It’s a spring morning in Melissa Gillespie’s U.S. History class at Global Community High School, a school for new immigrants and English language learners, and Johanna, a junior, is at the front of the room delivering a presentation on 1920s style icon Coco Chanel. She’s nervous but clearly a fashion plate and interested in Chanel’s story; her classmates listen quietly, tablets propped up so they can submit comments and questions, Facebook-style, using the educational app Edmodo.
Seated at one side of the room, principal Gerald Bustamante waits until Johanna has finished, then raises his hand. “You knew you were going to get questions with me in here,” he teases. He asks a question, then makes a comment of his own.
“In the 1920s, people like Coco Chanel were facing a lot of adversity, but they also had dreams,” he says. “If you have goals, your dreams can become reality.”
It’s not an idle point. Nevada’s 2012 graduation rate for English language learners was just 23 percent, and Bustamante understands all too well the challenges his students face in achieving their dreams. While at least a quarter of Nevada students speak a first language other than English—one of the highest percentages in the nation—the state was until recently among only a handful that didn’t provide additional funding for English language learners. Though the state Legislature last year allocated $50 million over two years to educate such students, the Clark County School District’s entire share was put toward elementary schools. That means older students such as the roughly 200 that Global Community serves in a squat building on Washington Avenue near Pecos Road have been largely absent from the public discussion. (In fact, the 8-year-old school flies so low under the radar that when I called the district office to inquire about its test scores, the receptionist there had never heard of it. “Is that in our district?” she asked.)
With a short wait-list for admission, Global accepts students on a first-come, first-serve basis. Class sizes average about 20, significantly lower than in the district’s other high schools. It might be easy for an outsider to be awed by and even envious of the school’s unique, intimate environment—until you remember the problems these kids are dealing with.
“I have kids who are living with aunts and uncles because their parents got deported,” Bustamante says. “I had a couple of kids last year who lost their mother and father in another country, and couldn’t go back for the funeral. I have undocumented kids [who think because of their status], ‘I can’t go to college.’ I have a lot of kids who work until 1 in the morning, then come in to school at 8.”
An energetic 38-year-old who appears younger, Bustamante became principal in November 2012. Before he took the reins, 12 of Global’s 14 teachers lacked certification in teaching English as a second language. Also, non-immigrant students who were not English language learners were enrolled, teachers say, diluting the school’s focus.
So Bustamante made an executive decision: All licensed staff, including himself, would be required to earn TESL certification, a demanding process that required taking night and online classes. Some embraced the process, while others chose to transfer to different schools; Bustamante hired 10 replacement teachers in the first year.
“He said, ‘This is what we’re going to do, and if you don’t want to, you can teach somewhere else,’” recalls Rebecca DeYoung, a science teacher going through the program.
Another change Bustamante implemented: With rare exceptions, new students would be accepted only if they had been in the country for less than two years or had limited English language skills. The school also began a series of in-home pláticas (“chats” in Spanish) to engage parents, the vast majority of whom speak Spanish and hail from a cross-section of Latin America, including Mexico, Cuba and Central America. Run by teachers and an outreach worker, the sessions provide a relaxed environment in which parents can ask questions and learn new ways to support their children’s education.
The overall goal: to ensure that students not only learned English, but also received rigorous academic preparation for college or the workforce. And to help students and the community at large see their bilingual, bicultural background as a strength, not a weakness.
“There’s kind of been a whole shift with the kids and their perception of school,” says DeYoung, comparing the 2013-14 school year with the previous one. “They want to be here and want to participate. There’s more structure.”
A member of the Latin Chamber of Commerce who cites excerpts of Tony Hsieh’s book Delivering Happiness in conversation, Bustamante also pushed for what he calls a rebranding of the school. The school’s new motto (“We Are Global. We Are One”) and mascot (a gladiator) appear on everything from uniforms to email newsletters to the graduation cap and gown prominently displayed in the front office. (“The old logo was a globe with children holding hands around it,” Bustamante says. “I was like, ‘Come on, this is a high school.’”)
Not just an empty phrase, the slogan helps build unity among a student body that, while primarily Spanish-speaking, includes students from as far-flung lands as Syria and Thailand, and a staff that has been asked to take on new responsibilities. “I look at it as a business,” Bustamante says. “How do you maximize efforts among your employees? When you look at eBay, Google, Zappos, people love [working] there because they have core values.”
While such details as logos and uniforms can be dismissed as window dressing—the history of school reform is littered with cosmetic changes that failed to make real impact—Global’s family-like atmosphere is evident from the moment you step on campus. As in many schools serving low-income students, teachers often pull double duty as informal social workers, helping to track down low-cost legal counsel or resolve family crises. When one student was kicked out of her house after having a baby, school staff say they talked to her parents and helped resolve the situation. On the day I visit, the student is proudly showing off her baby daughter to students and staff.
