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74 Interview: Co-Founders of Nashville’s First New Charter School in 5 Years on Offering Dual Language to All Families

(L to R) Aventura Community School co-founders Diana Aguilar and Natalie Morosi. (Aventura Community School)
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See previous 74 Interviews: Author Amanda Ripley on “The Smartest Kids in the World” being made into a movie, National Parents Union President Keri Rodriques on public school disenrollment during the pandemic and author Tim DeRoche on the inequity of school attendance zones. The full archive is here.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, dual language immersion was one of the hottest things in American public education. Dual language programs teach academic content in two languages, and — optimally — balance their enrollment roughly equally between native speakers of each language. 

In those “two-way” dual language immersion classes, native English speakers and (for example) native Spanish speakers learn both languages together — and learn academic content in both languages. 

These programs don’t just facilitate integration. They are also the best way to support the linguistic and academic development of English learners. But the popularity of these programs with privileged, English-dominant, often white families (including my own) means that the reality often falls short of that ideal. 

In August, a new dual language school in Nashville, Tennessee will aim to bring that ideal to their community. To learn more about Aventura Community School, the first local charter school to be approved in more than five years, I recently spoke to two of its co-founders, executive director Natalie Morosi and family engagement director Diana Aguilar. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

The 74: How did you come to education? How did you come to Nashville? How did you get excited about bilingual education? What’s the story that brought you to this room here?

Natalie Morosi: I grew up here in middle Tennessee, in an English-speaking family. I started to study languages in high school—my counselor told me that learning a second language would open doors and open the world to you, and she was right! 

Through opportunities to travel and study and things, I just really saw the value of being bilingual or multilingual; also because it helped me build meaningful relationships and enjoy art in different ways. So when I began my career in education, there was an existing bilingual school here in Nashville, so I signed up to teach at that school. 

I was there for nine years, but it serves mostly English-speaking families. I really saw potential, with the success of the school and the interest in the school, it seemed that our district would likely add a second bilingual option, ideally in the part of town that has diverse families that have diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

And then, after a while, seeing that the district hadn’t done that, we kind of decided, maybe it was time to start our own bilingual charter school. So we navigated that application process over the 2020-2021 school year, and here we are ready to open in August.

Diana Aguilar: I’m originally from Ecuador. I spent 18 years of my life there and then I moved here. So definitely bilingualism is very important for me, because you know, it was my lifeline.

All through elementary and high school, English classes are taught in Ecuador, because people are aware that kids need it to become successful adults. But I never went to an actual bilingual school. So when I got here, it was a little bit terrifying taking the SAT.

But it worked out and I got into education. I majored in Spanish — my goal was to teach Spanish.

But then my mentality kind of changed, as I noticed all of the English learners who needed to see somebody who looked like me, that understood where they were coming from. I decided to get my degree in EL instruction.

I worked as a translator for a few years, and then I went to teach kindergarten for three years, and then I taught third grade with Natalie, which is where we met. I still remember her then: her creative mind and her ideas and passion for education, equity and justice.

It’s been a nice journey to see all of those come to life in this school. I showed up at a session Natalie was doing for prospective Aventura parents — I didn’t even tell her I was coming, I was just there — and then I kind of lingered at the end and I told her, just sign me up to help for whatever. I wanted to jump on board. Because I just feel there’s such a need for people to open their minds and see all the benefits that come with being bilingual and being able to communicate with another person and to connect with that person at a deeper level. 

Also, I have kids of my own now, and it is so important for them to keep that connection to our language and culture. Most of my family speaks Spanish. How else are they going to talk to each other?

You’ve both mentioned equitable access to bilingual education as a part of why you’re starting the school. Tell me about the community where Aventura’s going to be located. Tell me about the students there. 

Morosi: Yeah! We’re opening in Southeast Nashville, which is the most diverse area of Nashville. Our goal is for Aventura to be reflective of the community. 

For our dual language model, we will hopefully have around 40 to 50 percent of students who speak Spanish at home and around 40 to 50 percent of students who speak English at home. And then there are families who speak other languages. In Nashville, the most common of other global languages would be Arabic or Kurdish.

Families see the value in developing literacy in English and Spanish: both from an economic perspective, and also a ‘being able to interact authentically with my neighbors’ perspective. We focus on global competence, and bilingual education is a big piece of that, but we’re also bringing a really purposeful approach to project-based learning. We’ve developed collaborative partnerships with many, many community organizations even prior to opening. Students will be working on projects in Spanish and English each quarter and creating some sort of a product, to the benefit of their community.

With more than a decade of education experience here, as well as abroad, this is the education I want for my own kids. Even better, so many other families tell us they are also excited about this opportunity.

Diana Aguilar, holding her 3-year-old daughter, with co-founder Katie Castellon. (Aventura Community School)

You’re both sending your children to Aventura, no?

Morosi: That’s right! I can’t wait for the first day of school in August. My daughter will be in first grade and my son will be in kindergarten. 

Aguilar: My son didn’t make the cut — he’s already in second grade and we’re just launching with kindergarten and first—but he’s been volunteering since day one. And I have a 3-year-old — she’s already talking about when she gets to go to “Commuty School”— that’s how she says it.

Morosi: And then our third co-founder, Katie Castellon, her son is going to be joining for kindergarten next year. So we’re all very, very invested in this model.

Tell me about the model—it’s a two-way dual language immersion school, right? 

