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Believe, Achieve, Triumph!
Charter School Inspires Students to Reach Higher

In telling students to Believe, Achieve, Triumph!" the faculty at Csar Chvez Academy Middle School hopes to inspire students to see beyond immediate challenges and set high expectations for the future. Included: A description of an urban charter school program.

As part of their study of genetics, students in Shannon Dziwanowskis seventh-grade science class at Csar Chvez Academy Middle School in Detroit, Michigan, spend the first minutes of class reviewing a worksheet on dominant and recessive alleles, which are alternative forms of genes. Genetics is a complex subject with challenging vocabulary, and while reading aloud, one student admitted that he didnt know how to pronounce heredity.

Not to worry. Ms. Dziwanowski, standing by the overhead projector in the front of the room, sprung into action. You want to really look silly," she explained, leaning forward and overemphasizing the syllables, and really pronounce it. Her. Ed. It. Ee." The class dutifully repeated after her: her-ed-it-ee."

That kind of faculty help and dedication, as well as setting high expectations for students and teaching them to do the same for themselves, are why the Csar Chvez public charter school has built a solid reputation -- and track record -- for helping low-income students from immigrant families succeed. A banner at the top of the schools lobby stairway proclaims in Spanish: Cree, Logra, Triunfa! (Believe, Achieve, Triumph!) The school is named after the Mexican-American labor leader who co-founded the United Farm Workers of America.

Csar Chvez at a Glance

Total enrollment: 490
Grade levels: 6-8
Ethnic breakdown:
-- 89 percent Hispanic
-- 6 percent white
-- 4 percent African-American
Free and reduced priced lunch: 87 percent
Average class size: 20

Teachers focus on academics and helping students re-evaluate and elevate their goals. School leader Rick Guerra and his teachers want their students to go to college, and return to the community, but not in the jobs to which the young people in the area typically aspire. When students say they want to work at a local restaurant, Guerra encourages them to own it. When they say they want to work on cars at the body shop in their neighborhood, their teachers urge them to manage it. But, getting these students to realize that they can be that successful can be a hard row, said Guerra.

Math teacher Michael Astalos takes his eighth-grade students to the local Wayne State University and University of Michigan campuses to show them what college is like, and what they can look forward to. They had no idea that colleges were that big or that nice," Astalos told Education World.


Thats because even with a constant influx of new students and the challenges of a population with limited English proficiency who also need remediation in basic skills, the school has seen success. By the 2006-2007 school year, Csar Chvez had made annual yearly progress (AYP) two years in a row, and started the year in Phase Zero -- meaning the school did not meet AYP for a year, and then made it back to AYP, so the school had been headed back to "in need of improvement" under NCLB, but now is back on track to meeting AYP goals. That achievement earned the school an award from the Michigan Department of Education. And more good news: the most recent sixth-grade proficiency scores surpassed AYP targets" for language and eighth graders met AYP language targets, missing AYP in math by one point. The students dont do as well as their teachers would like on the state tests, but theyve seen progress in multiple areas.


Math teacher Mike Astalos explains to students how to calculate the area of a circle.

When Astalos started teaching there in 2003, as few as 20 percent of the students met state benchmarks in math; now that’s increased to 40 percent of eighth graders.

Csar Chvez also has a partnership with Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU). The state of Michigan requires charter schools to have a university partner, and SVSU faculty provide professional development for Csar Chvez teachers and administrators. SVSU has helped the teachers align Csar Chvezs curriculum with the new Michigan standards for social studies and science, and the college offers ongoing professional development in area such as changes in legislation and standards.


Located in near southwest Detroits Mexicantown, a neighborhood thats lined with Mexican supermarkets, restaurants and car shops, and signs written entirely in Spanish, Csar Chvez stands out in an area where boarded-up and broken-down houses line streets, and graffiti is scrawled under bridges and along train overpasses. The Csar Chvez building is modern and clean -- the windows sparkle, floors gleam, and classrooms are neat and orderly.

