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How One of Indianapolis’s ‘Innovation School’ Principals Is Using Language of Love — and Spanish Immersion Program — to Achieve Dramatic Student Growth

By Kate Stringer | October 8, 2017

The staff start their emails with “Familia….” The teachers swing from the monkey bars at recess with their first-graders. The principal finds out students have stolen a bike and walks them home to tell their parents.

Not many schools have the word “love” in their mission, and it’s a hard thing to quantify on a school report card. But Global Prep Academy — whose motto is “unlocking the world through language, expeditionary learning, and love” — is one of a dozen schools in Indianapolis doing things differently, including a dual-language immersion program beginning in kindergarten for its native Spanish and English speakers that aims to embrace students’ culture and families.

“I would love to to see us really utilize the communities that we’re serving to leverage their language so that kids have pride in who they are and in the language they speak instead of downplaying who they are,” said Mariama Carson, founder and principal of Global Prep, a pre-K–6 school that plans to expand to eighth grade.

Global Prep Academy is part of Indianapolis Public Schools’ Innovation Network Schools, created in 2014, which give greater freedom to educators to create their own school design, control budgets, and hire and fire staff. These innovative schools can be charter schools or existing traditional schools, but they are all run by their own nonprofit boards.

“I think the work we’ve done around our Innovation Network Schools has just been about redefining,” said Aleesia Johnson, innovation officer for the district, in a 74 interview. “It was how we think about school improvement and what it means to empower schools to have flexibility and decision-making authority and to be able to leverage that flexibility on a local level, but still have the support and resources of a traditional district to support you.”

It’s not easy. Carson’s school began last year as a reinvention of Riverside 44 school, where 70 percent of the students are low-income, half the students are black, one quarter are Hispanic, and 12 percent are white. In 2016, only 7 percent passed standardized math and reading tests. But in the year since Carson brought in her school model, passing rates rose to 14 percent.

Global Prep wasn’t the only school that saw improvement. Innovation Network Schools registered some of the best academic growth in Indianapolis during 2017 state testing, Chalkbeat Indiana reported, with the top 10 schools growing by 3 to 10 percentage points in reading and math over one year. (Global Prep ranked number six.)

But a majority of students are still failing the state tests. There’s a long way to go to flip that trend, and Carson readily admits that.

“This is just the beginning, and 14 percent is not something we’re proud of. We’re proud of our growth, but I’ll be happy when we get to 80 percent and 90 percent of our students in this environment reaching grade-level proficiency,” she said. “I believe it’s possible, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Carson’s record is in her favor. In four years as principal, she led a D-rated school in Pike Township to a B status. She’s been honored for her practice, including winning the national Milken Educator Award.

Parents have noticed Carson’s expertise, enough to pull their children out of coveted charter schools and send them to Carson’s Global Prep Academy. That was the case with Ann Foisy, whose daughter, Claire, is beginning her second year at Global Prep as a first-grader. After several meetings with Carson, Foisy was impressed by her leadership, the emphasis of love in the mission, and the promise of learning a second language.

As a parent, Foisy said, she feels welcome to observe classes and is impressed to see her daughter’s teachers play with the students at recess or get down to their eye level as they work through Spanish lessons.

“I want [Claire] to be part of a real community that’s representative of the real world and really builds her character,” Foisy said.

Global Prep Academy is one of two schools in Indiana incorporating dual-language immersion correctly, according to Chalkbeat Indiana. Researchers recommend enrolling equal numbers of native Spanish and native English speakers, so students can learn from their peers. In 2016, Indiana offered $1 million in language immersion funding to schools, but many of those programs enroll mostly English-speaking students.

Carson hired her Spanish-language teaching team from countries like Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Cuba. Third-grade Spanish teacher Lidia Vidal Sandate, who grew up in Mexico, was first drawn to the school for its emphasis on love, which she felt had been missing from her experiences as a teacher in Arizona. While witnessing the challenges her urban students face has been difficult, she said, the school’s team, or familia, has made addressing students’ needs easier.

“I’m going to go back to the idea of love,” Vidal Sandate said. “These kids are heard and cared for. They’re receiving a lot of support.”

At the Pike Township school, Carson said, students would say goodbye to their parents in Spanish when they were dropped off in the morning — and then not speak their native language again for the rest of the school day.

“I know that’s because there was shame associated with language,” she said. “When there’s shame associated with who you are, it’s really difficult for you to realize your true potential, because you’re hiding portions of yourself.”

Carson wanted to start a dual-language program there, but was denied. So she applied for a fellowship from the Mind Trust and received a two-year grant to develop Global Prep Academy around this language immersion model. Currently, dual-language immersion starts in kindergarten and goes through third grade, but it will expand each year as students age with the program.

“I never see my kids here deny their language or their culture, ever,” Carson said.

And she sees her school’s mission of incorporating language and culture as more relevant than ever as national rhetoric has turned hostile toward immigrants. After one of her students missed school for four days, Carson knocked on the family’s door and found out that the father had been picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and the mother didn’t know how to drive, leaving the student stranded.

“Our kids are paying attention because they’re living it,” Carson said. “And if they’re not living it, then their classmates are.”

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