Colorado is a diverse place, and increasingly so. But we all know that we have a long way to go if we want our communities to be truly integrated — and that’s especially the case when it comes to our schools.

Although the goal of integration can seem impossibly far off, it doesn’t have to be.

I’ve seen first-hand that with support from the community, parents and educators, a school can create a unique environment promoting a dual language approach that leads to Spanish and English bi-literacy, social integration, equal opportunity and rigorous academic standards.

That place is Escuela de Guadalupe, an independent Pre-K through eighth grade school in north Denver. Escuela is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

As a member of Escuela de Guadalupe’s Board of Trustees, I have had the opportunity to support the evolution of a school that started with little more than hope, but now thrives with high expectations, unmatched achievements, and a student body dedicated to making positive change in the world.

Escuela de Guadalupe’s roots are in the community: the school started as an independent Catholic school in 1999 as a response both to a lack of educational options, and to the complex issues and high dropout rates in north Denver at the time.

In that pre-gentrified era, the neighborhood we now call the “Highlands,” with its food and entertainment scene, was a working-class Hispanic neighborhood.

The school’s founders quickly realized that to serve the Northside community, this independent school needed to include a dual-language curriculum, as well as adequate financial assistance for the families that needed it the most. Escuela de Guadalupe began as a K-5 school — and has always focused on serving families with demonstrated financial need.

Students at Escuela spend half their time in an all-Spanish-speaking classroom and the other half in an all-English-speaking classroom.

This complete immersion method enables them to learn from each other, and levels the playing field by motivating students to use their individual strengths to understand and teach each other. It’s a holistic education model meant to empower all students equally.

It’s an approach that pays off, as the academic results make clear. Over 75% of Escuela kindergartners are reading at grade level, and by the end of third-grade, students achieve bilingual fluency in both Spanish and English — across all subjects.

An astounding 100% of Escuela fifth graders are proficient in reading in both Spanish and English. And the students consistently outperform their neighborhood peers on standardized tests in both Language Arts and Math.

Those academic achievements carry into the future. Three years ago, Escuela de Guadalupe added a Pre-K and middle school, and in 2019 graduated its first eighth grade class. Of those eighth graders, 20 of the 21 students went on to attend some of Denver’s most prestigious college preparatory schools.

Overall, 98% percent of Escuela alumni graduate from high school, compared to 70% of their demographic peers. With help from the school’s Graduate Support Program, three quarters of those who complete high school go on to attend a college, university or trade school — compared to the 47% of high school graduates in the city of Denver overall who pursue a college degree. To date, Escuela alumni attend or have attended 40 different colleges and universities in the United States and abroad.

But even these great numbers don’t tell the whole story. Drawing families from 36 unique Denver metro ZIP codes, Escuela brings together children and families that most likely would not cross paths in Denver’s traditional socioeconomic settings.

With over 90% of its students receiving financial assistance (50% of whom qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch program), Escuela will always exist to serve students and families with demonstrated financial need.

For the other 10% of families that don’t require that aid, the school offers an unmatched opportunity for kids to learn in a culturally and economically diverse environment while creating bilingual fluency across all subjects.

Students leave Escuela de Guadalupe as engaged global citizens, knowing that they can reach their full potential regardless of status, race, religion, or national origin.

As we work to make our Colorado community truly integrated and give all kids equal opportunity to succeed, Escuela de Guadalupe stands out as an example of how barriers can be brought down.

Children of diverse cultures and different native languages succeed not only academically, but socially, when they have the opportunity to learn from each other. Escuela de Guadalupe is making that happen, one child at a time.

John Walsh served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado from 2010 to 2016.

This column was originally published for The Colorado Sun. The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported news organization that covers people, places and issues of statewide interest. To sign up for free newsletters, subscribe or learn more, visit ColoradoSun.com.

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