Magna Charter

Right in the middle of the Gulfton Ghetto, one school is putting on a grand experiment.

In the lower grades, classes are multi-age, with first and second graders in a class together, and third and fourth in another.

"If you are in the first grade, you learn the second grade, too. If you're in the second grade, you get a second chance to learn what you missed," says 14-year-old Kenneth Reeder, an eighth grader who's the snapper on his football team and would like a career as a surgeon.

Kenneth's reasons for being at SER-Niños started with his mom — a common, if not unanimous, experience voiced by students at the school. Either the moms want the kids not to lose their Spanish, or they want to make sure their children learn better English right away.

It's Spanish one week, English the next for kindergarten students Paola Lopez and  Jonathan Alfaro at SER-Niños, the dual-l­anguage charter school in the Gulfton neighborhood.
Margaret Downing
It's Spanish one week, English the next for kindergarten students Paola Lopez and Jonathan Alfaro at SER-Niños, the dual-l­anguage charter school in the Gulfton neighborhood.

"My mom, she only speaks Spanish. She's from El Salvador. She found it extremely difficult when she got over here to speak to people who only speak English. When my older brother was born, she said, 'No, I can't let them suffer like this.'"

His mother, Marta Salazar, says she walked over to the school where her children were zoned and couldn't find anyone who spoke English. Then she found SER-Niños, and Kenneth is the third of her children to go there.

Another mother, Maricela Palacios, whose daughter, 13-year-old Milby Michelle Palacios, is in eighth grade, says she wanted her daughter to learn perfect Spanish and to be able to communicate fluently with relatives back in Mexico. Milby is torn between a career in fashion or forensics.

Twelve-year-old Gerald Alas says his mother pulled him from HISD's Benavidez Elementary after first grade because she "wasn't satisfied because they were only teaching me Spanish." He says the first year at SER-Niños was really hard, but during that year, he learned English. Now he wants to be a physician.

Cynthia Martinez, 12 and another seventh grader, joined SER-Niños in fifth grade, where she found herself a little behind but has caught up, she says. Now she's thinking about being a lawyer.

Allen Matusow, academic affairs director at the Baker Institute and a professor of history at Rice University, was part of the opening days of SER-Niños, serving on its board of directors as both a member and a one-time chairman.

They decided to go with dual language because studies show that's the best way to teach language, he says. There weren't any schools in the area offering that approach, and they thought an alternative was needed.

SER-Niños was the brainchild of Dianne Mancus, who worked with the Houston Hispanic Forum to get its charter. Strane describes her as a charismatic leader who was determined that "if they could open a Rice School (the HISD magnet school with an emphasis in Spanish) in West U, then we can open one in the barrio." She left after one year when her husband was transferred to a job in Atlanta. From there, the reins passed to Principal Constantine.

"HISD does have some successful schools, but they have too many schools that aren't any good," Matusow says. "We provided a quality choice funded by the state. And we made no apology for that."

Strane is the only teacher who started with the school who is still there. He has a degree in Spanish from UH and previously taught that at SER-Niños. Now he's a half-time teacher and certified crisis intervention counselor, in addition to his public-relations duties. He teaches Brazilian jujitsu in the after-school classes.

While SER-Niños pays at the same rate as HISD schools, it doesn't have the signing bonuses that the Houston school district can offer.

Merle Howe, a teacher of language arts,left SER-Niños for one such offer.

"HISD was offering a $5,000 bonus to come there. I wanted to buy a house. I did buy my house," she says, smiling.

But after putting in her two years of time at HISD, Howe wanted to come back. She had gone to a brand-new school that was nice enough, but there were discipline problems. "There were kids who would curse you out. I'd call the parents, and they would side with the kids." In 2003, she returned to SER-Niños, where, she says, students respect the teachers.

The passing rates for the 2009 TAKS scores at the middle school level for SER-Niños were stellar in four of five categories: reading 91 percent, writing 99, math 97, social studies 99. Science was the only drop at 76. At nearby Sharpstown Middle School, the percentages of students who passed the TAKS were: reading 84 percent, writing 89, math 82, social studies 88 and science 58 percent.

At the other school closest to SER-Niños, Jane Long Middle School, the passing rate was reading 74 percent, writing 79, math 74, social studies 82 and science 54. While SER-Niños is a Recognized School, Sharps­town got the lower Acceptable rating and TEA deemed Jane Long Unacceptable.

In the elementary-grades comparison with Benavidez Elementary and Rodriguez Elementary, SER-Niños bests the other schools in reading and writing, trails Benavidez by three percentage points in math and trails both by 10 to 12 points in science. Science is the area of focus for the school this year.

Constantine says that with her interest in helping students at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, SER-Niños "is where I'm supposed to be."

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