Escuela Viva prepares students to learn through building positive attitudes
On Friday, February 04, , Portland, OR — Sitting at a work table, the director/owner of Escuela Viva explained what made her school different. A quiet hum of children talking to teachers filled the room.
From out of nowhere, a 4-year-old girl with a wide smile ran up and laid a huge bear hug on Angela García — or Angie, as most of the staff at Escuela Viva call her.
Just as quickly as she arrived, the 4-year old was off to resume her current project. García didn’t react as if that display of affection was anything unusual.
A glance at García’s business card explained the flash encounter. “Healthy Spirits, Open Hearts & Active Minds” the card promised.
The basic premise of Escuela Viva sounds simple — but totally logical. “Happy children are ready to learn,” García observes. “It’s important to have a nice, first educational experience to make them love learning.”
García emphasizes the importance of emotional stability: “If it’s difficult for a child to manage their emotions, how difficult would it be for them to learn?”
Anyone who has watched toddlers has noted that little tykes are information-absorbing creatures. By the time they spend a year or two in a large, impersonal school, many children find their desire to learn has faded.
As García phrases it, “Children are … wonderful and full of energy — and the world slowly kills that vibrant energy.”
To avoid that tragedy, García believes, “A teacher’s role is to help them feel good about themselves — to build up their self-esteem and confidence.”
To prepare children to learn you have to help them gain some independence, she says. Small things such as learning to tie their shoe laces give them the confidence that they can succeed.
Another necessity is developing social skills, such as learning to share. “If a child can’t get along with others,” García reasons, “how can they manage in an educational setting to be prepared and ready to learn?”
In short, Escuela Viva aims to provide “a safe nurturing environment” conducive to success in life.
A search for a school
The concept of Escuela Viva came from both Angie García’s educational background and a bit of necessity. When her daughter came into the world eight years ago, García found herself in an odd position. “I worked part time and I had a part-time nanny,” she recalls.
The part-time job part came from her master’s degree in social work — helping families who had experienced child abuse and domestic violence. She decided that when her daughter was old enough she would put her in a preschool program where she could interact with other children.
García began looking around Portland for a school for her daughter. “I was looking for a program that would nurture her spirit and provide a bilingual environment. The truth is that I just couldn’t find it,” she recalls. “So I started this.”
“This” — in its original form — was herself, five children, and a remodeled basement. By the start of 2010, Escuela Viva had expanded to seven full-time staff members plus four part-time employees at three sites.
In October, Escuela Viva consolidated operations in a larger building in Southeast Portland. Enrollment now stands at 67 with 15 now on staff.
What accounts for such rapid growth?
“Word of mouth,” she responds. “Virtually every child here has come by referrals.”
Parents recognize that Escuela Viva provides a number of unusual services to help them support their children’s learning.
Rather than laying out impersonal “lesson plans” for every student, Escuela Viva’s teachers watch the children, engage in dialogue with them, and document their discoveries. This process allows the teachers to discover what learning a child is prepared to engage in. With that information, teachers guide children to help them find their own answers.
To document this process, staff members take digital photos of children engaged in their projects. Then with “photographic report cards” parents can see in which direction each child is heading. With that information, parents can then help direct their children’s interests at home.
Another benefit comes from Escuela Viva’s structure as a “dual language school.”
“We talk in both languages,” García says, “but this is not immersion. Spanish is not one of the most important parts of what we do. It is an added bonus.”
García simply allows language to happen. “We throw in words here and there,” she says. “Later we build up to half and half, once the child is acclimated to the school environment.”
This proves much more effective than asking children to remember long list of words.
García reports that children at Escuela Viva pick up languages readily.
About 80 percent come from predominantly English speaking homes and, with one exception, the rest come from homes where Spanish prevails. The one exception is a child from an Italian-speaking family.
Financing an expansion
Success has it price: too many students, not enough room. Last spring, the school was operating simultaneously at three locations. Even so, “It was getting pretty cramped for space,” García notes.
Thus a search ensued for larger quarters in which she could combine all Escuela Viva’s operations. After some searching, García located a site with 12,000 square feet of space.
Setting up a new center — and moving equipment — demanded some quick capital. Fortunately, García found Mercy Corps NW (MCNW) and Albina Opportunities Corporation (AOC), both of which provided her with the funding she needed after traditional lending resources proved nonexistent. In this case AOC contributed the majority of the loan proceeds and MCNW took a smaller share and agreed to service the loan.
Both MCNW and AOC actively look for chances to help well-run minority businesses to expand. They have teamed up on several other projects in Portland. For details about of this program, call Terry Brandt at 503-288-7292.
Brandt, executive director of Albina Opportunities Corporation, takes pride in helping such a forward-looking school. “Not only does it provide children with a unique educational opportunity, but it has created and will sustain living wage rate jobs in our community,” Brandt observes.
Escuela Viva currently has three levels:
Toddler, 2 years or younger. In the toddler group, Escuela Viva a teacher is responsible for no more than four children.
Pre-school, about 2 to 3 years old. The teacher/student ration is no more than 10 to one.
Pre-kindergarten, about 3 to 4 years old
Placement not rigidly set by age, but by development.
Still adjusting to its new two-story quarters, Garcia says Escuela Viva will be improving the building and upgrading the grounds. To give the site a greener look, plans call for planting more trees and removing old pavement.
After the upgrades, the school will be ready to add another 10 students in July, bringing enrollment up to 77.
As she adds more staff, García is looking for teachers with a minimum of two years education training, proficiency in both Spanish and English, and one year experience at the appropriate age level.
Escuela Viva has been selected as one of 25 schools in Oregon to receive assistance from the state so they can serve as models for other schools.
For more information about Escuela Viva, visit the school’s website at www.escuela-viva.com or call 503-282-2091.
In an interview, García says, “We try to make a good fit between what the parents want and what we offer.”
That fit seems to be as comfortable as a favorite shoe — and ready to step into the future.
El Hispanic News Writer