Andrew Campanella: You strive for students at New Mexico International School to be biliterate in Spanish and English and conversant in Arabic. How do you do it?
Todd Knouse, head of school: We take students that are monolingual English speakers and immerse them in Spanish. Although we are working on our International Baccalaureate units and our inquiry in kindergarten, the main goal is getting oral language proficiency developed throughout that kindergarten experience. So, the units are taught in Spanish and mathematics is taught in Spanish. Some subjects, like music or our violin program, are taught in English, just for a little bit of exposure. The goal is to have children catch up to where their oral language proficiency would be if Spanish was their first language. For example, most of us learn to talk somewhere around a year. But it takes a good couple of years to develop our language proficiency in our native language, so our goal is to really accelerate that process in their second language throughout their K-2 experience.
Andrew: Tell me about the inquiry-based learning method you use.
Todd: It has to do with soliciting a lot of what children know, what they think they know, what they want to learn, and reflecting on what they did learn. In California, where I taught originally, we would have probably called it cross-curricular education, where we blend the disciplines together into a thematic unit. The themes are organized according to what International Baccalaureate describes. There are six themes throughout the year: who we are; where we are in place and time, etc.
The teaching methodology involves talking about the theme that the classroom is investigating, and really having the children become the dominant force in the learning, so the teacher becomes more of a facilitator toward understanding what the children want.
Andrew: I also read on your website that you offer violin and art programs and field trips. How do those connect to the academics?
Todd: There are generally four fieldtrips a year and each should be tied to one of the six units of inquiry so that they’re thematically related. Art and music are taught by special teachers, and they collaborate with the grade level teachers as much as possible to make their activities related to the thematic unit of inquiry that they’re working on. For example, I remember one time in third grade there was a thematic unit on where we are in place and time, and the focus was on human migrations. The art teacher decided to do some origami butterflies, because they were talking about how not just humans migrate, but other species migrate as well. So that was the art connection on migratory patterns for that class.
Andrew: How do you find teachers who teach in this rigorous academic environment?
Todd: That, my friend, is the million-dollar question. It’s not hard to recruit families. We do prospective parent nights in the spring where parents come and learn about the school. Then we do a lottery for admission, as all the charters are done by lottery here. We have scads of people wanting to join us. Staffing is another issue. In an International Baccalaureate environment, there’s a lot of autonomy in curriculum development. For some people, that’s what they want. Some teachers are looking for that experience as an educator to be able to create, design and revise their curriculum. For others, they’re not. They’re looking to be handed adopted curriculum and to teach chapter four when they’re done with chapter three. So when we’re recruiting staff, we have to be very explicit about the kind of educator that we’re looking for. For some, they light up and we know when we’re interviewing them that that’s the teacher that we want.
Andrew: What else would you like people to know about your school?
Todd: Programmatically, I also want to highlight how we do enrichment classes as part of our response intervention program. Children that are receiving intervention in either reading or math receive that from their primary classroom teacher. In the interim, those that are not receiving that remedial level are sent to different enrichment classes that are being offered. For example, next year we’ll be offering computer coding. It’s been a very hot item, very well received. We have a yoga teacher, and then the other one is Aikido. Those are neat things. When you ask parents, “Why do you choose New Mexico International School?”, those are things that they bring up. Lastly, I think what’s really important is keeping that mind of choice among everyone involved. No one comes to New Mexico International School because they have a certain zip code or live near us. Every child is here because their parents said, “I like the mission of that school”. Everybody’s got to come to that prospective parent night, because that’s how we give the lottery numbers out. It really helps push that idea of choice, and that we’re here because we want to be here. If you ever come to the decision that, “This isn’t the right school for me,” you’re not trapped here either.
Andrew: How do you celebrate National School Choice Week at New Mexico International School?
Grace, fifth-grade student: Each day is a different fun activity.
Monday is pajama day, and that’s my favorite day because I don’t have to worry about changing into my uniform, and I also get to see all my teachers in their pajamas. – Grace
Throughout the rest of the week, it varies throughout years what each day is. I remember Thursday this year was represent your flag day. My mom’s Italian and my dad’s part Irish, so I did Italy and Ireland, I wore their colors.
Kiyomi, fifth-grade student: Throughout the week, there’s a choreographer that we learn the School Choice Week dance from, and then at the end of the School Choice Week we do the dance in front of our parents.
Andrew Campanella is president of National School Choice Week.
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