Csar Chvez Middle School is part of Csar Chvez Academy, which has an elementary, middle, and high school in Detroit. The school is operated by the Leona Group, a public charter school company. The Leona Group assists charter schools with the payroll, human resources, grants, and budgeting, while the principals get to manage their own schools. Thats the thing that enticed me when I got into administration," said Guerra. Even though you answer to someone else, on a day-to-day basis, youre dealing with your own problems."

I really think that a lot of them will make it. Everything is getting better around them."

The middle school started in 1997 with 75 students; by the 2006-2007 school year, 490 were enrolled, and the school continues to grow in size and popularity. When the school opened, the enrollment was about evenly split between African-American and Hispanic students.

Now, the vast majority of pupils are Hispanic; almost 90 percent in the 2006-2007 school year. Most of the families whose children attend the school recently moved to the U.S. from Mexico or other Latin American countries. Teacher Nathalia Chacin attributes the change in demographics to the response from Hispanic parents in the neighborhood. The parents tour the school and sign their children up; theres a waiting list of more than 100 students.


When parents see Csar Chvez, they see a small school in good academic standing offering a host of extracurricular activities, and with fewer discipline problems than other public schools. And, in this neighborhood, the safe, clean environment counts for a lot. Weve had to build a safe environment from the ground up, and parents have realized that this is a good school," said Guerra, whos worked at Csar Chvez as a teacher and principal since 1998.


Students concentrate in an eighth-grade math class at Csar Chvez Academy Middle School.

Students concentrate in an eighth-grade math class at Csar Chvez Academy Middle School. Students wear uniforms -- dark blue polo shirts bearing a distinctive Csar Chvez eagle logo tucked into khaki pants -- that sets them apart in the community. When youre that recognizable, you dont want to mess up," said Guerra. The school also has a zero-tolerance policy for possession electronic devices and even gum and candy. To further encourage good behavior, students receive blue tickets as they enter a classroom. If they behave and students still have their tickets by the end of the period, they can keep them and turn their collection in for prizes, such as a uniform-free day.

Csar Chvez doesnt do a lot of marketing; word of mouth from their students is good enough. The kids go back to their neighborhoods and tell their friends what theyre doing in school -- Saturday soccer, after school dodge ball, and tutoring. Once their friends are hooked, the parents come and visit. In Mexicantown especially, Csar Chvez is a name that parents recognize, said Guerra, and it flows from there. Parents come in and put trust in us, and we dont let them down."

The staff has grown as the enrollment has increased, from the original six to 55 people, including two social workers for the middle school, and a full-time psychologist shared by the elementary, middle, and high school. The majority of teachers, 96 percent of the 25 teachers on staff in 2006-2007, were highly qualified. The school also has nine teaching assistants who work in classrooms to assist students who need extra help or who have special education needs.

Parents come in and put trust in us, and we dont let them down."

Also contributing to the increase in student enrollment is the decline in the number of private schools in the city. Private schools around Detroit have consolidated because parents cant afford the tuition increases. For years, most of the middle-school students came from Csar Chvez Academy elementary school; now social worker Lynne Santoscoy, sees more students coming from the Detroit Public Schools . Parents are looking for an alternative," said Santoscoy, and they hear about our school in the community."


Many of Csar Chvezs students still struggle with English, making instruction in subject areas more difficult. Half of Csar Chvezs staff members are bilingual, said Guerra, which helps them converse both with students and parents.

In Astaloss eighth-grade math class one afternoon, the buzz of Spanish percolated through a lesson on how to find the area of a circle. As Astalos explained how to cut a circle into triangles, rearrange the triangle into a rectangle and use the rectangle to determine the area formula, students turned to each other and whispered in Spanish, pointing at the sheet or glancing up at the diagram on the overhead projector.

Math is complicated when it comes to language," Astalos told Education World. Even students who have been in the U.S. for years still predominantly speak Spanish with their friends. They still may not have mastered the cognitive aspect of language -- the linguistics needed to really understand certain topics -- so Astalos allows students who have strong English skills help those who are still learning, and the aides who assist the students with special needs in his class help anyone whos struggling. Hes not worried that his students will take advantage of his leniency when it comes to talking in class. At this point, five years into teaching at Csar Chvez, though hes not fluent in Spanish, Astalos knows what the students are really talking about by their tone and demeanor.


