School of the Week: Academy of the Americas

“Caring.”

“Supportive.”

“Warm.”

“Family atmosphere.”

“Community-oriented.”

Most people know about the dual immersion program at the Academy of the Americas, where students take most of their classes beginning in Spanish in the earliest grades and phase in more English at the later grades, helping them to be fully proficient in Spanish by eighth grade.

But just as important to the identity of this school seems to be its familial, caring, team-oriented atmosphere, where students, teachers, staff, parents and community organizations work together to create a well-run, rigorous program starting in kindergarten.

The adjectives above are just a few visitors will hear when asking about what makes Academy of the Americas tick.

“There’s a lot of togetherness,” said fourth-grade teacher Katie Kutney, also known as Maestra Kutney. “It creates a big positive feeling.”

The togetherness begins with the very look of the school, located in the former St. Hedwig school building in Southwest Detroit. Nearly every wall, hallway and stairwell is adorned with art and murals painted by students or staff, giving the school community a sense that the building is theirs, said Principal Anthony Houston.

The message is reflected in the courtyard where colorfully-painted silhouettes of students holding hands run the entire length of the concrete wall.

And the students take that message to heart by caring for the building and maintaining a positive school atmosphere.

The school’s Student Safety Patrol is a prime example of that. With 60 members this year, the two safety patrol teams work shifts throughout the day and take their job very seriously.

“The safety program has grown so much,” said Jorge Guzman, 14, a Safety Patrol Captain, who wears a bright safety patrol sash and badge. “We open doors for the little kids and help in the classrooms and office. And if something is going on during recess, like trouble, we go to help out.”

Having students work on safety is key to maintaining a positive school atmosphere, said 13-year-old Carmen Ramirez, also a Safety Patrol Captain. That means that if students are causing trouble in a hallway, a safety patroller will assist in diffusing the situation.

“Students like to listen to their peers,” she said.

Students also work shifts as part of the school’s partnership with Playworks, a nonprofit organization that works to transform schools by coordinating play and physical activities throughout the school day.

Playworks bills itself as an organization that restores valuable teaching time, reduces bullying, increases physical activity and improves the school and learning environment. According to its website, Playworks teaches children to resolve their own conflicts that arise at recess and carry over to the classroom, improving school climate both on and off the playground.  That philosophy helps transform recess into a safe, fun and inclusive time that gets students active and engaged so they can return to the classroom focused and ready to learn.

Students agree. During recess, Junior Coaches are tasked with running activities, said fifth-grader Estrella Escutia, who said her Monday shift includes supervising the 6-square and 4-square games.

“We make it safer during recess,” Estrella said, not to mention more fun for the other students. She also likes that the school, together with Playworks, provides a variety of activities allowing students to engage in physical activity and blow off steam so they can better concentrate on their schoolwork when in class.

Some fitness offerings include softball, soccer, archery and volleyball. Basketball is expected to be added next year.

“We try as much as possible to empower and engage students. And that translates to everyone helping make sure the students get ahead academically,” Houston said. “It’s like a big family here.”

Parents are integral to that process at Academy of the Americas, too, and there is parent participation in abundance.

“We have parents who sign up for every single daytime slot at parent teacher conferences, so we create additional slots after school,” said English Language Arts teacher Michelle Ezop. And meetings held by the parent organization typically draw 75 to 100 parents, Houston said.

The school tries to be even more welcoming to parents by offering a variety of workshops, including Zumba classes and technology workshops specifically for parents. The idea is that having actively engaged parents helps to increase student achievement.

Thanks to the immense community-oriented nature of the school, Academy of the Americas does not have significant discipline issues, Houston said. “That allows staff to focus on what’s truly important – academics and cognitive growth.”

Teachers at the Academy of the Americas relish their jobs, weaving the community feel into their class lessons and making student learning participatory in nature.

In Ezop’s English Language Arts class, this played out in a recent lesson tied to an upcoming school-wide festival called Arts, Beats and Eats. The sixth graders were allowed to cast a ballot on which country they wanted to study for the festival. Brazil won the day.

In Ezop’s class, students then had to pick a partner and a topic, research it using their school-provided Netbook computers, and create a poster that would be displayed in the hallway.

“We have a big community feel, but we also try to build students to be independent,” Ezop said.

Teachers also strive to make lessons interactive and fun. In Kutney’s class, that includes allowing the students to feed the classroom iguana, Lola, with live crickets. Students eagerly raise their hands to be the ones to feed the iguana and happily “oooh” and “ahhh” and giggle as Lola swallows the crickets placed in the cage.

Like many teachers at the school, Kutney incorporates her own travels and experiences, including to far-off places like Peru, into her lessons.

“I’ve been able to make a lot of connections to my travels,” she said. “That helps to make it seem to students like anything is possible and that they can go out and explore the world.”

The rigorous program and unique dual-immersion offerings help to ensure Academy of the Americas has a stable enrollment, even drawing parents from far-reaching suburbs, Houston said.

“We are one of the few dual immersion programs in the state of Michigan,” Houston said. “We work to have our students exit eighth grade being fully bilingual. Research shows that students who are bilingual also tend to score higher on standardized tests.”

Some other academic programs at the school include El Arte – Art infused education; PeNut: Physical Education Nutrition program; Project Seed, a science-based program; Math Core, a Socratic method for teaching math; Science With Engineers, a program in which engineers come to fourth and fifth grade rooms and do project-based instruction with students in Science; and Go Games, an ancient strategic Chinese board game. Through the latter program, Academy of the Americas has partnerships with a local university and a school in Mexico where students interact through the game that helps with critical thinking skills, strategy, mathematics, collaboration, and team building.

And based on input on what is best for students from this community/parent-friendly school, a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) certification is expected to be infused in the curriculum next year, Houston said.

Something you didn’t entirely know:

Academy of the Americas students begin taking 90% of their lessons in Spanish in the early grades, gradually phasing to a 50-50 system, with 50% in English and 50% in Spanish.

As students progress through the grades, English instruction increases each year by 10%. It is based on the 90/10 model where students in the kindergarten and first grades receive all instruction in Spanish with 10% of their day in English. In second grade the ratio moves to 80% Spanish and 20% English. This ratio continues to increase the English by 10% yearly. By the time students reach the fifth grade, instruction is 50% Spanish and 50% English, and follows this format through eighth grade. In addition, students learn about the Spanish culture of the Americas through themed studies of different countries and school wide events such as the multicultural festival. The main goal of the school is to graduate bilingual and bi-literate students in Spanish and English ready to function at a high bilingual level in high school.

Something else you didn’t know:

Academy of the Americas is celebrating its 20-year anniversary this year! A celebration is in the planning phases that will bring in not only parents, students, and staff, but will include the numerous partnerships and individuals that are involved yearly and daily in school processes. This school has enjoyed a very consistent staff and student enrollment for the last 20 years with many students being second generation enrollees. A high percentage of the staff (73%) is bilingual with a majority being native Spanish speakers. They come from Spanish-speaking countries all over Central and South America giving students a rich cultural experience.

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