Morosi: Yes. In kindergarten we’re going to start with 80 percent of the day in Spanish and 20 percent of the day in English. They’ll always have English literacy in English, of course, and then one of our enrichment classes also — P.E. or music or something like that — and then everything else will be in Spanish.

And then we’re going to kind of stair step more English each year, so it’ll be 70 percent in Spanish in first grade, 60 percent in Spanish in second grade and then from third grade through eighth grade, instruction will be half of the day in each language — always focused on developing literacy in both languages at every level.

Why take the charter route? 

Morosi: It’s really important for us that we have the freedom to implement all the details of our model in the way that the research suggests is best for both our native English- speaking students and our global language speakers. We also really believe in project-based learning, so we wanted to be able to select our own instructional materials. 

So, we adopted a curriculum that really supports this model and that we’re able to implement in both languages. We picked an assessment system that helps us track the literacy development of our students in both languages and provide support. 

Being a charter school gives us so much more freedom and independence in selecting the tools that best serve our program.

I’ve heard this sort of thing a lot from dual language charter schools. 

Morosi: It also speaks to the professional piece: staff recruitment and development. The freedom and independence as a charter school is just going to allow us to find, hire and support teachers who are prepared to execute our precise, wonderful, complicated school model.

How are you finding teachers? I know that dual language schools can be tough to staff

Morosi: Sure. All of our classroom teachers need to be bilingual and we’re aiming for at least one of those classroom teachers to be a native speaker. But I think our unique program has drawn people to us. We hear lots of “Nashville has needed something like this for a long time, how can I get involved?’” type of things. 

So, ha, obviously it’s hard to launch a new school, and, ahem, it’s probably more than a little harder to start one in a pandemic. So, um, how’s that going? 

Morosi: Well, Aventura had been a dream for a long time, and informal conversations with educator friends and parent friends and many conversations with my husband, but we were living in Madrid, we had been there for three years. When the pandemic hit, after about two weeks we realized, ‘This is going to take a while. We have to move home to Nashville.’ 

And then, we had to figure out what the heck we were going to do for work when we moved back, and thought, ‘Ah, that school that Nashville has needed for so long, maybe now’s the time to learn how to submit a charter application and test it.’

So I connected with the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition which has a fellowship to support leaders who want to open new intentionally diverse charter schools. So we started writing the charter application in summer of 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic. 

I would say it’s been challenging from a student recruitment standpoint. We haven’t been able to reach larger numbers of families and hold the types of events that we would have liked to, but we were lucky to be able to host some fall events and collaborate with some of our community partners, especially during Hispanic Heritage Month.

You’ve both talked about this a little already, but … how is Nashville responding as you get closer to launch? 

Morosi: I was nervous about the politics, because we had both been public school teachers and so we know that charter schools can be political for one reason or another. So we worked really hard to communicate with the grass-tops and the grassroots in the community, so to speak, because this is a school model we really believe in. And we were the first charter school to be approved locally in more than five years.

People are excited about this school, even those who might not be inclined to support charter schools. I think it’s because this is a school that is really serving populations intentionally in a new and needed way.

Aguilar: One mom called me and she said, ‘I was so excited you guys are going to open. I was planning on taking my kid to Mexico in second grade for a year, so that he will learn the language.’ And I was like, ‘You don’t have to move your family! You can stay!’

It’s bilingual education, but it’s also the community focus, the global competence. We’re really bringing things that are innovative into the school system. I’m an educator and that’s what I want to see for my own kids and all kids. 

As I think about them, I think about so many immigrant families who have been here for a long time who have not seen these kinds of opportunities for themselves and their kids. 

Morosi: Yeah. I love that quote that ‘Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.’ That really speaks to the intentionality in our model and that’s our political perspective. This model of education is going to prepare the students to be the types of leaders that we need.

That’s John Dewey, right? 

Morosi: Yeah. 

Tell me about the partnerships you mentioned. How are you collaborating with community organizations? 

Morosi: We want to have these very tight relationships with local organizations that can support our families. For example, we’ll be able to connect families with health or legal services, whatever they need. We want partnerships that help us connect with and build on the strengths that are already in our communities. 

So what’s the 10-year dream? It’s 2032 and we’re talking again. How are you describing how the school’s going? What’s it doing?

Morosi: So exciting! We will have been at scale for three years by then, so I hope that we’re making an impact on our city by then. We believe that Aventura students are going to be sought after by Nashville’s secondary schools. They’re going to bring intellectual curiosity and a demonstrated record of engaging, impactful, multilingual community projects. 

Aguilar: Well, my 3-year-old is gonna be a 13-year-old by then, and I’m just looking forward to seeing all the opportunities available for her. Hopefully, there will be a bilingual high school by then that I can send her to! 

As far as our students … I just feel like they’ll have so many years of this amazing opportunity to be around other people who may not look like them — but they will still be able to communicate with them in two languages. They won’t have to wait until they grow up for that. Sometimes, for one reason or another, students’ natural curiosity gets dismissed or pushed to the side, but if you give them access to opportunities to grow, they can step up to the plate. So my hope is that people will look at our program and say, ‘What are they doing at that school? We want that too.’

Morosi: Right. Our students will have the knowledge that their ideas are important, that they make an impact. And that will serve as an inspiration, not only for our community, but for surrounding communities, to have this more respectful, integrated approach to educating children. 

We think a lot about wellness in our organizational culture, for our students, our staff and our families. We believe that the academic measures that are traditionally valued will naturally result when you have a really supportive community that also has high expectations.

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