Other examples of a close-knit environment abound: One teacher’s door is plastered with pink construction-paper hearts bearing thank-you messages from students—a periodic tradition called a “heart attack.” There’s also an online fundraising campaign in the works to build a community garden where students can work together, a rare extracurricular activity in a learning environment that lacks the sports teams and clubs of typical high schools.
Joceline Robles, 18, explains why she takes a city bus 90 minutes each way from her home at Desert Inn and Fort Apache roads to attend Global: “At the other school [I attended], teachers don’t explain [things] to you, they just tell you. Here, they explain as many times as you need to understand.”
“You know everyone is the same [here],” continues Robles, who wants to be a nurse. “They don’t treat you like you’re nothing because you came from Mexico, and they [don’t] think they’re better than you.”
Imagine you’re a recently arrived 16-year-old student from another country. You’ve spent the school year studying English, and you feel ready to take your writing proficiency exam, required of all CCSD high school juniors. Then you read the essay prompt: “Choose a common saying and explain its meaning.” Would you be able to come up with an English-language idiom such as ‘A stitch in time saves nine’? Or would you draw a blank?
These are the questions that plague Global’s teachers and principal as they assess whether their new professional training has improved student outcomes. The reading and writing proficiency assessments—on which Global students have historically done poorly—test cultural knowledge as well as language skills, Bustamante argues. Because of that, he says, students who are otherwise doing well in class can struggle on exams. Complicating matters further: While a U.S.-born 11th-grader typically has received the same amount of formal schooling here as his or her peers, at Global, a freshman with two years in the United States might be expected to test better than, say, a junior who just arrived from Mexico.
To compensate, the school has developed its own testing regimen in addition to the proficiency exams, using Discovery Education, a system employed by a number of school districts nationwide. At Global, Bustamante and his staff will track individual students’ progress annually, comparing their performance not just to their official grade level, but to the number of years spent at the school.
Kevin Graziano, a professor of education at Nevada State College who helped lead the TESL classes for Global’s teachers, also plans to use the school as a venue to study whether “flipping” classrooms could improve math education for English language learners. A trendy topic in education, the flipped classroom involves having students absorb lectures on their own time via videos and other digital methods, leaving class time for the kinds of projects that would be classified as homework in a traditional classroom. Graziano says the concept holds special promise for English language learners, who have been shown to benefit from interacting with multimedia that they can pause and rewind, and whose parents may not be equipped to assist them with homework.
“We know from research that Latinos, among other groups, are underrepresented in the STEM fields,” says Graziano, referring to the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math. “So this will be an opportunity for us to energize Latino students and get them interested in math, because we’re going to hopefully teach it from a more meaningful perspective.”
Ultimately, Bustamante hopes to turn Global Community into a teaching laboratory for the district, where instructors from other schools can visit to learn the best practices for educating their immigrant students. It’s an ambitious goal—but then, Bustamante, too, is ambitious, driven by a personal connection to his students’ journeys. A first-generation American whose parents are from Mexico, the Henderson native recalls hearing stories of his father hopping the border as a teenager to find work. Bustamante himself entered preschool speaking less English than the other kids, and says he sometimes felt out of place in elementary school, where there were few Latinos.
“It’s impressive to see how much Global has accomplished in such a short period of time under Mr. Bustamante’s leadership with limited resources,” Graziano says. He also points out that Bustamante, who simultaneously serves as principal of the adjacent Morris Behavioral Academy for students with disciplinary issues, is working with a smaller administrative staff than that of most comprehensive high schools. “I think Global will need additional resources to truly get it where it needs to be. I don’t know if one person can do it alone.”
Just after the close of this past school year, Bustamante calls with an update on the school’s progress. His teachers have all completed their TESL certification, and the school has recently renewed its accreditation with flying colors.
Test results are in, and they are mixed. The Discovery exams show a 15 percent average gain in language arts for all students since the beginning of the year. Math scores, however, dropped by about 5 percent. (The district is expected to release its proficiency results next month.)
Still, Bustamante remains bullish. The community garden is up and running. At the state level, a movement is growing to change Nevada’s school-funding formula to provide more dollars for low-income students and English language learners at all grade levels, a shift Bustamante says is long overdue. And he has nearly 100 kids attending a third semester of summer classes to better prepare them for the coming year.
While most high schools require students to take summer school only if they fail a class, at Global, anyone who receives a D or lower in English or math is asked to attend. “Our mission is to produce college-bound kids,” Bustamante says. “Ds aren’t going to cut it.”