Maria Ruicci teaches a class of first-grade students at Eugenio Maria de Hostos Charter School in Rochester. (Photo courtesy of the Eugenio Maria de Hostos Charter School)

Maria Ruicci teaches a class of first-grade students at Eugenio Maria de Hostos Charter School in Rochester. (Photo courtesy of the Eugenio Maria de Hostos Charter School)

Rochester school marks 20 years of educating bilingual students

For the last 20 years, the Eugenio María de Hostos Charter School in Rochester has made it possible for students to be immersed in a Spanish-language environment with access to such academic opportunities as earning the New York State Seal of Biliteracy.

“All of our students earn or can earn that certification when they graduate,” said Julio Vázquez, school founder.

According to the state education department, the NYSSB recognizes high-school graduates who have attained a high level of proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing in one or more languages, in addition to English.

Vázquez said that more than half of the students who graduated last year earned the certification, and 85 percent graduated with Regents diplomas.

This type of education that the charter school offers is opposite of what Vázquez said he had received in high school, which is what motivated him to found the school in 1998.

Vázquez said he was inspired to establish the school because of his experiences as a Spanish-speaking student in the Rochester City School District. He and his family moved to Rochester from Guayama, Puerto Rico, in 1959, and at the time, there were no bilingual education programs in the city. He knew little English and subsequently was classified as a slow learner, he said.

In the ninth grade, he recalled being put in a room in the basement of Benjamin Franklin High School “where they put you to watch TV and do nothing basically.”

This was done with students who spoke languages other than English vs. providing them with bilingual education, Vázquez said. At the age of 16, school officials would encourage such students to quit school and get jobs, he noted.

Upon graduation, he said he received a high-school certificate of completion because he did not meet the requirements to receive a high-school diploma. When he asked the school what he needed to do to earn his diploma, he was told he’d have to start over and complete grades 9-12.

He said that due to his lack of adequate education, at age 19, he did not feel he was proficient in Spanish or English. He worked different jobs and became involved in the Hispanic community in Rochester through several positions he held with Ibero-American Action League. He was appointed as Ibero’s president and CEO in 1993.

In 1998, Vázquez attended a conference in Washington, N.Y., during which he first heard about charter school legislation from then-Gov. George Pataki.

Unlike state-run public schools, charter schools are autonomous and operate on the terms of five-year performance contracts rather than on the terms of federal, state and local regulations, according to the the state education department’s Charter School Office. A contract, known as a charter, allows a school to have the freedom to establish its own policies, design its own education program, and manage its human and financial resources.

Upon learning more about charter school law and the process for establishing a charter school in New York state, Vázquez said he felt he had found the solution to the lack of bilingual education programs in Rochester. He decied that he was going to start his own bilingual charter school that would provide students with the basic language skills to be proficient in both English and Spanish.

“It was my desire to give Spanish-speaking students the opportunity to learn about their language and culture, which they would not have in the public school system,” Vázquez added.

Thus began the process of developing the curriculum for the school and applying for a charter from the state so the school could begin operating.

In order for a public school to be recognized as a charter school in New York, Vázquez said it must have an academic program with specific educational objectives, which is created by a not-for-profit board of trustees to then submit to the state’s Board of Regents for review.

Since Vázquez did not have the necessary background to develop the school’s academic program, he reached out to his sister, Miriam Vázquez, who was a principal in one of the schools within the Rochester City School District, and asked her to develop the curriculum. Miriam Vázquez earned a doctorate in education from the University of Rochester in 1990 and served as an educator in the RCSD for 24 years before later being appointed principal of the charter school.

Vázquez said he also recruited the help of Eugenio Marlin, who was the vice president of development and communications for Ibero at the time, and asked him to help with the concept for and later the development of the charter school.

In addition to an academic plan, the school also had to provide an organizational plan, financial plan, and proof that the school would have a founding group capable of implementing and operating the school effectively, Vázquez said.

After two years of developing all of the plans for the school, acquiring financing and applying for a charter to operate, Eugenio María de Hostos Charter school was established in March of 2000. The school was named for the prominent 19th century educator Eugenio María de Hostos, who was vital to shaping the education system in Puerto Rico, Vázquez said.

The school welcomed its first group of students in kindergarten through grade 2 in September of 2000. During the school’s first five-year charter, grades 3-6 were added, and in 2010 the school expanded to include middle-school grade levels. The school was able to add high-school grade levels upon being approved for its third charter renewal, in addition to being able to operate four classes per grade level vs. the previous maximum of two classes in 2015. The school will graduate its second class of seniors later this year.

“What I am looking for is to continue to perfect this school,” Vázquez said of the school’s future. “I want all of our kids to meet or exceed state standards.”

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