El Paso Leadership Academy: An NHI-Inspired School
This article is by Omar Yanar, the Founder and CEO of the El Paso Leadership Academy (EPLA), a college preparatory public charter school that currently serves 190 students in the 6th and 7th grade level and is expected to expand to the 12th grade by 2020. Yanar’s NHI experience began with his participation in the YLC (Top Attorney Award) and LDZ (Cabinet, Best Orator Award, Law Passed) programs that segued into coaching and counseling for YLC, LDZ, and CWS programs, and working at NHI Headquarters as both associate admissions director and director of the Mexico Language Program. He received a Distinguished Alumnus in Education Award at the 2015 Celebracion. He now serves as a founding board member for the NHI Alumni Association Board.
If hindsight is 20-20, are there any comparable idioms on foresight?
Perhaps the cryptic ladies who spoke to Odysseus should step aside, because the National Hispanic Institute was able to predict the inherent educational and sociological needs of Latino students’ decades ago. Predication and application came to fruition through NHI’s summer programs, but since first experiencing NHI for myself, I’ve wondered what a school would look like if it shifted the curricular design to embody NHI ideologies – and that became my vision.
I was fifteen years old and just returned from this life-altering experience we all endearingly know as the Texas Great Debate in Sherman. Ahh, Sherman: Home of fighting kangaroos, the smell of mayo and the entire El Paso Team asking, “Donde estasmos?” After the trip, I sat down on my kitchen counter with my mom, Tita Yanar, to get into our usual multi-hour philosophical parlay. My question was simple, yet the answer has resulted in a lifetime (thus far) of work towards figuring it out.
I asked, “If the imperative critical skills of being able to successfully communicate (written and orally), critically think, collaborate with peers, creatively problem solve and self-advocacy are so necessary, how come we aren’t learning it in school? Why are we instead taking multiple-choice exams? Is life multiple choice?”
My mom grinned, gave me an inquisitive look and simply asked me, “What do you propose to do about it?”
Exactly 15 years later, my answer came in the form of the El Paso Leadership Academy. When developing the EPLA (my tuition free 6th-12th public charter school serving currently grades 6th-7th), the key ingredient to the secret sauce of its instructional programing was to build a curriculum contingent upon teaching leadership and character development skills. We would scrap “what ifs” and finally clearly articulate and execute on a plan to specifically teach students those communication, critical thinking, social, problem solving and self-advocacy skills that NHI teaches through its programs.
Those are the skills necessary to be successful, under the paradigms of a middle class reality that is alien to most low-income Latino students, and interestingly enough, alien to most college graduates regardless of income! If one were so inclined to do some research on the subject, they would quickly find myriad articles written not only by major employers but also hundreds of college professors expressing their frustration that that our students are severely lacking in the “foundational skills” necessary to be successful in the 21st century. Many have said we’ve lost an entire generation and we are in no position to lose another.
NHI foresaw the future and said, “These skills are significantly more important than any test. In the real world, no one cares about your SAT score or your thesis. They care about the foundational skills that bring success to employers, businesses, social enterprises and the economy.”
Subsequently, my mom would say, “Ok, great, glad you have an idea, where’s the substance inside this box?” (Solid point, Mom!)
The box contains a middle school curriculum where four key character traits have been identified and three subsets to each of character traits are delineated. Take each of these characteristics and skills and now take two actionable steps. 1) Educate the students on the definition of the trait and what it looks like in the real world with videos and role playing. 2) Put the students through an experiential simulation to “test” the skill.
Take something like collaboration: First we demonstrate what this is then, on another day, we put four students into a problem-solving exercise where they have come up with a solution to a hypothetical (or real) problem for the school. If the students actually solve the situation, great, but that is not the learning experience. The learning comes from sitting down with the students, and having a debrief and self-assessment asking questions about their communication with one another, and asking how well they empowered the group to achieve success and figured out ways to accomplish the goal. As with NHI summer programs, the students do not fully understand the lesson until the end.
We then expand on this model for high school, where specific experiential learning modules are constructed each year to teach debate/communication, negotiations, organizing, time management and self-advocacy. Finally, we cap off the learning modules with mandatory internships during their junior and senior years, where pre-designed work experiences will make them have to use all the skills learned to complete deliverables set forth by our school and the company they are working for.
Decades ago, NHI created a paradigm shift necessary in Latino education. Decades later, the El Paso Leadership Academy was created to try to institutionalize this knowledge within the school system. The question I ask now to NHI Alums is how could we proliferate it to our entire community?
For more on the El Paso Leadership Academy, visit the school’s website.