Virtual School Meanderings

September 18, 2019

The Saturday School Where Mexican American Children Learn About Their Heritage: A Q&A With NEPC Fellow Angela Valenzuela

An item from the National Education Policy Center.

The Saturday School Where Mexican American Children Learn About Their Heritage: A Q&A with NEPC Fellow Angela Valenzuela

Tuesday, September 17, 2019


The Saturday School Where Mexican American Children Learn About Their Heritage: A Q&A with NEPC Fellow Angela Valenzuela


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There’s considerable evidence that ethnic studies courses are associated with a host of positive outcomes, from higher levels of student achievement to fewer student absences to increased rates of civic engagement. Although ethnic studies courses demonstrate benefits for all participants, they can be especially valuable to students of color, who too often find themselves marginalized by mainstream curricula. Yet if young people encounter this material at all, they must often wait until college. In fact, nine years ago, the state of Arizona passed a law, subsequently struck down, that banned a Mexican American studies program altogether in the Tucson schools. Although other states have since mandated that schools offer ethnic studies, it’s usually not available until high school.

At a community center in Austin, Texas, a group of parents, local leaders, K-12 educators, and university faculty members are challenging that status quo with Academia Cuauhtli, a weekly Saturday school that teaches local fourth graders about indigenous Mexican/Mexican culture, history, language and experiences, all through a social justice lens. The students are not only the children who attend the class but their families and their instructors, who receive professional development around a curriculum developed with input from faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. Unlike many other heritage schools that focus on students’ language and culture, Academia Cuauhtli is free to participants thanks to support from the local school district, the city of Austin, the university, and donations and grants.

National Education Policy Center Fellow Angela Valenzuela directs the academy. In the Q&A below, she describes its history, its approach, and the ways in which the school has become an oasis of empowerment in an era in which people of Mexican descent all too often find themselves under siege. She concludes with recommendations for those interested in replicating the model in their own communities.

Valenzuela is a professor in two UT-Austin program areas: Educational Policy and Planning, within the Department of Educational Administration, and Cultural Studies in Education, within the Department of Curriculum & Instruction. She also serves as the director of UT’s Center for Education Policy. Her research and teaching interests include the sociology of education, race and ethnic relations, education policy, school partnerships, urban education reform, and indigenous education.

Q: What is Academia Cuauhtli? Who founded it? When?

A: Academia Cuauhtli is a Saturday school physically located at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Culture Center (ESB-MACC) in Austin, Texas. “Cuauhtli” means “eagle” in Nahuatl [an Uto-Aztecan language] so our name means “Eagle Academy.” Founded during the 2013-14 school year, we are now entering our sixth year of operation. We are not a charter school; we are a formal legal partnership, involving the Austin Independent School District (AISD), the City of Austin’s ESB-MACC, and our community-based organization (CBO) named Nuestro Grupo. We serve fourth-grade children from five East Austin schools, namely, Sanchez, Metz, Zavala, Houston, and Perez elementaries.

Nuestro Grupo was formed after a September 20, 2013 meeting at the ESB-MACC to discuss literacy in East Austin. The ESB-MACC is located near our participating East Austin schools, and their eagerness to support us emanates from their desire to serve this same community. Nuestro Grupo is comprised of student volunteers, faculty from UT-Austin and Texas State University, community elders, parents, and AISD bilingual education teachers. 

An amazing detail is that this work has resulted in pathways for undergraduates to graduate school, or from masters students to the doctoral program Since we began our work in the community—where we hold weekly meetings at the ESB-MACC—we have created pathways for at least 13 students into the masters and doctoral programs at UT in Educational Leadership and Policy, as well as into the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Hence, we are growing our own critically conscious, community-based, social justice-oriented, masters and doctoral students.

To the best of our knowledge, we are the only Ethnic Studies program at the elementary grade level in the state of Texas and one of only a few nationwide. The number gets smaller when taking into account that we also offer a curriculum in Spanish. We see ourselves as a culture and language revitalization project where we nurture a Spanish-speaking, Indigenous identity, and civil rights consciousness. Our curriculum is further place-based, social justice-oriented, community-centered, and parent-engaged.

Q: Why is Academia Cuauhtli important?

A: Academia Cuauhtli is important for many reasons. For starters, folks should know that Ethnic Studies is important because it instills students with knowledge of history, a deep sense of place and belonging, and thusly, pride and a positive sense of identity. For these reasons, it helps them to see themselves as part of the grand American narrative that they are. Our curriculum, which is aligned to state standards, teaches them that their ancestors never left the continent and so they should always feel at home anywhere they live, north or south of the border. This happens to be a major takeaway for our kids. 

Interestingly, last year’s cohort consisted of second-grade students because their teacher, Santa Yañez Montemayor, who had them in her regular bilingual education classroom, thought that they would benefit. Her second-grade classroom is the recipient of the Academia Cuauhtli curriculum: Specifically, “Who was this person named (in Spanish) Cristóbal Colón?” they asked her emphatically.

And why did he think that he could come and “discover” us? And who told him that he could go and “find” us? Was he lost? What was he doing, and who told him to go and “explore,” and who came with him and who were they anyway?

Consider that these questions are coming from second graders and also that we don’t teach Columbus. This means that children as young as seven to eight years old are thinking deeply about what they and their teachers are learning at Academia Cuauhtli. 

Another positive impact that we hear from principals is that the students are speaking more Spanish in their classrooms and on school grounds as a result of our Spanish language instruction that makes it cool to be a Spanish-speaker and to be bilingual. Add to this the basic Nahuatl that they get in the context of the danza [Aztec ceremonial movement] curriculum together with learning danza in the context of yet another “danza community” (also called, “kalpulli” in Nahuatl), and we can only surmise that they come to see school, education, and community differently—all working together to help them to feel safe, be cared for, have fun, and ultimately, succeed by reinforcing their own families’ values.

Many of our students are either first-generation immigrants themselves, or children of immigrants. They live in a community that is gentrifying. They are also the target of the federal government, with students and families over the past several years—including even before Trump became president—experiencing harassment by police and ICE officials. Families face crises, disappearing overnight because they have fled or faced deportation. Daily crises in the schools we serve have unfortunately become the norm. We therefore offer a modicum of equilibrium and a safe place to just “be” at Academia Cuauhtli.

Click here to read the rest of this Q&A.

This newsletter is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice:

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at:

Copyright 2019 National Education Policy Center. All rights reserved.

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