Zoe, right, plays the drums during recess at Academia Semillas
del Pueblo on Dec. 5, 2012. The LAUSD charter school incorporates
language and cultural learning and is part of Semillas Community
Schools, which also includes the Anahuacalmecac International
Preparatory High School.
On a main thoroughfare in East Los Angeles, there's a brightly
painted public school: Anahuacalmecac International Preparatory
High School, part of the Semillas school network. Semillas
Spanish for "seeds" teaches teenagers about their
indigenous roots and culture.
Students there learn in Spanish and Nahuatl, incorporating Mayan
mathematics and indigenous visual and performing arts. One course
teaches indigenous diplomacy and youth leadership skills. Parents
and grandparents are integrated into the student's learning.
It's not unusual in California for public school students to
spend a good portion of their day studying math or science or any
subject in a language other than English. But this little Los Angeles
charter school is the only one that teaches in an indigenous language.
Principal Marcos Aguilar co-founded the indigenous charter school
in 2001 to better serve kids in the El Sereno neighborhood of Los
Angeles, many of whom have indigenous roots.
"We're not visitors here," he said. "We've been here for millennia,
and its important for our children to grow knowing what our ancestors
named the places around us many many years ago."
Kids learn indigenous history. Aguilar said the concepts of
community and collectivism that are deeply rooted in native culture
are at the core of the school.
teacher Christina Jacquez teaches students how to use a nepohualtzintzin,
a Mayan abacus. The school teaches students English, Spanish,
and Nahuatl, an Aztec language. Kindergartener Zoe, right,
plays the drums during recess at Academia Semillas del Pueblo
on Dec. 5, 2012. The LAUSD charter school incorporates language
and cultural learning and is part of Semillas Community Schools,
which also includes the Anahuacalmecac International Preparatory
"We believe that our children should be able to receive an education
that strengthens and fosters our culture as well as educates them
to deal with the economy and the politics of the world that they
will grow up into," he said.
The school gets results. Last year, Semillas graduated 100 percent
of its senior class, with 80 percent going on to four-year college,
according to Aguilar.
But in June 2013, when the school's charter license was before
the Los Angeles Unified School District board for renewal, it was
denied. Director of Charter Schools for L.A. Unified, Jose Cole-Gutierrez,
noted "serious concerns" with the school's academic performance
and fiscal viability.
"We noted that in the year prior to this last year the school
dropped over 150 points on the Academic Performance Index," he said.
"There were financial concerns that were severe, that also spoke
to concerns to governance."
The school countered that its API score put it in the middle
of all schools in the state far from a failing school. It
added that other public schools in the area had worse test scores
and were not graduating seniors onto college at the rate Semillas
was, yet the district was not closing them down.
The school also pointed to its Western Association of Schools
and Colleges accreditation, a rigorous evaluation by an esteemed
educational institution. Semillas is also an official International
Baccalaureate school, another process that requires high academic
In short, teachers at Semillas didn't spend time teaching to
tests. They used independent projects and UC college-approved courses
to measure student progress.
sing a song to learn parts of the body in Spanish. The school
was founded by principal Marcos Aguilar, a former Chicano
activist and public school teacher.
The fiscal issue the district raised was a budget shortfall
of half a million dollars. The school got a grant to cover it, but
none of this was enough for district officials who reiterated concerns
about governance and transparency.
But parents, teachers and supporters believed the district simply
had a beef with the school, and that beef was political.
Few expected what came next: Principal Aguilar, dressed in a
traditional Aztec feathered headdress, addressed the local board
in defense of his school.
"We invoke the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous
Peoples as we call on the board of education to recognize holistic
academic excellence and the strong community roots that Semillas
represents, and we ask you to renew the charter of Anahuacalmecac,"
Outraged parents and teachers had begun organizing. Mothers'
meetings were held at the school to strategize. Students, shocked
by the local school board's decision, stepped up to speak out at
protests that they themselves organized.
"We are here to let everyone know that ... Anahuacalmecac is
our sacred house of learning, and we are going to defend it with
everything we have for the future generations to come," said senior
Yanin Ardila teaches her kindergarten and first grade students
on Dec. 5, 2012. The 10-year-old Academia Semillas del Pueblo
has an elementary school and high school, both on the same
street in Montecito Heights.
She was addressing a rally at Cal State LA ahead of the school's
first appeal, which would be to the LA County Office of Education.
"Stand us as we defend our education," Carillo said. "We will
not let anyone block our road to college."
At the appeal hearing, the school mobilized hundreds of supporters
to attend and speak out. Including an Aztec elder who addressed
the board members in Nahuatl.
The LACOE board was split in its vote, which meant it took no
action. There would be no charter license renewal, and the only
option left to the school was an appeal to the California Department
It was a soul-searching moment. And then, said Principal Aguilar,
students made an appeal.
"The students organized a town hall and
to us [was] to not give up, to defend the school and to stay in
the community because they believed in it, they believed in the
mission and they wanted to graduate from Semillas."
The students stepped up the organizing and began using social
media and multimedia. They created little music viral videos. The
fight took up much of the academic year, and between organizing,
students continued academic work at their sister high school that
operated under Semillas' other charter school license.
learn the Maya numerals. A student holds up a card with the
Meanwhile, the school's legal team worked on its final appeal
kind of the equivalent of David taking his case against Goliath
all the way to the Supreme Court. The focus remained on the school's
well-rounded academic performance and college acceptance rate, and
the school's unique model of indigenous education.
And against the odds, in May of this year, all 10 board members
of the California State Board of Education voted yes to reinstate
the charter license of Anahuacalmecac high school. Board members
said they wanted to come and see the school's indigenous education
model in action.
Board member Carl Cohen said the school was a model.
"This looks like a school that is making a difference in a very
diverse state," he said. "We are a big state and we should be able
to handle some schools that are outside the box."
The California Charter School Association said winning at the
highest level for a charter school has only happened twice in the
past 5 years.
Students and staff, buoyed by the organizing victory, are back
at work this year. It will be a momentous graduation moment come
June, adds Principal Aguilar, because the original kindergarten
class that started in 2002 when the school first opened will be
the graduating senior class.
They almost didn't have a school to graduate from.
teacher Christina Jacquez teaches Maya numbers one through
20 to her class on Dec. 5, 2012.
grader Zion Rodriguez sells holiday candy grams to early primary
school students during recess on Dec. 5, 2012.
teacher Christina Jacquez works with her kindergarten students
in Spanish on Wednesday morning, Dec. 5, 2012.
learn how to use a nepohualtzintzin, a Mayan abacus.
Jorge Martinez works with kindergartner Selvin during an exercise
Danny Gutierrez is chased by early primary students during