Academia Cesar Chavez serves grades PreK through 8th grade in Minnesota. The dual-language public charter school focuses on academic excellence in reading and literacy and social growth. During Hispanic Heritage Month, the executive director, Norma C. Garcés, shared her educational journey and her passion for creating positive change in education.
What inspired you to become a leader in public education?
My grandfather did. My hometown of Tenancingo needed a sewer line, and my grandfather had the unpopular task of asking everyone in town to hand over some money so the town could make it happen. Everyone needed to give money—including a single mom who made her living by begging on the streets. It provoked an outcry: how could one of the most powerful men in the town possibly ask a woman so clearly disadvantaged to contribute money she didn’t have, and might not ever have?
My grandfather went to talk to her, and he got the money from her. I learned, seventy years after the fact, how he did it. My grandfather gave her the money so that she could in turn give it to him, because if she can give money, anyone can give money. That was one lesson my grandfather wanted to impress upon the town, but it wasn’t the only lesson. For my grandfather, it was also about the woman’s dignity. No one in town would ever look down on her and no one would question her active participation in the betterment of the town. This job is not just about me. If I do well, the students do well.
Making sure my students go on to high school, graduate, and consider college or post-secondary training is also part of that dignity. I ask some students, what do you want to be? Some say, “I want to be a mechanic.” Why just be the person fixing the cars? Why not own the shop? I want students to think bigger, to dream bigger.
That’s the business of hope. I want to help students dream of—and work toward—a future where they can own the shop: A future where they can control their own destiny, with all the dignity that brings.
What is your vision for students and families?
I am all about asset-based practices and humanizing pedagogies—pedagogies of hope. I am invested in systems change, creating and building upon cultural spaces that honor historically marginalized communities, and affirming their identities and experiences.
Please describe a recent accomplishment or victory your school has experienced—or a goal you all are looking to accomplish?
When I first arrived at Academia, the school was not following its mission, and had in fact been off-mission for a few years, which jeopardized our authorization. Upon my arrival, many of the teachers were monolingual English speakers, mixed in with some non-native Spanish speakers. A bilingual program requires appropriate staffing to teach all grades and subjects in both languages. Now, all but two of our elementary school teachers are native Spanish speakers, and we doubled the staffing in our middle school. With this, we secured reauthorization for another two years, and the probationary status Academia had been placed on when I arrived was lowered as we continue to right the ship and strengthen the program.
What does celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you?
In our school, we don’t use the word “Hispanic,” because it perpetuates the erasure of our ancestry and indigeneity. For us, it’s not one month, it’s our day-to-day. It’s an opportunity to go further and explore deeper into the diversity within our community here at Academia, as we have families, students, and staff coming from almost every country in Latin America.
How can readers support Academia Cesar Chavez School?
By sharing what we do here at Academia, promoting the work broadly, even internationally. We are always open to new ideas for how to improve our craft and diversify revenues. Also, referring any teacher who would like to teach in a bilingual, identity-affirming school.
Brittnee Baker is the manager of communications and marketing at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools