Escuela Tlatelolco returns to school’s original roots

Ken Lutes | KenL@NorthDenverTribune.com

WEST HIGHLAND—After more than a decade as a contract school with Denver Public Schools, Escuela Tlatelolco’s principal Nita Gonzales says she looks forward to returning to the school’s roots, which arose from the social justice work of her father, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, in 1970.
Last year, the school’s professional service agreement with DPS—more than $ 800,000 in yearly operational costs—came to an end. “We now have no relationship with DPS,” Gonzales said. “We had support but not the same as what a charter school would get. It’s true we got a significant amount of money, but it was in exchange for sometimes giving up our own soul.
“We were a round peg put into a square hole, and we couldn’t do that anymore. It’s as though a burden has been taken off our shoulders. My teachers will tell you that they can breathe air again. When all of our effort and energy goes to assessment and testing, that’s not educating our youngsters.
“Of course, I want them to do well on classroom tests, but I also want them to be good human beings.” She said the PARCC standardized testing system imposed by DPS doesn’t work for a school like Escuela, whose class sizes are typically below the minimum number for a DPS classroom. This year, the NW Denver dual-language Montessori school at 2949 Federal Blvd has enrolled 175 students in grades pre-K through 12.
Escuela Tlatelolco was a private school before the contracting years with DPS, and the school has always maintained its non-profit 501(c)(3) standing.
“Fundraising is extremely challenging, particularly during a major election year,” Gonzales said. “Those campaigns suck up dollars from many of the conventional places where we look for funding, and from individuals who support Escuela and help sponsor scholarships for most of our kids.”
Gonzales is a seasoned fundraiser who has learned to educate potential donors on why the school is “different and unique.” She has confidence the school’s every need will be met.
“When you create relationships with people and have them come see our youngsters and the work we do, they generally are supportive,” Gonzales said. “Their donations may be small in the beginning, but they grow.
“We are more a community working together than the conventional hierarchy of an organization where staff, board, and fundraising are kind of divorced from each other,” she said.  “And now we have quite a few alumni who are interested and supportive of our school.
“Our challenge will be to continue to raise the funds to support our educational model, and to get people excited that this model still exists. Having said that, I’m also reluctant to concentrate on just that end of it. If I dwell on it, that takes away my energy and effort.”
Gonzales spelled out the school’s emphasis on giving youngsters the wherewithal to choose their life path. “We’re helping our youngsters to dream again, to believe in themselves and have confidence, to have faith, hope and the tools to do that. They may be drawn to college or to a trade—an electrician or plumber, or to become a writer; they may choose to own a business. I’m not talking simply that they become financially successful but that they learn to give back.”
One former Escuela student who gives back to this community is Francisco Gallardo, program director for GRASP—Gang Rescue and Support Project. As a youth, Gallardo was a member of a north Denver gang and once faced a possible 48 years in prison, according to the GRASP web site.  Gonzales said, “At his graduation from Escuela, Cisco said, ‘Escuela Tlatelolco taught me to be proud of who I am as a person and not to fear the differences in others. It taught me how to think, not what to think.’”
For Gonzales, what means more to her than a student scoring 35 on the ACT is when a graduate like Cisco Gallardo comes back to say, “I’m not drinking, I don’t do drugs, and I am walking the right road.” Gonzales said that Cisco found his path to help keep kids out of gangs—and he did go to college.
“72 percent of our alumni have their undergraduate degree—we have three kids at Regis,” Gonzales said. “33 percent have graduate degrees and 22 percent own their own businesses. Our school is small, but we’re powerful. And our attendance rate is 93-94 percent daily.”
Gonzales says that language is an integral developmental part of all cultures and that youngsters must become literate in their first language. “You cannot just submerge them in English, because they will struggle with that. You will find in the ECE and elementary grades the English model and the Spanish model. We staff for that. When students are reading and writing in Spanish, they will excel in reading and writing in English.”
Speaking about the “soul” of Escuela Tlatelolco, Gonzales talked about growing up in a family of eight kids. “My father believed having a good education was the leveling field. He started this school with the philosophy and belief that education should serve to help you find who you are and to make you a good human being. At the dinner table, we read the newspapers and discussed what inhumanities existed and how we could rise above them.
“My father was a student of life and political science. Many people influenced him immensely: Venezuelan political leader Simon Bolivar, Brazilian educator and author Paulo Freire (“Pedagogy of the Oppressed”), and many others. “He had a full set of works by Dickens and all of the classics, and we had to read them all,” Gonzales said.
“He demanded we do our best all the time. He was engaging and sensitive to know where you needed a push to help you make good decisions. He believed that school was a safe place to make mistakes and learn from them.
“He also integrated the concepts of human rights and social justice. I thought all that was normal to every household, but as I became a teenager I found it was not. Another thing we kids learned was that you keep your word, to yourself, to your family and to your community—you have integrity and you have principles. How do we teach young people that? It’s through modeling and experience, messing up and learning from mistakes.”
Escuela Tlatelolco teacher David Orr said in a June 23 letter to The Denver Post, “The thing that makes Escuela Tlatelolco school great is its true commitment to cultivating free-thinking, self-actualized global citizens—individuals who know that doing the right thing is often unpopular and difficult. I have never worked at a school that has gone out of the way more to work with students and families in the most difficult situations.”
Gonzales says this school year will be tuition-free for students. Her goal is to build a scholarship fund for Escuela, so the school can keep the promise that her father made 46 years ago. That promise was to provide an educational environment that would ensure academic success, but also ensure that students would find their voice and be proud of who they are and their history and their place in this world; to be change-agents for their community.

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