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Spanish Heritage program at Roosevelt High helps boost Latino graduation rates, student voice

Roosevelt High School
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Educators say the Roosevelt High School's emerging Spanish Heritage program is empowering Latino students to do well in school.

The Minnesota Department of Education recently announced that high school graduation rates have risen 6.4 percentage points since 2010 and the graduation gap between students of color and their white peers has closed by 12 percentage points.  

Statewide, the Hispanic students saw the largest gains; their graduation rates increased by nearly 18 percentage points in the past 5 years. With a moderate 65.5 percent graduation rate, however, a lot of work still needs to be done to help support these students.

To help put the Latino graduation gap into perspective, consider this goal: The state is aiming to reach a 90 percent graduation rate for all students by 2020, with every student group having a graduation rate of 85 percent.

It’s an ambitious target, one that some Minneapolis Public Schools are already making progress toward. Namely, at Roosevelt High, Hispanic student graduation rates increased last year by about 15 percentage points, with nearly 75 percent of this student body achieving graduation in 2015.

Hispanic students at South Senior High and Washburn Senior High are trailing close behind with a 65.4 percent graduation rate for their Hispanic students, after having made strides of nearly 14 and 10 percentage points, respectively.

Ask Principal Michael Bradley what tangible efforts seem to have helped move the dial at Roosevelt and he’s quick to credit the school’s new Spanish Heritage program, along with the advanced Spanish courses offered as part of the district’s language immersion program.

“I think we’ve developed something unique,” he said. “I would hope that such can be used as a model for other sites, either serving Latino students or other language-specific groups.”

Now in its third year, the Spanish Heritage program — developed using a culturally relevant pedagogy — has already begun garnering national attention from educators looking to better support their native Spanish speakers.

The curriculum, much of which is taught in Spanish, empowers Latino students to stretch themselves academically while exploring their cultural identity at the same time. Once they build confidence in the classroom, they become their own advocates within the public education system by taking on community outreach projects.

“With the heritage language program they’re developing their language skills, but also seeing themselves in the curriculum,” Jehanne Beaton, a University of Minnesota school partner liaison to Roosevelt, said. “The curriculum really speaks to their experience, and I think they feel much more connected to the school.”

Changing demographics

Bradley has served as the principal at Roosevelt for the past five years. But his connection to the school goes back much further.

He started out as a teacher here in the late 1990s. At that point, he recalls, the school body was roughly 42 percent Somali, 45 percent African-American and the remainder was a mix.

“Virtually no one came from the neighborhood,” he said, noting the building still felt like a white institution, rather than the multicultural center it had become.  

When he came back as principal, he noticed that the Latino student population had grown significantly. According to 2016 enrollment data, nearly 35 percent of the student body is Hispanic. Slightly more than a third identify as black and roughly a fifth identify as white.

Despite this demographic shift, he realized the school climate and curriculum had not adjusted accordingly.

For starters, that meant reframing Spanish as a valuable language that puts native speakers at an academic advantage, rather than at a disadvantage, he said. In fact, many of these students were being advised to enroll in French to fulfill their foreign language requirement.

In order to capitalize on their natural language abilities, Bradley recognized the need to offer these students — many of whom were fluent in colloquial Spanish from speaking it at home, but not necessarily fluent in academic Spanish acquired through reading and writing — an opportunity to refine their language skills.

Jenna Cushing-Leubner and Jennifer Eik
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Jenna Cushing-Leubner and Jennifer Eik have co-designed the Spanish Heritage curriculum at Roosevelt using a culturally responsive relevant pedagogy.

The stronger their Spanish skills became, he said, the stronger their English skills would become as well.

“We know from research that the development of a native language has huge transference to the ability to acquire a second language,” Bradley said.

So he dedicated resources to start a Spanish Heritage program and brought Jennifer Eik, a recent graduate-level University of Minnesota teaching grad and former Peace Corps-Ecuador volunteer, on board to pilot the new curriculum, with the support of Jenna Cushing-Leubner, a University of Minnesota Ph.D. candidate in curriculum and instruction for second language education.

Starting with mindsets

In the beginning, they quickly realized many students were actually reluctant to speak Spanish in the classroom because they were internalizing insecurities of not being “Latino enough,” Bradley said.

It became clear that the language development would need to go hand in hand with an exploration of their cultural history and identity, which is largely omitted from standard education curriculum. This empowerment piece, they believed, would give Latino students the confidence they needed to assert themselves as scholars.

