Taos International School earns prestigious certification

Dual-language charter school battles back from near closure

By Doug Cantwell
dcantwell@taosnews.com
Posted 1/17/20

"You never give up," said Taos International School founder Nadine Vigil. "If you believe in something, you do it."

Vigil worked for Taos schools for 35 years, retired for four years, got bored - then in 2013 wrote the charter for TIS and still serves as its director and head administrator.

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Taos International School earns prestigious certification

Dual-language charter school battles back from near closure

Posted

"You never give up," said Taos International School founder Nadine Vigil. "If you believe in something, you do it."

Vigil worked for Taos schools for 35 years, retired for four years, got bored - then in 2013 wrote the charter for TIS and still serves as its director and head administrator.

"It's been a tough journey, but I love what I do," Vigil said. "We started with just kindergarten, first and sixth grade, adding grades as we went. Now we're K through eighth."

Threatened with closure by the Public Education Commission two years ago, Vigil and her staff have come roaring back, achieving the coveted certification from International Baccalaureate, a Geneva, Switzerland-based accrediting organization that sets rigorous standards for schools seeking to excel in bi- or multilingual education and embrace international perspectives.

Taos International employs a 50-50 model for kindergarten through third grade - half of the instruction is in Spanish, half in English. According to Vigil, TIS is the only school in New Mexico that offers it.

"In fourth through eighth grades, we're using the 'heritage' model," she added, "which means we focus on keeping up their oral communication skills."

The school also offered Mandarin Chinese for several years, but Vigil finally gave up on it after struggling to keep a fluent instructor on staff.

International Baccalaureate requires at least one language in addition to English and grants three certificates - early years (K-5), middle years (6-8) and diploma (9-12). TIS has achieved middle-years certification and is now working to get its early-years program certified.

Once certified, a school has the option to teach a number of different International Baccalaureate programs, which embrace what IB calls inquiry-based learning. "We had to start teaching completely different from what we were used to," Vigil said.

Before starting on the path to become an authorized IB World School, TIS first had to document that it had met certain requirements to become an IB candidate school. "It's a big process and there are serious fees involved," she added.

The school had to adopt the IB principles, meet a rigorous set of standards and have a consultant come in from IB. "The consultant helped us get everything in order," she said, "and then made her report, saying we were ready to submit our application for authorization."

Math/science teacher Emilia Eshleman added, "The IB people were very interested in having us get certified because we serve such a diverse population here, both culturally and economically."

According to a statement from International Baccalaureate, more than 5,000 schools worldwide have chosen to teach its programs, with their unique academic rigor and emphasis on students' personal development. Those schools employ over 70,000 educators and teach more than a million students.

Teaching kids how to ask questions

Instead of just lecturing students and handing them information to absorb, teachers of the IB curriculum introduce a new unit by giving a broad overview - but then put the burden on students to ask questions, do the research and dig to find answers.

"The kids have ownership of what they're learning," said Gerrit VanEvery, who teaches language arts and serves as the school's IB coordinator. "Instead of sitting there passively waiting for me to tell them what they're doing, they're teaching themselves - by learning to ask the right questions. That's the IB philosophy."

"We're talking about propaganda today," VanEvery added. "The kids are trying to grasp the concept based on a story we're reading, 'Address Unknown,' about what went on in Germany in the 1930s."

A disturbing short novel written in 1938 by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor that was banned by the Nazis, "Address Unknown" is sophisticated stuff for middle-schoolers. Max, a Jew living in San Francisco, and his former business partner Martin, a gentile who has returned with his family to Germany in 1932, write letters to each other.

Martin goes on about a man named Hitler and the "wonderful" Third Reich, which is reviving the country's dignity following World War I. At first Max is covetous: "How I envy you! ... You go to a democratic Germany, a land with a deep culture and the beginnings of a fine political freedom."

Max soon has misgivings about his friend's enthusiasm, however, when he hears from eyewitnesses who have fled Berlin that Jews are being beaten and their businesses boycotted. Martin responds that, while Max may be his good friend, everybody knows that Jews have been the universal scapegoats, and "a few must suffer for the millions to be saved."

But soon, he asks Max to stop writing to him. If a letter from a Jew were intercepted, he (Martin) would lose his official position and his family would be endangered.

"It's a great story," said Van-Every, "and has really gotten the kids discussing it with one another."

An uphill climb from near closure

Taos International opened in 2013 after a contentious battle with the Public Education Commission, which refused to grant the school a charter. However, PED Secretary Hannah Skandara reversed the PEC's decision, allowing the school to open.

After receiving D and F grades from the state for three years running, the school was denied renewal of its charter at a December 2017 PEC hearing. Vigil asked PED Secretary Chris Ruszkowski to override that decision. After reviewing the case, Ruszkowski announced in April 2018 that he agreed with the commission's vote but would allow the school to finish out the school year on its current charter.

Vigil had embraced bilingual education and the IB principles from the start and had already started the process for International Baccalaureate certification when the PEC showdown took place.

In June 2018, a Santa Fe District Court judge stayed the school's closure pending the outcome of its appeal, allowing it to open in September for the academic year.

In issuing that decision, Judge Francis J. Mathew ruled that the school would suffer "irreparable harm" if the stay were not granted and that the school was "likely to prevail" on the merits of the appeal.

In the October 2018 appeal hearing, Vigil made the case that the school's PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) test scores had risen dramatically from previous years and that it had received an overall grade of C for 2017 from PED, a jump from the previous year's F. In fact, TIS had even made PED's list of schools most improved for PARCC proficiency.

The appeal was upheld, and the school received a new three-year charter.

"We lost a lot of students because of the threatened closing," said Vigil, "but we're regrouping and rebuilding. Today, we have 162 students. We just needed those years for growth."

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