At One North Texas Charter School, A Trilingual Approach To Learning

Dec 19, 2013

Ninth-grader Alex Gutierrez is learning Mandarin Chinese at International Leadership of Texas in Garland. The school requires that all students learn Mandarin and Spanish.
Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News

All year long, KERA has followed several Class of 17 students from eighth grade to high school. Today, we catch up with Alex Gutierrez, whose struggles in math sent her to summer school. Alex is now in a brand-new charter school with a multicultural twist.

At the International Leadership of Texas in Garland, Principal Nadia Ayala has a poster on her office wall. It’s of Edward James Olmos in the movie "Stand and Deliver." In the movie, Olmos plays real-life math teacher Jaime Escalante, who tries to inspire his students. He tells them math is the great equalizer.

“Students will rise to the level of expectations ... ” reads the poster. “Ganas, that’s all we need is ganas.”

The Spanish word ganas means desire.

That’s the kind of message Ayala sends her students. Recently, she had a chat with Alex Gutierrez about her struggles in pre-AP Algebra.

“I told her in Spanish, ‘Necesitas hecharle ganas,’” Ayala says. “You have to put in the will and the work so that you do well, especially when you know you’re not the best at something ... you need to work even harder.”

For the first time, Alex is optimistic about math.

“It’s going good,” Alex says. "I'm going to tutoring every morning to get help if I need it. And, right now, I currently have an 84 so that’s, like, good for me."

The college preparatory school opened in the fall and has 160 students in ninth and 10th grade. All students take pre-AP or AP-level core classes. And here’s what else sets this school apart -- every kid has to learn Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. That’s what attracted Alex to the school.

“I like the idea of learning Chinese cause that makes me trilingual and it helps in my chances of getting a good job,” she says.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“It wasn’t hard at first, but it’s gotten challenging.”

The school’s founder, Eddie Conger, is the former principal at Thomas Jefferson High School in Dallas ISD. He started a Chinese language program there and left in 2012 after the state approved his charter school application. There are other branches in Garland and Arlington with a Keller campus set to open in the fall.

Read more about Alex and see a video clip of the movie Stand and Deliver on our Class of 17 education blog.