At Voices College-Bound Language Academy in south San Jose, students are expected to master not only the California state standards, but also two languages. They’re rising to that high bar – Voices is one of a small number of schools across Silicon Valley that are beating the odds for low-income students.
Frances Teso founded the K-8 charter in 2007 to provide a rigorous bilingual option to underserved students.
An Alum Rock native, Teso was the first in her family to go to college. Many of her friends dropped out. “Generation after generation, so many students are not successful,” says Teso.
Educated in English-only classrooms, she had to relearn Spanish at San Jose State. “I rediscovered pride in my culture,” says Teso. “Our students will have that pride.”
With 500 students on the waiting list for its Franklin-McKinley school, Voices is opening new schools this fall in Morgan Hill and Mt. Pleasant “We know it works,” says Teso.
Bilingual AND Rigorous
Teso started her career as a bilingual teacher, but worried the program wasn’t rigorous enough. “We called it the Pobrecito Syndrome. ‘Those poor kids, their parents aren’t educated. They have so many problems.’ It’s true, but what can we do here at school about it?”
When California’s Proposition 227 passed in 1998 and eliminated most bilingual programs, Teso “thought it would be a disaster.” But now she sees the positives. “It eliminated a lot of low-quality bilingual programs and opened the door to better quality programs.”
She started designing Voices by studying the research on dual immersion and what kids need to be successful.
At Voices, eighty percent of instruction is in Spanish in kindergarten, 70 percent in first grade, 60 percent in second and 50 percent thereafter. All teachers speak both Spanish and English.
In the classic dual-immersion model, one third of incoming students speak Spanish only, one third speak English only and the remaining third are bilingual. Students model language skills to their classmates. Typically, students learn to read in Spanish early, but wait until third grade to learn to read in English. Because Voices serves a higher percentage of native Spanish speakers, they’ve adapted their program in various ways.
Voices starts to teach reading in English as well as Spanish in kindergarten. With good instruction, “children won’t be confused by learning in both languages,” says Teso.
Every lesson concludes with a writing activity. “Academic language has to be expressed in writing,” says Teso.
In addition, Voices teaches English Language Development for one hour a day, twice as much time as the state guidelines recommend. Students are grouped by English proficiency rather than grade level.
Voices is able to reclassify students quickly as proficient in English, says Teso.
“We’re not bound to an ideology,” says Teso. “It’s based on results.”
Most of her Spanish-speaking students don’t come from educated families and don’t have high-level
Spanish skills, says Teso. So teachers must be role models for the sophisticated, “academic” Spanish
and English skills students will need to learn.
A Welcoming Community
Many Voices teachers started as English Learners themselves. “They know what it’s like,” says Teso.
When she hires new teachers, she uses a process developed by New Leaders. The candidate teaches a demonstration lesson, listens to feedback and then responds to the suggestions. “We’re very concerned about how they take feedback,” says Teso.
“I want people who believe all kids can learn,” she says. I’ll spend all day teaching you strategies, but
not one minute trying to change your beliefs.”
The candidate also writes a response to a question in English and Spanish and chats with Voices
teachers, who have a say in the hiring decision. In an interview, Teso probes the candidate’s beliefs,
asking questions like: How should teachers be assessed? What would you do if a parent says the homework is too hard? Why do you want to teach at a high-poverty school?
Most of her students will be the first in their families to go to college. Some parents choose Voices for the “college-bound” focus. Others want a school that values their culture and language.
Involving parents is “all about relationships,” says Teso. All-school meetings are a turn-off to many parents, but they’ll come to informal workshops in the classroom. The Parent Advisory Committee has many subcommittees that give parents a chance to participate. However, the school doesn’t require volunteer hours. “Some of our parents are working three jobs,” says Teso.
At least twice a year, parents are invited to join family field trips to a museum, a cultural festival or a
college. The goal is to show the free resources available, says Teso. “There’s a whole world outside
This series of articles highlights Silicon Valley public schools that are beating the odds for low-income students – serving a majority of high-need students and achieving high levels of performance. While high-performing schools vary in their approach, there are some common components across many of these schools. These include being very thoughtful and purposeful about how time is spent throughout the day, fostering a culture of rigor, using student data strategically to inform instruction, being selective in hiring the right team, coaching and supporting teaching staff to constantly improve and engaging families.
Voices College-Bound Language Academy
Charter Public School
San Jose, CA
Opened in Year 2007
Total number of students: 316
3rd Grade – % Proficient and Above
English Language Arts 53%
6th Grade — % Proficient and Above
English Language Arts 92%
English Learner 48%
Students with Disabilities 8%