“The immediate result that we were looking for isn’t about ‘Are you credit ready? Are you on track?’” Bradley said.  “It’s really about ‘Do you feel affirmed as a learner? Do you have a sense of self-efficacy in this institution? If we get that, we can drive you to graduation.”

According to Briana MacPhee, one of the district’s cultural relations facilitators, this sense of not belonging puts many Latino students at an academic disadvantage.

“I meet a lot of high school-level Latino students who don’t see themselves as scholars. They’ve never gotten that message from the school system,” she says.

Erika Castro
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Erika Castro, 17, has always been strong academically, but she says the Spanish Heritage program transformed her academic experience.

For some, it’s the assumption that their parents — who may be working multiple jobs to support their family — don’t care about their academic performance since they don’t show up to conferences or after-school events. For others, it’s the lack of well-rounded post-secondary education and career guidance that would connect them with critical financial resources or alternatives to four-year colleges, MacPhee explained.

“From the time they’re really little ... they feel like they have to remove a part of themselves as they walk in the school door just to get through the day,” she said. “So how powerful is that to actually see yourself as part of a curriculum in this institution. That’s huge — for most students, it’s the first time that they have seen anything like this ... that’s specially designed for them.”

Identity-centered curriculum

During her first year at Roosevelt, Eik taught two sections of Spanish Heritage level 1 to about 30 students, total, while also co-teaching English as a Second Language.

The following year, she added a level 2 for her first-year students to advance to and took on three new groups at level 1.

This year, the program has expanded to a level 3 for about six students who have opted to stick with it another year, and there’s already talk of adding a level 4 next year.

With about 85 students in the pipeline, Eik expects that more students will be filling seats in the advanced levels soon.

Offering a breakdown of the course content, Eik says the first year is focused on teaching students a different historical perspective — one that delves into Latino ancestry, culture, and historical figures – and identity exploration.

“Students of color are yearning for curriculum that they can connect to,” she said. “I think it helps students to carry themselves differently or to think of themselves in a more positive light when they hear those stories of accomplishment and contribution.”

Cushing-Leubner adds that the foundational year also encompasses topics like social movements led by American-Latino groups, Latino rights, geopolitical migrations and representation in the media.

The second year, students build on this foundation by taking on assignments that challenge them to further explore their own Latino identity. Then, equipped with a stronger sense of self, they are asked to take action. This action piece is where Eik and her colleagues see students really take ownership of their education.

“Part of the course is about developing that sense of identity, voice, pride and agency. We really try to push them outside of those comfort zones,” Cushing-Leubner said.

In creating this element of the program, she and Eik use a combination of art-based pedagogies and youth-led action research to guide students along. Utilizing things like spoken word, music, visual arts and community-based research, students discover ways to express themselves and share what they’ve learned with others.  

Past cohorts have hosted summits at Roosevelt on linguistic rights and on the need for cultural representation in school curriculum, inviting key stakeholders to hear their concerns and suggestions. This year, students are preparing Latino-specific lesson plans that they’ll deliver to elementary students in March.

In educator-speak, Cushing-Leubner and Eik have crafted the entire curriculum using a culturally relevant pedagogy. That key underpinning may very well be the thing that sets this Spanish Heritage program apart from similar initiatives that exist elsewhere.

“The books they’re reading and the assignments that they’re given push them academically, push them to examine their own cultural background and the backgrounds of people who are linguistically connected to them,” Beaton said. “And they are asking really hard questions about equality, linguistic rights, social justice, about belonging in school. It’s not just about the greater society, but the microcosms of Roosevelt and how they see themselves as visible, as invisible. ... That, I think, is what makes what’s happening at Roosevelt so powerful.”

Student transformations

Gilberto Mezamendoza, 18, took Spanish Heritage level 1 the first year it came to Roosevelt and completed level 2 the following year. He says the course, along with his relationship with Eik, made all the difference for him.

“I was going to drop out of school,” he says, noting that by his freshman year he was failing required classes. “What really saved me was this class.”

A first-generation Mexican-American, he knew his parents had migrated to Minnesota to ensure he and his siblings had access to a better education. So there was always a part of him that wanted to make them proud. But he was struggling to connect with the content, which he simply didn’t find interesting, he says.

Things began to click once he enrolled in Eik’s class and finally had something to look forward to each day, he says.

Gilberto Mezamendoz
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Gilberto Mezamendoza, 18, says he was on the verge of dropping out of high school until he enrolled in Eik's class.

“Spanish Heritage was the first class that I really learned about my background and history,” he said. “This class helped me express who I am. It really gave me the privilege to express myself.”

