Bold, new program delivers love and affirmation for Austin’s Latinx students

Educators work with students at Academia Cuauhlti.

By Bill Moreno and Sabrina Holcomb

A growing reality for many of the nation’s educators is a curriculum that hasn’t kept pace with the changing face of America’s student population. In Austin, Texas, where students of color number 73 percent and Latino students nearly 60 percent, a grassroots group of educators and community organizations came together to empower students who often feel invisible.

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Their brainchild is Academia Cuauhtli, a wildly popular program that’s part ethnic studies, part language revitalization, and part professional development.

The bilingual curriculum, which is rooted in indigenous ways of learning, is a source of joy and pride for students and educators.

“When our students learn about their roots and ancestors, they become visible,” says Michelle Yanes, an Education Austin member and Academy volunteer.  “And when I get to teach in such a powerful way, it fills me up.”

The Academy is a grassroots initiative and true coalition effort: Housed in the Mexican American Cultural Center, the curriculum is taught by Education Austin volunteers, written by university professors (in consultation with public school teachers), and developed with community organizations Nuestro Grupo and the Austin Area Association for Bilingual Education. The city of Austin operates the Center and the school district provides students with transportation.

Although classes are held on Saturdays, off school grounds, much of the Academy curriculum has been embedded in the 4th grade social studies curriculum throughout the district.

“We all joined forces to meet our students’ needs and form a human wall of love against hate, bias, and those who would block children in search of opportunity,” says Monserrat Garibay, vice-president of EdAustin.

Michelle Yanes

“When I first heard about Academia Cuauhtli, it sounded like heaven,” recounts Yanes, a bilingual specialist. “I often have difficulty using school resources because they don’t highlight the contributions of Latinxs in our community. At la Academia, I was empowered by a new way of teaching students.”

Rather than divorcing educator development and preparation from students, parents, and community, Academy organizers intentionally included them in the formation of the program instead of viewing them solely as a target audience. Along with deepening educators’ practice in diverse communities, the program also aims to “grow its own” teachers by inspiring a new generation.

The process works. In addition to research touting the success of linguistically and culturally relevant instruction, Academy students have become de facto instructors, eager to share their new knowledge with their peers.

The next phase of the program is a professional development component that will launch this fall, with a grant from NEA’s Great Public Schools fund. Educators will have the opportunity to train and practice at the Academy, while veteran volunteers will mentor fellow educators at their school buildings. The program, which serves elementary students, will eventually expand to include middle and high schoolers.

Buoyed by the success of the program, Academy activists urge other affiliates and school districts to launch initiatives that meet the unique needs of their students and communities.

“This program is very near and dear to many people’s hearts,” Yanes declares. “It challenges the community to think in a different way. Not in a way that targets us or puts us down but in a way we can rise up together.”

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