degrees at Stanford University, and later teaching at Harvard's School of Education). While it was his mother who taught him to read and his father who secured a small scholarship to help pay tuition, he said he received little to no guidance from the school system. The experience gave him the impetus for developing a supportive school that helps make college possible for under-resourced children.

In preparation for the academic rigors of higher education, CCA students do research papers as early as the fourth grade and are required to assemble a portfolio of their best work, complete a thesis project in history or science, and give a series of oral presentations as part of their graduation requirements. Keeping them on their toes, they also must deliver impromptu speeches and papers for what is respectively called "Stand and Deliver" and "Writing on Demand." Hernandez has been known to walk into a room without notice and announce a topic that students must immediately address.

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For those who want to take on greater challenges, CCA offers an honors curriculum for fifth- through eighth-graders that allows them to complete their high school freshman coursework, so by the time they graduate they can go directly into the 10th grade.

Nancy Gordon, one of the school's founding teachers, said the high standards have been a lifesaver for many of the struggling students who arrive. "When the children come in so low, we don't just want to make a year's growth--we want to pull them up even further."

CCA's academic program is designed to help ensure that no one fails. To help students exceed the 80-percent benchmark required for every assignment, teachers provide one-on-one tutoring after school as well as on Saturdays. Assessments are constantly administered to gauge student performance, providing data for teachers to customize instruction, develop individual student achievement plans, and, if necessary, enlist the assistance of the school's prevention specialist who will make home visits to build parent support.

Furthermore, because the typical school day is from 7:20 a.m. to 6 p.m.--eight hours of classroom instruction followed by after-school enrichment activities in which all students must participate--more time is devoted to learning.

With a longer school day, coupled with a small-class ratio of one teacher to 13 students, the staff is able to cover more material and give more individualized attention. Last year, to help maintain student-teacher connections, CCA was organized into three separate academies: pre-kindergarten through second grades; third through fifth grades; and middle school (sixth through eighth grades).

The reorganization has provided a greater network of support, especially for new educators, says Candice Leland, who joined CCA last year. As part of teacher collaborative efforts, Leland meets with her fifth-grade writing team, her academy colleagues, and her teacher mentor. She also likes the idea that students see only two teachers a day through grade 3 and from thereon a teacher for every subject. "I really think that benefits the students because it allows the teacher to get really strong in one subject, and then the students get the best of everything."

Cesar Chavez Academy

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* Grade Span: Pre-K-8

* Locale: Rural

* Total Students: 1,100

* Race/Ethnicity Enrollment: 75% Hispanic, 23% white, 1% African American, 1% Native American

* Free and Reduced-Price Lunch Eligible: 62%

* English Language Learners: 46%

* Special Education Students: 13%

* Percentage Proficient *:

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* According to 2006 results on state exam.

* Interesting Fact: Since the 2001 opening, enrollment at Cesar Chavez Academy has more than quadrupled, from 240 to 1,100 students, while 3,000 are on the waiting list.
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Title Annotation:Galvanizing the Community; Cesar Chavez Academy
Author:Ashby, Nicole
Publication:The Achiever
Article Type:Company overview
Geographic Code:1U8CO
Date:Nov 1, 2007
Words:1273
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