His experiences in the class dovetailed with his new interest in breakdancing. By becoming more involved in this community, and taking pride in the Latino influence on this performance art, he says he was able to stay out of trouble and get his schoolwork done. Now he plans to pursue a degree in filmmaking.

Erika Castro, 17, has always been strong academically, but she also says the Spanish Heritage program transformed her academic experience.

Castro was born in Ecuador, but lived with her aunt until age 7, when she moved to the U.S. to live with her parents, who had come when she was an infant to find better paying jobs. They soon moved to Minnesota, where she completed middle school and entered Roosevelt.

With the advent of the Spanish Heritage program, she opted out of French to enroll in something she found more relevant.

“I would say by the second year I was more comfortable with expressing my opinions,” she said. “I applied it in my other classes. I was able to be more outgoing and speak up.”

That same year, through her connections to the class, she performed some of her poetry as a keynote speaker at a conference. The experience left her feeling even more confident, she says, adding she now wants to pursue a college degree in creative writing.

“I think that learning about your heritage in school helps you identify yourself and find out who you are,” she said. “That helps you a lot because if you’re already learning that in high school, it makes it a lot easier to go out in the world and apply that, be comfortable, and not fear the unknown.”


Erika Castro, a senior at Roosevelt High, wrote this poem about her experiences as a Latino student navigating the school system. In taking Jennifer Eik's Spanish Heritage classes, Castro says she found her voice and felt more compelled to express herself.

I AM from Wearing a Mask

I am from….

Being expected to act white 

I am from learning to hide away cause I’m too afraid to show the real me

I am from a place that teaches you to fear the unknown, to be afraid to be wrong 

I am from not feeling like I am myself in a way, who has to wear a mask to hide away

I am from being held captive, chained, and caged inside of my own self

I am from many cultures, places and people, but still not feeling like I belong

I am from taking a step onto a road, believing it would take me somewhere,

only to realize it would only bring me back to the beginning 

I am from exceeding the low expectations you put upon me 

I am from being expected to go through a daily routine 

I am from being expected to be this standard model which society has created and sir Freire has rejected

I am from my own people trying to put me in a category 

I am from a system that is so fucked up they categorize every single little shit

I am from a system that wants perfection but what they get is less than acceptable

I am from being able to talk, say, speak, but not being able to do  

I am from a place that takes a single look at me, and judging by my appearance, expects me to be someone else

I am from being tired of trying to reach YOUR expectations, being tired of hearing YOU say I am smart, but I am not smart, I am full of YOUR useless information 

I am from an empty vessel crafted by YOUR robo hands to create an illusion for the people

I am from being tired of YOUR oppressive ways

I am from being tired of hearing about social justice  

I AM from ALL, BUT yet, NONE

I am from a people that can stand as one but chooses to scatter 

Yo soy de la superficie que se hace llamar diversidad pero lo que en realidad es una palabra bonita para la segregación de culturas 

(I am from the surface that makes itself be called diverse but in reality it's just a pretty word for a segregation of culture)

yo soy de una cultura que está llena de culturas inferiores de acuerdo al sistema yo vengo de una cultura que es inferior

(I am from a culture that is full of inferior cultures according the system I come from a culture that is inferior)

Yo soy de un lugar que se hace llamar educativo pero lo único que logra es encerrarte en una celda de cuatro paredes

(I am from a place that makes itself be called educational but the only thing that it accomplishes is to imprison you in a four walled cell)

 Me encierran en el sistema de “Inglés como segundo idioma” Me encierran en los sentimientos de baja autoestima 

(They imprison me in the system of “English as a second language” they imprison me in feelings of low self esteem)

Yo soy de una mentalidad en la cual Sherman, Freire, Sir Kay Robinson luchan por encontrar la llave para abrir la puerta de mi celda para liberarme

(I am from a mentality in which Sherman, Freire, Sir kay Robinson fight to find the key to open the door of my cell to liberate me)

Soy de una fantasía en donde los dichos de Freire se vuelven realidad

(I am from a fantasy where freire quotes become a reality)

-“Lucho por una educación que nos enseñe a pensar y no por una educación que nos enseñe a obedecer” Paulo Freire

-”No es una la resignación en la que nos afirmamos sino en la rebeldía frente a las injusticias”Paulo Freire

Yo soy de un lugar en el cual se teme de uno mismo 

(I am from a place where you fear yourself)

Yo Soy de un sistema que cree que el conocimiento viene de la mente “Blanca”(I am from a system that believes that knowledge comes from the “white” mind)

I am from being foreign 

I am from being feared

I am from you trying to tame me

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