Gorillas and goals at this immersion school are “almost magical”

By: Savanna Buckner

Last Upated: May 19, 2021

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New Mexico International School strives to provide Albuquerque students lots of language skills and even a little magic.



Every year during National School Choice Week, a special guest magically appears at New Mexico International School. Friday rolls around, students begin to perform the School Choice Week dance for their parents, and then… 

“There’s this random gorilla that keeps showing up,” says fifth-grader Kiyomi Vigil.

For at least five years now, someone dressed in a gorilla costume has joined the students for the dance.

New Mexico International School students dance for School Choice Week

Head of School Todd Knouse feigns innocence about the recurring visitor.

“Every year I seem to be called to do a hot yoga session in my office and I always miss the dance,” he says. “It’s just been tragic. But there’s this gorilla that shows up and does the dance with them.” 

The gorilla magic at New Mexico International School is hilarious, but it isn’t the only thing helping students get excited about school. 

Kiyomi and Grace, another fifth-grade student, joined Knouse in explaining why they love learning at the K-5 public charter school.  

One thing they all shared excitement about was the school’s intensive language program: A main goal at New Mexico International School is for students to become bilingual and biliterate in Spanish and English and conversant in Arabic by fifth grade.

Knouse agrees that this goal sounds “almost magical.” But, he is quick to add, “that is the power of starting immersion when children are in kindergarten.”

Being equipped with three languages is helping students like Grace and Kiyomi face the future confidently. 

“It makes me excited that it gives me a lot more job opportunities,” said Grace. “I can talk to people in airports and help people in grocery stores who may not speak English or Spanish or Arabic.”

It’s really cool to learn more languages. I started off with English, and then when I was here for kindergarten up to fourth grade, I learned a lot more Spanish and I’m taking Arabic now. You get to try new, different experiences. You get to go out into the world and understand people, what they’re speaking, or what they’re doing. – Kiyomi

According to Knouse, New Mexico International School was actually founded in response to a community need for more Spanish language immersion schools. Also seeing an unmet need for inquiry-based instruction, the school decided to use an International Baccalaureate model to teach Spanish immersion. 

New Mexico International School students pose for a picture

As Kiyomi shared, the immersion program is about more than learning a new language skill. It’s ultimately geared toward students connecting with other cultures and feeling confident wherever they go. 

“In fourth grade, we had this really amazing project where we understood different people’s religions,” described Grace. “We studied [religions] and where they came from, and that really helped me understand. If I saw someone in the road taking their shoes off and walking barefoot, maybe I’d understand now that they do this for their God, they do this for their sacrifice. It’s very important to understand other people’s points of view. That’s what this school has very much helped me with.”

Knouse believes, and I think he’s right, that being able to connect the dots and understand what we see in the world around us is a big part of happiness. Whether it’s by achieving impressive language goals or joking about gorillas, happiness happens when we actively engage in the world around us.  

“There are all kinds of things that connect that, when we’re paying attention, we’ll see,” said Knouse. “We try to create that experience for the students, so that they can start seeing those connections that happen in life outside of school.”

New Mexico International students practice violin

New Mexico International School students pose for a picture with school choice scarves


Read more: 5 Questions for Todd Knouse and students at New Mexico International School

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