Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Wednesday Interview: Carlos Villagrana of Amigos Por Vida

In the Gulfton community of Houston, Texas, Mr. Carlos Villagrana is moving montañas as the principal of Amigos Por Vida/Friends for Life Charter School.

Amigos Por Vida serves a unique population of students. Of the 430 students in grades PreK – 7, 99% are Hispanic, 1% are African-American, 98% live below the poverty line, and 94% are classified as Limited English Proficient. While such numbers would present an impossible challenge to some schools, Amigos Por Vida has proven that it can beat the odds.

Last year, Amigos Por Vida produced impressive TAKS test scores and was awarded the Governor’s Excellence Award, a Financial Accountability Rating of Superior Achievement, and the State’s Gold Performance Acknowledgement in Math and Attendance.

I spoke with Mr. Villagrana this week to learn the keys to his school’s success and how Amigos Por Vida is helping its Latino students achieve excellent results.

1.) Tell me a little bit about the history of your school.

Amigos Por Vida is in the Gulfton community of Houston, which is an area that is known for being poor, young and Hispanic. In this neighborhood, 11% of the population are children under the age of five, so having quality schools is very important. Before we built our school, many children were being bused out of the area to attend school, because the schools here were so overcrowded.

Amigos Por Vida was founded in 1999 as a new option for parents who didn't want to send their children out of the neighborhood for school. Unfortunately, it was mismanaged during its first few years and didn't offer a quality education to its students. Luckily, this changed when the Board of Directors decided to turn the school around with major staffing and administration changes.

Now, Amigos Por Vida is a very successful school and we are fulfilling our promise to give the Gulfton community a good charter school option.

2.) Does Amigos Por Vida face any special challenges in educating its children?

At this point, our biggest challenge is our facilities. As a state charter school, we do not receive any funding for facilities. The apartment complex where Amigos is located cannot accommodate any more classrooms and we have to make room for 8th grade next year.

3.) What innovative techniques have you used to improve your school?

The implementation of our dual language immersion program has been instrumental in our school’s success.

4.) Why did you choose to implement the dual-language immersion program? ]
In trying to meet the needs of the community, we realized that most of our students came to us speaking only Spanish and that we needed to also focus on developing English from day one. When looking at bilingual programs, the research was very clear and showed us that dual immersion programs were what would help our students become successful.

5.) What kind of success have you seen with the dual-language program?

Our students have consistently achieved high scores on the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) and the TELPAS (Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System).

Blogger's Note: Click here to find out Amigos Por Vida's 2007 TAKS scores. Look for the abbreviation "Pct. Met Std." to see the percentage of students who passed each exam.

6.) How do you encourage parents and community members to be involved in your students’ education?

We offer night classes for parents and community members on Monday and Wednesday for them to complete GED and also receive ESL and technology applications courses. During the day, our counselor does a great job of offering volunteer opportunities to parents. As part of our 21st Century grant we also offer parenting classes, ESL and a women’s craft class during the day.

7.) Do you have any plans to expand Amigos Por Vida Charter School in the next few years?
Our primary goal right now is to find a permanent home for the school. After that happens, we are very interested in working with other communities in Houston and other parts of the state.

8.) What advice would you offer to other educators who serve Latino or minority populations?
My advice is to find ways to be an advocate for our students. One of the reason I came to work at Amigos Por Vida was to improve the quality of education our students were receiving and create a school where students and parents excel. I think if I was not here at Amigos, I would be getting involved in what ever way I felt I could empower our community.

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