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Class Of '17: A Trilingual Approach To Learning

All year long, KERA has followed the Class of ’17 from eighth grade to high school as part of the American Graduate initiative. Today, we catch up with Alex Gutierrez whose struggles in math sent her to summer school. Alex is now in a brand new charter school with a multicultural twist.

At the International Leadership of Texas in Garland, Principal Nadia Ayala has a poster on her office wall. It’s of Edward James Olmos in the movie Stand and Deliver. In the movie, Olmos plays real-life math teacher Jaime Escalante, who tries to inspire his students. He tells them math is the great equalizer.


“Students will rise to the level of expectations…,” reads the poster. “Ganas, that’s all we need is ganas.”

The Spanish word Ganas means desire.

That’s the kind of message Principal Ayala sends her students. Recently, she had a chat with Alex Gutierrez about her struggles in pre-AP Algebra.

“I told her in Spanish, ‘Necesitas hecharle ganas,’” Ayala says. “You have to put in the will and the work so that you do well, especially when you know you’re not the best at something…you need to work even harder.”

For the first time, Alex is optimistic about math.

“It’s going good,” Alex says. “I’m going to tutoring every morning to get help if I need it. And right now, I currently have an 84 so that’s, like, good for me.”


Credit Stella M. Chavez / KERA News
Students at the Garland charter school are required to learn both Mandarin and Spanish. Next summer, students without disciplinary problems will have the opportunity to travel to China. In the fall, nearly 200 Chinese students will go to the Garland school and live on campus there.

The college preparatory school opened in the fall and has 160 students in ninth and tenth grade. All students take pre-AP or AP-level core classes. And here’s what else sets this school apart – every kid has to learn Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. That’s what attracted Alex to the school.

“I like the idea of learning Chinese cause that makes me tri-lingual and it helps in my chances of getting a good job,” she says.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“It wasn’t hard at first, but it’s gotten challenging.”

The school’s founder, Eddie Conger, is the former principal at Thomas Jefferson High School in Dallas ISD. He started a Chinese language program there and left in 2012 after the state approved his charter school application. There are other branches in Garland and Arlington with a Keller campus set to open in the fall.

Teacher Shenglin Selinger, who’s from Chenzhou in the Hunan province in China, tries to make learning fun, emphasizing speaking and listening first. She lets students pair up with a buddy, shows videos and plays music,  like hip hop songs that teach students how to pronounce numbers.

Selinger says the hard part is learning the Chinese characters, so she tries to build up their confidence first.

“Kids, they’re still kids,” Selinger says. “Once they feel like they can do it, they can say it and they feel good. They just want to keep going.”

Principal Ayala points out the big challenges for ninth graders like Alex. A year ago, they were the oldest kids in their school. But in high school, they’re the youngest – and at a brand new school.


Credit Stella M. Chavez / KERA News
Principal Nadia Ayala gets inspiration from the words of Henry Ford and Edward James Olmos’ character in the movie Stand and Deliver.

“We hear things like it was a lot easier at the other school,” Ayala says. “I try to explain I understand that, but we’re really trying to prepare you for college, and when you get to college, you’re gonna think this is a breeze.”

There’s also a payoff at the end of the year. The school has an exchange program with four high schools in China. The school has raised $20,000 so far and hopes to raise more, so students without disciplinary problems can travel there this summer. And next fall, 192 students from China will come here and live on campus in a newly-built residential building.

Watch a scene from the movie Stand and Deliver below.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.