5 Schools Across the Country Helping Latino Kids Excel

The education gap may get all the headlines. But at these five schools, Latino students are thriving in and outside the classroom.

Young Girl Sits on School Desk and Chair Gretchen Easton

1. P.S. 172 in Brooklyn, New York

Learning Beyond Textbooks

When Jack Spatola started his principal job at this pre-K through fifth-grade school in the Sunset Park neighborhood 34 years ago, his superintendent apologized for giving him the least successful school in the district. But Spatola wasn’t fazed. “My response was ‘Great!’ ” he recalls. “ ‘Things can only improve.’ ” 

Spatola credits that optimism to his own childhood. He had moved with his family to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, from a town in Sicily when he was 14. His father was a shoemaker and his mother was a seamstress. Spatola saw opportunity. “I was hungry to do better,” he says. 

It’s a mindset Spatola believes he shares with his students, 77 percent of whom are Latino. “I think that all of us who are not ‘privileged’ bring that hunger to the table,” he says. “It’s an incredible asset to our school.”

That drive is catalyzed by P.S. 172’s commitment to highly individualized instruction and a belief that all kids can succeed if they are taught in a way that suits their learning style. The school uses a variety of assessments, from tests to regular one-on-one conferences where teachers record a student’s progress in notebooks that are devoted to each child. Those notebooks are updated constantly with observations from members of the teaching team, including social workers, occupational therapists, and math and literacy coaches, who use them to stay on track with the skills each student is mastering.

The school doesn’t teach from textbooks, which are expensive and can eat up a school’s budget. Instead, each classroom is equipped with two smart boards and iPads, and teachers devise their own curricula to align with Common Core standards instead of purchasing the Education Department’s more expensive materials. Literacy lessons use primary texts and include “readalouds,” in which a teacher reads from a book that is above the grade level for independent reading—P.S. 172’s third-graders read Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. This approach invites discussions and questions, and ups vocabulary and note-taking skills.

“We don’t want our students to be robotic,” says Spatola. “We want them to be spontaneous and have higher-order thinking skills.” 

P.S. 172 has achieved those goals and more. It consistently ranks as one of the top public schools in New York City, with 88 percent of students assessed as meeting state reading standards and 97 percent meeting state math standards. 

2. Francisca Alvarez Elementary School in Mcallen,Texas

Focus on Fitness

A commitment to physical fitness and nutrition isn’t simply a nice add-on to the curriculum at this pre-K through fifth-grade elementary school near the Texas-Mexico border. At a time when the Centers for Disease Control reports that 21.9 percent of Hispanic children struggle with obesity, the teachers and administrators at Alvarez are passionate about getting students to understand the link between physical health and a successful future. “Everything is connected,” says Principal Juan Montes, who is Mexican-American. “Kids who have healthy eating habits, exercise daily, and get an adequate amount of sleep are equipped with what it takes to be academically successful.”

The students at Alvarez get 45 minutes of physical education each day—90 minutes more per week than is required by the state. The innovative lesson plans move well beyond the basics of running laps to include cardio drumming and exercise games that teach problem solving. “When you have to figure out with your team how to get from one end of the gym to the other, stepping only on islands made from Hula-Hoops, you learn how to communicate and to assess how to do it better the next time,” says Alvarez physical-education teacher Krystle Treviño, who is Mexican-American. “Those are strategies that help with math and reading and writing—and life.” 

Teachers are also trained to give students “brain breaks”—including calisthenics and “just dance” routines—during class to help them refocus. To improve nutrition, the 20-minute recess is before lunch, so that students not only make the most of their free time but also come to lunch hungry and ready to eat and rehydrate. They also serve fresh snacks three times a week to give kids a taste for healthy alternatives, from jicama to edamame. 

3. Bryant Webster K–8 School in Denver, Colorado

Strike Up the Band

In 2001, when Pamela Liñan, whose paternal grandparents were from Mexico, first started teaching general music at this predominantly Latino school, she wasn’t sure her students would be interested in a new unit she’d introduced on mariachi music. But the kids’ enthusiasm was so sincere that Liñan—whose stepfather, a music promoter, brought the first adult mariachi band to Denver—decided to see what would happen if she introduced the traditional folk music to her school.

