Raíces del Saber: New charter school puts down roots in Las Cruces

Algernon D'Ammassa
Las Cruces Sun-News

LAS CRUCES - In the Nahuatl language,"xinachtli" is the name for the moment a seedling emerges from a seed.

A new charter elementary school in Las Cruces uses metaphors of roots and germination as the foundation of an education that not only meets state academic standards but begins a process of self-discovery rooted in history and ancestral identity.

When the Raíces del Saber Xinachtli Community School officially cut the ribbon on its permanent home Friday, it was with a pair of garden shears.

The school welcomed its first students for kindergarten and first grade in August, but because its building on 2211 N. Valley Drive was still being remodeled, classes were held in portable structures on the campus of La Academia Dolores Huerta in the Mesilla Park neighborhood, five miles away. 

Each year, the school will add a year up to fifth grade. Midway through its first school year, enrollment is 31 kindergarteners and first graders, but the maximum enrollment under the school's charter is 240. 

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Among the school's founders is Lucía Verónica Carmona, who recalled working with border communities as a lead organizer for the Colonias Development Council. In those years, she connected the lack of engagement by some parents in their children's education or in civic activities to experiences of discrimination and displacement. Carmona had experienced this herself as a native of Ciudad Juárez of Rarámuri ancestry.

"To decolonize that situation, to disrupt that situation is hard," she said in an interview at the school, where she works as the school's director of operations and community engagement.

Laying 'roots of knowledge'

The dual language curriculum immerses students in academics in both languages, with the heaviest emphasis in Spanish in kindergarten and gradually moving to a 50:50 ratio between Spanish and English by fifth grade. 

Holaya Ponce participates in the ribbon cutting for Raíces del Saber Xinachtli Community School in Las Cruces on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020.

In addition to teaching state-mandated content standards, the school weaves in Mesoamerican cultural history as an enrichment activity throughout the day, including the Nahautl language, the Aztec calendar and the Mayan system of mathematics.

The point, Carmona said, is for students of all ethnic ancestries "to bring their background, historical or ancestral knowledge of origin. Those are conversations that the kids start at the very beginning."

As a charter school authorized by the New Mexico Public Education Commission, Raíces del Saber ("Roots of knowledge") accepts all students who enroll, up to its cap. 

What the cultural enrichment offers, regardless of a student's ethnic background, is full humanization, Carmona said: "They learn more about their own culture, where they come from, and also how to identify ourselves as a human being in relationship with environment — with the people, adults, elders, and with ourselves." 

'We are all in this together'

Principal Angela Stock, a Las Cruces native and career educator and administrator, said the school uses restorative justice models to manage conflicts and train students to appreciate cultural differences. 

The school is also implementing a community school program, a model in which school facilities also become hubs of community services addressing needs in the immediate community, as an extension of the children's learning environment and to promote engagement by students' families and local community in the education of new generations. 

A kindergarten student at Raíces del Saber Xinachtli Community School in Las Cruces reads an Aztec calendar during class on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.

The Las Cruces Public Schools has also invested in community schools, piloting the first such program in town at Lynn Middle School and launching three more this year with grant support from the state as well as the city of Las Cruces.

Carmona said that Raíces, also, has received a planning grant from the Public Education Department to begin its community school effort. 

"We want to be the hub to provide services for our immediate community, and our community is going to partner up with us to help us with our families," Stock said, adding, "We are all in this together."

Raíces is also a member of the Native American Community Academy (NACA) Inspired Schools Network Program, and Carmona said that the school was working closely with indigenous peoples rooted in Las Cruces, the Mansos and Tortugas communities, on making the school a repository for the area's history and heritage. 

Meanwhile, the school's leadership structure is to include a parents' council with a decisive role. The aim, Carmona said, is not only good governance but preparation for parents to remain actively involved in their children's education when they graduate from Raíces.

'It's all about place'

The curriculum is based on decades of work by kindergarten teacher Carlos Aceves, a bilingual educator who introduced Nahuatl to his classroom at Canutillo Elementary School in Texas in 1995 and developed his curriculum until it was shut down under pressure from state officials.

Kindergarten bilingual teacher Carlos Aceves in his classroom at Raíces del Saber Xinachtli Community School in Las Cruces on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.

Mesoamerican history and language expands across borders, he said. Nahuatl is "not only our root linguistically, culturally and historically, but unites experiences across the border."

"It's all about place," Aceves continued. "One of the ways that human beings divide each other and create hierarchies or privilege is by questioning place: I belong here, you don't. When financial interests become involved, that questioning of place is used as a way of one group having domination and control over not only the group, but the resources that group used to have."

A crucial function of education, he said, is decolonization: undoing a way of seeing based on historical power relationships. 

"Everybody in the United States is colonized," Aceves said, "whether they are black or white or brown or whatever, because we all have the mindset: We don't understand place."

Aceves looked through the window of the principal's office, which looks upon the Organ Mountains.

"Once people feel that they belong, they are less anxious about how to get along with each other," he said. 

Algernon D'Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.