Latino studies school's focus
Arizona Daily Star
April 14, 2008



Toltecalli wins kudos from Chicano group

By Danielle Sottosanti

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

Visitors to a South Side charter school will see a special sculpture of Mexican-American labor activist César Chávez when they enter, but Chávez's influence on the students goes beyond first impressions.

"He was a Mexican-American hero," said Larissa Barreda, a sophomore at charter high school Toltecalli Academy, 251 W. Irvington Road.

Barreda, 15, said she'd like to incorporate some of Chávez's qualities into her own life.

"He cared about everybody," she said.

Chávez's values of community, respect and cultural knowledge permeate Toltecalli Academy on many levels.

"We've always been familiar with César's work — his advocacy and community service — and so we've weaved it in the academic services that we offer our students," said Magdalena Verdugo, superintendent of Calli Ollin Academy Schools.

Toltecalli Academy, which is now in its fifth year, is one of three schools in the Calli Ollin school system.

The school's academic program captured the attention of Chicanos Por La Causa Inc., a nonprofit, statewide community development corporation.

Toltecalli continues Chávez's legacy, embracing a variety of cultures, said Edmundo Hidalgo, Chicanos Por La Causa's president and CEO.

"We believe that (Toltecalli) went hand in hand with the whole philosophy that César had," he said.

Like Chávez, the school focuses on the positives rather than the negatives, Hidalgo said. The school also expects students to give back to the community.

Of all Chávez's values, Toltecalli focuses the most on community service, Verdugo said.

Students picked improving the neighborhood around the school as their service work, she said. Most of Toltecalli's students come from the neighborhood, she said.

Chicanos Por La Causa officially recognized the way Toltecalli is in step with Chávez's values in November at the agency's Esperanza Awards, which recognize Hispanic educators.

It gave Toltecalli — and Queen Creek Arizona Migrant Head Start Center — its first César Chávez Bust Awards.

Toltecalli waited until a March ceremony to unveil the bust to faculty, students and the rest of the community.

At that ceremony, students spoke about what they know about Chávez and how they want to incorporate his ways into their own lives, but Chávez's presence in their school is not limited to the bust that sits in its foyer.

"Our intent is not the bust itself," Hidalgo said.

The César E. Chávez Foundation is helping the schools incorporate more of Chávez's legacy by providing curricula and staff development.

For example, Barreda and other students in the Toltecalli Latino Health class learn about farm workers' health and compare it with the health of the general Latino-Mexicano population, said teacher Luis Alberto Perales.

The class hopes to present its findings at a health fair at the end of the school year.

"It's not specifically a Chicano studies class, but I incorporate Chicano studies into any class I teach," Perales said.

Along with Latino Health, Perales teaches the school's general Chicano studies classes, which are incorporated in a four-tier program, he said.

In the classes, students learn about topics ranging from colonialism and the Spanish Conquest to youth movements such as the hip-hop generation.

That education isn't something Perales had while he was growing up in a Texas border town.

He didn't come into contact with Mexican-American studies until he was an undergraduate at the University of Arizona.

"It was personally an eye-opener in many ways," he said.

Now with a bachelor's degree in Mexican-American studies completed and graduate study in Latino Health in process, Perales said he asks himself whether learning about Chicano studies earlier would have affected him.

That's a question that Toltecalli senior Marc Borquez, 18, won't have to ask.

Formerly a student at Sunnyside High School, Borquez switched to Toltecalli partly because of the charter school's focus on Latino culture.

"They just don't teach you about the basics — math, science. Over here, they teach you that and incorporate it with different things. It makes it more fun and more interesting," he said.

South Side

● Contact reporter Danielle Sottosanti at 618-1922 or at