El Mariachi Juvenil de Bryant Webster was the first elementary school mariachi band in Colorado. Thirteen years later, the after-school program is a cornerstone of the school’s identity. Kids can audition starting in third grade—music teacher Jacqueline Liñan, who took over when her sister became an administrator, assesses students’ singing pitch and whether they have the dexterity and rhythm to tackle the bass lines of a guitarrón or the lung power to sound a trumpet.

The program has between 50 and 60 participants each year and is so popular that it now includes three bands of different levels, which practice and perform standards, from “De Colores” to “Cielito Lindo” to “Mariachi Loco.” The benefits for students extend well beyond enjoying the camaraderie of being in a band. Research shows that not only does participation in the arts— especially music—boost kids’ math skills, but it is also fundamental to developing communication and leadership chops. Plus, the arts create a positive school culture. 

The advanced bands have traveled across the United States to perform at competitions and arts-education conferences. For many students, these trips are the first time they’ve been on an airplane. But perhaps the greatest benefit of the bands is the bond they create within generations. When Pamela Liñan asked students what they liked most about being in the band, they said it brought their families closer. “Kids these days don’t have as many connections with their elders,” she says. “The band has given them the opportunity to have more conversations and musical experiences with their grandparents.” 

4. Henry S. West Laboratory School in Coral Gables, Florida

Hitting the Brakes on Homework

If you think that the daily grind of breakfast, school drop-off, work, after-school activities, and dinner doesn’t leave gas in your family’s tank for anything other than falling asleep, you’ll appreciate the fact that this K–6 magnet school, which is 56 percent Latino, has decided to do away with homework. “Homework isn’t supposed to be about learning new material—it’s to review what you have covered in class,” says Principal Barbara Soto Pujadas, who is Cuban and Puerto Rican. “It’s a lot of busy work, and often we were using homework to catch up and do things we couldn’t do in the classroom.”

Soto Pujadas had been wanting to rethink West Lab’s homework policy since she arrived 11 years ago. The idea gained traction in 2010, when the school hosted a screening of Race to Nowhere, a documentary that questions today’s culture of overly scheduled kids. That paved the way for the new no-homework policy, which went into effect in the fall of 2016. Since then, every student is required to read at night, but all other home study is optional.

It’s an approach that might not be effective if the West Lab team wasn’t so devoted to using student data and weekly assessments to see where each child—including gifted ones— needs more support. “A student may be reading at a tenth-grade level, but that doesn’t mean she can grasp the concept or understand the author’s purpose,” Soto Pujadas explains.

That’s why she has budgeted for each teacher to get released from the classroom for up to three days per year specifically to work with fellow teachers to develop assessments, lessons, and ways to differentiate instruction among students so that they can work in small groups according to their abilities in different areas. 

And if a parent wants her child to do homework because she thinks it inculcates responsibility or because it’s an experience her family enjoys, then West Lab’s teachers will send assignments home. But no student is penalized if he doesn’t finish them. “Do you want to work at home after your workday is done?” Soto Pujadas asks, by way of explaining the school’s philosophy. For many West Lab families, the answer is no. She says, “Parents have thanked us for giving them their family time back.” 

5. Mundo Verde in Washington, D.C.

Sustainability in Spanish

Imagine a classroom where firstgraders not only learn about food waste and the strain it puts on our ecosystem, but they also devise and put into action solutions to lessen the waste produced by schoolmates, including serving the most popular foods—determined by a survey—to ensure kids eat more of their meals. And then imagine that they do it all in Spanish. That’s the magic mix taking place at this pre-K through fifth-grade “green focus” public charter school in the nation’s capital, where kids learn by doing.

And talking. From pre-K3 through the end of kindergarten, Mundo Verde students are taught entirely in Spanish. Lessons in English start in first grade, when teachers switch off every other day between the two languages. School admission is by lottery, but the fact that instruction is in Spanish appeals to Latino parents, whose children make up roughly a third of the student body. “My son may speak Spanish at home, but that doesn’t mean he can read or write it,” says Carmenchu Mendiola, who moved to Washington, D.C., from Mexico 17 years ago and whose son, Santiago, is in third grade. “My husband and I want him to be bilingual.” 

Second- and third-generation Latino families also benefit. “An immersion program gives validation to the fact that you are from a bilingual household,” says Berenice Pernalete, an instructional guide at Mundo Verde. “If your parents are switching back and forth between English and Spanish all the time, then going to a school that moves between two languages shows that this is a positive thing.”