Oct. 31, 2019
When math teacher Patrick Baxter arrived at Cesar Chavez Academy Middle School for his first day, seven years ago, "culture shock" felt like an understatement. Having taught as a long-term substitute in numerous Detroit classrooms, he thought he'd seen it all - he thought he had a great lay of the land. But he was in for a big surprise.
Situated in Detroit's Southwest neighborhood (Mexicantown for the locals), CCA Middle serves a student body that is 97% Hispanic/Latino identified - all with varying levels of English proficiency. The CCA District, which provides grades K-12, serves an 88% overall Hispanic/Latino student body, 35% of whom qualify as English Language Learners (ELL's).
"My first few weeks, I still remember looking down at my class rosters, and realizing I couldn't pronounce many of the names I saw," said Baxter, "and while it was super intimidating at the time, I told all my students to correct me, so I'd get it right. Now, I make it an annual goal to know ALL 140 of my students' names by the second week of school - with pronunciation!"
"Non-English speaking families face innumerable challenges. We can see the results of this circumstance every day, from not understanding the bills and payment processes they receive in the mail to not being able to communicate with police officers when they are pulled over," said Holly Rea, Manager of Language Services for the Hispanic Center of Western MI, "Most often, these communities are left out of
conversations and decisions simply because they do not receive the information in their native tongue and do not know what is happening in their own cities."
The same challenges often arise for non-English speaking parents and students in the school setting - and often their lack of language proficiency is misdiagnosed as disinterest in the learning process. But at CCA Middle, supporting parent involvement is a key priority. In fact, you'll be hard-pressed to find a single communication - whether it be a take-home flyer, a Facebook post, or event the sign on the front door - that doesn't have both and English and a Spanish translation.
"The one word that always comes to mind is 'accessibility,' " said Justin Currie, CCA Middle's English Language Coordinator, "The little steps we take to ensure everything we send home with students is in both English and Spanish helps every family feel like they're part of what's happening here." And while translation is one key support system at CCA Middle, their school leaders recognize the importance of communicating in Spanish, and take a unique hiring approach when adding to their team.
"We have a very clear vision about who we need on our team, to service our students," said Brittiany Romero, Assistant Principal at CCA Middle, "It's someone who's passionate, who's dedicated, and who understands the needs of these kids in Southwest Detroit, specifically their language needs. And when we find candidates who have that passion, grew up in this neighborhood, love this community and can also speak Spanish, we make sure they have a place on our team."
Back when Romero first started at CCA Middle, the school only had one English as a Second Language (ESL) certified teacher, and three Spanish-speaking aides to support the students. Today, they have three bilingual teachers, six ESL-certified teachers and numerous Spanish-speaking aides. And the results speak for themselves: nearly 97% of CCA High School students graduate - many going on to higher education, vocational training, and some even returning to the CCA community to give back.
As for math teacher Patrick Baxter - what was once culture shock is now home. "Just being around students and staff members who come from a different upbringing, a different culture, has added to me as a person. It's about how you can change, and evolve - and that's what I've done here."