Keep Learning Alive

New Mexico’s homegrown Rio Grande Educational Collaborative (RGEC) is a player in the big business of providing childcare for school age children. What sets RGEC apart from the others is that it is playing with the big boys – national franchised childcare companies – and finding success through an educational model that has redefined before and after school programs in the Land of Enchantment.

RGEC Chief Executive Officer Peter Sanchez said continuing the learning day after the school bell rings is one of the greatest benefits of providing educationally based before and after school programs. “Children sometimes have to go home to an often dangerous latchkey situation, get shuffled off on a bus to one of the babysitting franchises or are placed in a recreationally based program with very little academic structure,” Sanchez said. “The goal with RGEC since its inception was to provide something much better than any of those scenarios. Our staff, including experienced instructors, know the value in being a partner with schools as they work to improve student achievement.”

Another aspect of value at RGEC is that it is an Albuquerque-based business that keeps its business profits in the state, something the national franchises are not doing. Sanchez knows the value of having successful local businesses. He had more than 20 years of experience managing successful high-tech businesses in Texas and New York before returning to his hometown of Albuquerque as the CEO of the Atrisco Companies, of which RGEC is one entity. When it was acquired three years ago, RGEC had but a handful of sites. Today, with sudden success, RGEC will be operating in 50 school sites across the state by this fall.

RGEC gets the work down with 12 full-time employees and upwards of 100 contract instructors. It has the support of several partners, including Instituto Cervantes, which offers Spanish language classes, materials and support; Albuquerque Public Schools and New Mexico’s PBS affiliate, KNME-Channel 5.

However, RGEC does not depend on grants alone. The vast majority of its business comes from its fee-based before and after school programs, which is free market driven. It has combined a recipe of a high quality educational based after school program with reasonably priced fees in and in all a cases lower than its national competitors. This homegrown business model works because it allows working parents at all income levels the ability to afford to send their children to a quality program. RGEC’s management savvy has made it possible for the business to thrive even when it competes with corporate franchises. RGEC doesn’t need to build sites, it works with school districts, individual school principals and parents to provide its services at the school sites, which are often much more convenient for parents and make it easier for the children who attend the programs to remember that this is a place of learning, not simply a warehouse where you play until your parents pick you up after they get out of work.

“We understand that the business of providing care for children is not easy,” Sanchez said. “We know we have to earn the respect, the trust and the business of our parents as well as the children. The parent’s entrust their most precious assets to us and we do not take that lightly and the children, well, if you are not interesting they will vote with their feet.”

What RGEC has done is replace the old-school afterschool model – which included more play time than academic enrichment – with a combined method of instruction that includes homework help, curriculum-based activities and a healthy dose of recreation that benefits both mind and body. The model works because more than ever schools need businesses that will supplement what they are doing to improve academic outcomes in students. In New Mexico, which typically falls nationally in the bottom third of states for education, RGEC views this supplemental academic support as a way to bolster the academic progress needed here in this state. “It’s by no means the solution to New Mexico’s academic needs but it can certainly be an aid,” says Sanchez.

Because RGEC is part of the Atrisco Companies, there is a strong commitment to preserving New Mexico’s culture and history because it is rooted in the legacy of the Atrisco Land Grant, a gift from the King of Spain to four of New Mexico’s oldest families more than 400 years ago. Sanchez, himself an Atrisco heir to the land grant, said it was his dream to return to Albuquerque after having a successful career in various businesses in New York and Texas. The Atrisco Companies is personal to him and to the people who work for the company and who benefit from its work in all capacities.

“It is no secret that education is the key to all of this,” Sanchez said. “RGEC and the Atrisco Companies will never lose sight of that.”


Spanish at the Cutting Edge

How much would you expect a five-year old to know about the 2010 Chilean mining disaster? Would you expect them to know that the miners had to be brought up at night to avoid the risk of sudden light on their corneas after being in the dark for 33 days? Or to have visited an eye doctor to further explore the idea?

A cohort of kindergartners at the Magellan International School in Austin can tell you about the accident, the aftermath and how it all relates to teamwork because last school year, a worried teacher from Chile mentioned the cave-in to her class as part of a lesson on teamwork. It sparked such interest among the kids that it led the class to use the mining accident to explore concepts in math, science, social skills and writing.

And they did it all in Spanish.

Magellan, an independent school that currently serves children aged 3 through fourth grade, teaches all subjects other than English, PE and Music, in Spanish. In the third grade it adds Mandarin classes. The school’s mission is to prepare students to be global citizens of the 21st century where leaders will be expected to innovate, communicate and make decisions based on continually changing information in a connected world.

“We live in a world today where a lot of information is at our fingertips,” says María Isabel León, the head of the school. “You can Google anything you want to know, so the question is what is it that you do with that information, and how do you put it together to solve problems? Then how do you combine all those skills to create new knowledge?”

Magellan’s International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum means students don’t just regurgitate facts. They are active participants in their education and are expected to come up with actions to take as a result of their studies. It may be something as simple as planting a garden after learning about plants, or as spontaneous as learning how to build lanterns after a power outage.

It’s a style of teaching that is gaining ground. There are 3,395 IB schools worldwide, with 1,346 of those in the United States. The U.S. is the largest market for the IB, which has three levels beginning at age 3 and going all the way up to 12th grade. Magellan, which is in the final stage of its certification process, will be the 109th school in Texas to be certified to teach the IB curriculum and one of a small handful nationally which combine the IB curriculum with Spanish immersion and Mandarin instruction.

While the IB curriculum provides the structure for the school, its heart is in Latin America. Teachers, many possessing a Master’s degree, have been recruited from 14 countries around the world, including 11 Spanish speaking countries and the U.S.. Magellan’s students get the additional benefit of exposure to a range of accents, local vocabularies, national customs and cultural perspectives. The school also provides scholarships for seven underprivileged Latino students this year -- with 15 scholarships planned for next year -- as part of its commitment to diversity and community outreach.

Aside from building cultural understanding, the focus on speaking two languages helps develop the brain in ways that are only now being uncovered. Researchers are discovering that bilinguals are better multi-taskers and better able to focus their attention. Additional studies indicate that speaking two languages may even help stave off Alzheimer’s.

The immersion language program also makes Magellan a trendsetter in the world of education. Nancy Rhodes, the Director of Foreign Language education at the Center for Applied Linguistics observes that immersion programs are on the increase, even as other types of elementary and middle school language programs are on the decrease. CAL notes that 45 percent of immersion programs in the U.S. are focused on Spanish with 239 schools using Spanish as the primary language of instruction.

As for the location of the school, deep in the heart of Texas, where debates over dual language education focus less on the neurological benefits and more on immigration politics, Magellan has tapped into an astounding level of interest and enthusiasm among parents. The school has drawn 285 students from 23 nationalities in pre-K through 5th grade for the upcoming 2012-2013 academic year. It has grown rapidly since its founding in 2009, when the doors opened to 45 students in pre-K through 2nd grade.

Says León, “Spanish is the language that has the most growth in terms of native speakers worldwide and Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S.. English, Spanish and Mandarin are the three top languages used on the internet. Fluency in these languages and cultures will allow our students to work, live and travel around the globe.”

For the last three years, the Magellan School has been creating a prototype for a well-rounded education for the next century, focusing on the IB curriculum, the world’s fastest growing languages and a multi-cultural environment. It’s an education fit for tomorrow’s global leaders.