Students in Shannon Dziwanowskis seventh-grade science class tackle a lesson on genetics. (All photos by Samantha Cleaver)

In addition to learning English, many of his students dont know basic math skills at the start of the year. So Astalos starts each day with a skills review to make sure students really understand the fundamentals, and, if his students struggle with basic concepts, he stops his lesson and goes back to review.

A lot of it is set up to be differentiated," he said, to reach back and touch on things that they need to know to get the eighth-grade curriculum." The school incorporates 90-minute blocks into the school day, giving teachers more time to really address basic skills and delve into subjects.

Bilingual instruction is vital at Csar Chvez. Even if students are fluent in both Spanish and English," said Chacin, Spanish sometimes interferes with their English abilities because they learned it first." The language barrier affects the school in multiple ways, added Guerra. We want them to learn English to be successful, so that they know both languages, but a lot of our students are still struggling with Spanish."


In part because students share a common language and culture, Csar Chvez students tend to be a close-knit group, said Santoscoy, the social worker. She recalled a field trip that Csar Chvez students took with students from another Detroit school. On the trip, Csar Chvez students were teased by the students from another school for speaking Spanish with each other.

Even as the school grows, Csar Chvez works to maintain a small school atmosphere, one that allows the administration and staff members to deal with challenges head-on and get to know individual students.

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Because students know that Csar Chvez is a safe place, Chacin said, they can let their guard down. Thats where relationships come in. We eat lunch with the kids, sit and talk to them," noted Guerra, then the students let their teachers in on whats going on in their lives and their neighborhoods.

Yasmin, 14, an eighth grader, said there is no drug dealing at Csar Chvez and fewer fights compared to her friends schools. Frequent locker checks and a strict discipline policy help keep gangs and drugs out. There are fewer fights, said Armando, 14, an eighth grader, because the assistant principal, Steven Rios, intervenes in disputes before fights start.


The challenges for Csar Chvez are those shared by many other urban schools. Among them: Making sure that school, not video games, socializing, or gangs are a priority, and helping their students reach for more than what they see around them.

As with many other urban schools, the teachers at Csar Chvez often have to deal with students social or emotional issues before they can move on to academics. The biggest problem that we have is whatever happens to them on the weekend, spills back into school on Monday and we have to clean up the mess and pick up the pieces," Guerra noted. In school, one of the main problems that Santoscoy addresses daily is when students bring problem-solving skills from the community into school and it doesnt work here." Santoscoy uses peer mediation groups and one-on-one sessions to teach kids basic problem-solving skills.

Signs of gangs presence -- such as graffiti -- have been appearing in the community, said Santoscoy, so school staff members work diligently to keep it from creeping into the school. If graffiti goes up, its taken down ten minutes after the staff finds it, said Guerra. Students also arent allowed to wear colors associated with gangs.

Csar Chvezs social workers collaborate with community organizations like Southwest Solutions, Open Arms, and the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation to help students build the skills they need to resist pressure to try gangs or drugs. Weve worked very hard to not have gangs in school," said Astalos.


Csar Chvez staff members also strive to understand their students lives through the context of their culture.

Many of the students are accustomed to living in homes with five other families. A lot of Hispanic culture is that families live with a lot of other families," noted Santoscoy, and thats normal." Csar Chvez faculty members also have to work with parents who move frequently, whether that means going back to Mexico for the month of December, or students who move in and out during the school year as their parents relocate around the country for work. In Detroit, a city thats been hit hard by the downturn in the state and now federal economy, financial pressures constantly weigh on students and their families.

One of the schools current challenges is increasing parent involvement. Parents want their kids to come to Csar Chvez, said Chacin, but the school is still struggling to develop working relationships with parents. There is a very real cultural barrier -- Hispanic parents may have had a different relationship with schools in their native countries, where, instead of working with schools from the beginning, they only come when theres a problem. Or, theyre intimidated by the language barrier.

Still, Cesar Chavez is an integral part of this growing Detroit community and despite those challenges and many others, optimism runs high for the school and its students.

Astalos anticipates that most of his students will go on to college. I really think that a lot of them will make it," he said. Everything is getting better around them."