Situated on a busy section of Huntington Drive in East Los Angeles, the Anahuacalmecac International Preparatory High School has been teaching teenagers about their indigenous roots and culture for five years.
It teaches in Spanish and Nahuatl, incorporates Native American mathematics and indigenous visual and performing arts. One course teaches indigenous diplomacy and youth leadership skills. Parents and grandparents are integrated into the student’s learning.
But the school’s Academic Performance Index for 2012, a standardized measure of success, is 683, well below the statewide goal of 800 points. The score is in the middle of all schools in the state. And the school scored 106 points higher than in 2011. But that wasn't enough for the Los Angeles Unified School district, which decided not to renew the school's charter, citing the school’s API as one of the main reasons. As of today, the school can no longer provide instruction.
Angry parents have vowed to fight to keep the school it open.
“Look at these parents, look at the involvement,” Hector Gomez said during a school board meeting. “Look at the passion they have.”
School administrators said they will petition the Los Angeles County Office of Education to allow the school to open in the fall, under its auspices. But it’s unclear whether that will happen before August – if at all .
Virginia Vaca, whose son Jonathan just graduated from 10th grade, is terrified that he might have to go to the local traditional public high school with 2,000 other teens. If the school can’t open in the Fall, Vaca said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” She's attending daily organizing meetings with other parents and school officials.
At one of recent session on the school’s campus in El Sereno, parents peppered principal Marcos Aguilar with questions. Mothers seated in the auditorium began hatching organizing campaigns.
Of 47 schools up for renewal at the Board of Education’s June 18 meeting, Anahuacalmecac (pronounced Ahh-na-wah-kal-meh-kak) was the only one denied. It is one of only three renewal applications the district has turned down in the past two years. A handful of charters have merged with other schools or shut down on their own during that time and the district has approved 78 new charters.
Semillas Community Schools, the non-profit that runs Anahuacalmecac high school, also runs a charter for k-8 students a little further down Huntington Drive. Called Xinaxcalmecac Academia Semillas del Pueblo, the district approved that school's five-year charter renewal last year. Both schools are commonly referred to as Semillas.
The district's Charter School Division recommended against renewing Anahuacalmecac’s license. Jose Cole Gutierrez, who runs the division, said his staff had deep concerns about the school’s future because of a nearly $600,000 deficit. He said there were other problems, such as the school's repeated failure to provide the district with required documentation.
All these issues “threatened the viability of the school moving forward,” he said.
L.A. Unified board member Monica Garcia wasn’t moved by his arguments. She said the school has showed its success in other ways and cast the lone vote to keep it open.
“Your test scores are not where we want to be, but clearly you have success and clearly you have mastered building community in a way that we as a district have not,” Garcia said.
"There is something that we can't measure because we don't understand it," she added. “Because I represent the school and I have interacted with the community, I understand it.”
Aguilar, the principal, said his high school is not failing. Quite the contrary.
“We graduated 100% of our students,” he said. The school’s 34 seniors met the grade point average and class requirements to enroll in both the Cal State and University of California systems, he said. Eighty percent went on to a four-year college.
The Western Association of Schools and Colleges has accredited it as a quality-learning environment.
Ernesto Collin, an assistant professor of education at Loyola Marymount, testified at a school board meeting on behalf of the charter school. He said high-stakes test scores shouldn’t be the sole indicator of its academic success.
“They are actualizing almost everything I know about effective, culturally responsive education,” he said.
As for the deficit, Aguilar said the school received a grant from the Tzicatl Community Development Corporation for $650,000 that will eliminate the funding gap.
Parents and supporters of the school believe L.A. Unified's decision is not so much about its fiscal deficit or test scores, but about the fact that the school has stood up to the district.
Most recently, it refused to provide it's board members' social security numbers on paperwork that can be accessed by the public.
Aguilar cited federal laws that protect privacy, and added that if President Barack Obama doesn’t have to put his Social Security number on publicly accessible documents, neither should the school’s leaders.
Cole Gutierrez, head of the district’s charter school unit, said he wouldn’t get into the legalities but the request is mandatory and part of the usual background checks.
At the June 18 board meeting, parents and school representatives complained loudly.
Gomez told the 7-member board that his daughter has attended Semillas' high school for the past two years and she is thriving.
“I resent the erroneous notion that we don’t have high standards, that we don’t have high expectations,” he said. “Go visit Semillas, see for yourself.”
Aguilar took to the podium in traditional Aztec dress, including a bare chest and feathered headgear. Other supporters were similarly dressed.
“We invoke the U.N. declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples as we call on the Board of Education to recognize holistic academic excellence and the strong community roots that Semillas represents,” he said. Parents let out a loud cheer.
Virginia Vaca said she can’t think of another school that would enrich her children’s education the way Anahuacalmecac has. Her eldest daughter graduated last year and is now attending college.
The highlight of her 10th grade son's education last year was a yearlong social studies project that included elements of economics, science and math. Students were encouraged to tap their family roots for subject matter.
Jonathan Vaca decided to work on a guitar restoration project with his grandfather, who is from Michoacán.
“In Michoacán they do a lot of guitars,” Vaca said. “So my dad was helping him [with] how to fix a guitar because that’s what my dad did ever since he was small, guitars all his life."