New bilingual school will partner with JP

June 22, 2012
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The Margarita Muñiz Academy, the state’s first public bilingual English and Spanish high school, is coming in September to the now-vacant Agassiz building, located on Child Street in Jamaica Plain. Headmaster Dania Vázquez expects her school will have a healthy, reciprocal relationship with the JP community.

“We are happy that we are being welcomed to the Agassiz, but we also want to give back to JP,” said Vázquez in an interview with the Gazette.

She added that the students and the JP community have a shared responsibility to each other. Vázquez said the academy will forge a partnership with the community, and that once it has its music program up and running, students will go out in JP to perform. She also said the academy will have a community service program.

The academy will open with a freshman class of 85 students who, Vázquez said, have a strong desire to learn in two languages. She said that the class consists of students from both ends of the knowledge spectrum: some students who are dominant in English with little to no Spanish and others who are the complete opposite.

The school is open to the entire district. Students are required to take an assessment to gauge their Spanish and English abilities, but Vázquez said the assessment is not contingent on acceptance. The students are picked through Boston Public Schools (BPS) lottery system.

“We are developing real, well-rounded people, paying attention to their minds and character,” said Vázquez.

The academy is named after the late Margarita Muñiz, the former principal of the Rafael Hernandez School, a bilingual K-8 school in JP. The Muñiz Academy will be an innovation school, a term coined from a 2010 legislation bill. That means the academy will have autonomy from the school district, with its own curriculum, budget and calendar.

The academy will open later than most high schools, starting class at 9 a.m. and going until 4:15 p.m.

The Muñiz also will share the Agassiz building with the Mission Hill K-8 School, whose move created controversy in the Mission Hill community.

Vázquez said the academy stands out from most other schools in three different ways. The first area is the music program, which will use “El Sistema,” a music system developed in Venezuela and internationally known and recognized, according to Vázquez. The headmaster said she hopes to have an orchestra in four years.

The second area is that the academy’s curriculum will be drawn from “Expeditionary Learning,” an educational program that focuses on project-based learning. Vázquez called the program “different and authentic” and said the academy will invite people from the community who are experts in their fields to speak with classes.

The third area is technology, as Vázquez said the academy will have a “21st century platform.” The academy has 60 laptops for 80 students, and Vázquez said the goal is to have a one-to-one ratio. She said the laptops will be used for academic research and music technology.

“Technology is the bridge that brings everyone together,” she said.

Vázquez said the academy’s teachers meet three criteria: they are experts in their content, they are able to teach content in both English and Spanish and they love the children. That doesn’t mean cuddle them, but make sure they are successful, she said.

“We will have a wonderful staff,” said Vázquez.

Vázquez has a long history in education. She worked for the New York City public schools for 21 years, including as a principal and bilingual special education teacher. She eventually left to come to Boston, where she became the associate executive director at the Center for Collaborative Education. At the center, among other duties, she did leadership coaching for pilot schools in Boston and Los Angeles. After 10 years at the center, she was picked as the academy headmaster.

The academy opens earlier than most BPS schools, starting Aug. 14 with a two-week orientation that will take place at Boston University. The students will then spend two days at the Museum of Fine Arts, a partner with the academy, before attending a camp in New Hampshire for character-building sessions, according to Vázquez.

Ask to anticipate her students’ reaction during the first month of school, Vázquez replied, “I already know their reaction because I’ve met with them. They are very excited.”

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