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When Alberto Hernandez started kindergarten in 2005, he didn’t speak any English. The son of two Mexican immigrants, he only spoke Spanish at home. His parents, who met in the United States, had immigrated to seek opportunities for themselves and their future children. But because they didn’t speak English, their prospects here were limited. His mother, who had been pursuing a nursing career in Mexico, gave up that dream to instead clean houses.
“As immigrants and people that primarily speak Spanish, they were often faced with racism and bias and prejudices, and that made it difficult for them to adjust to the U.S.,” Hernandez says now, “but they always knew that they were here to give us a better life.”
When a friend who worked at the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver told Hernandez’s parents about Escuela de Guadalupe, a bilingual Catholic school at that time located at 34th and Pecos Street, his parents decided to send him there. At five years old, Hernandez started learning his second language.
Escuela de Guadalupe is an independent private school founded in 1999 by Jesuit priests and a few Sisters of Loretto, members of a Catholic community of women committed to alleviating suffering and promoting justice and peace. The school was a response to rampant violence and tragedy in the neighborhood (now the Highlands). The local priest was “sick of burying teenagers,” says Natalie Tabor, Escuela’s philanthropy manager, and he believed a school could help guide young people in a different direction. “They thought starting in middle school would be good, but then they were like, ‘The light’s already gone out of their eyes. There’s no way we can start that late.’”
The school started with kindergarten, first, and second grades, and two years later, added third through fifth grade. Now located at 660 Julian Street across the street from Presentation of Our Lady Catholic Church, Escuela teaches children from PreK through eighth; its first eighth grade class graduated this past spring.
Because Escuela is independent of the archdiocese, it doesn’t get any funding from the Catholic church. The unique model allows the school to follow its bilingual model without the restraints that come with affiliation, but it also means funding the $1.7 million budget falls squarely on the school’s shoulders. Escuela school days run from 8 a.m. to after 4 p.m., the school year is longer than most Denver schools, and the curriculum is specifically designed to develop literacy—the ability to speak, write, and read—in both English and Spanish.
From kindergarten through second grade, Escuela students spend a third of their time in school learning their second language. Classes are split evenly between students whose primary language is English and those whose primary language is Spanish. During the predetermined literacy time, students break up into the “diamantes” and the “estrellas,” or the diamonds and the stars. Each group corresponds to a particular primary language, and in those early grades, students spend literacy time working on their primary language.
“Research shows if you’re not strong in your literacy skills in your own language, it’s really unlikely you’re going to excel in the second one,” Tabor says.
The goal is for students to achieve full biliteracy by the end of third grade, so that year, literacy time is spent working on the second language. When students have trouble learning other subjects in their second language, Escuela tackles the problem from a literacy angle. Each class has a dedicated literacy tutor who works with children who are falling behind.
“If they’re having a hard time understanding [what’s taught in class], it’s not because they’re not capable of it,” says Jasmine Sinner, Escuela’s development associate. “It’s just that … it’s literally a language barrier.”
In middle school, all classes—with the exception of a Spanish literature class—are taught in English, preparing students for all-English high schools.
This month, 20 out of 21 of Escuela’s 2019 eighth grade graduates are starting ninth grade at private Catholic high schools. Escuela alumni have an overall 98 percent high school graduation rate, and 74 percent have continued their education at a college, university, or trade school.
These achievements are a big deal for Escuela’s student population: half of Escuela students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and 90 percent receive need-based scholarships.
“Everyone here is doing some kind of sacrifice, whether they’re commute hours, whether because they’re paying tuition, whether because their kids are here a longer day,” says Sofia Pedraza-Wyrick, Colombian-born mother of two boys, both of whom will be enrolled at Escuela this school year.
Hernandez and his family lived in Lafayette when he started kindergarten. He remembers getting up early in the morning to drive to school. When a family member was diagnosed with cancer, a teacher offered to bring him to school if his parents couldn’t. He says Escuela taught him to care for his community and challenged him to push himself academically.
Now entering his sophomore year at Regis University, Hernandez is considering majoring in economics and history, and potentially pursuing a career in nonprofits. This summer, he interned with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado, where he developed a guide to help first-generation college students succeed in their first year of college.
“Escuela de Guadalupe showed me that excellence is not reserved for a few,” he says, “but it can be achieved by anyone … as long as hard work and patience are put into the equation.”