After years of leasing a warehouse from a local church to operate a school, Las Américas ASPIRA Academy celebrated having its own home Wednesday.
Margie López Waite, chief executive officer of the school, said the completed high school building will help more students become multilingual, a highly-valued skill in today’s workforce.
The high school, located at 750 Otts Chapel Road in Newark, is now the second property ASPIRA owns, along with its existing kindergarten through eighth grade school at 326 Ruthar Drive.
Two of the school’s founding commitments are to identify and dismantle systemic inequities within education that contribute to opportunity gaps for our students, and to create a culture of caring that embraces all the identities of our school community members and provides a sense of belonging for all.
ASPIRA’s students are 71.22% are Hispanic or Latino, 32.44% are English language learners and 25.88% are low income.
“It’s our calling card and the reason we exist to support that highly-concentrated group of Latinos,” López Waite said. “We’re able to do things in the curriculum and in the courses and the staffing to really support them.”
Language bridges and creates relationships, and she wants her students to have two languages in their arsenal by the time they graduate., she said.
ASPIRA opened in August 2011 with just over 300 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
In 12 years, the charter has expanded to serve more than 1,300 students in kindergarten through 11th grade across two campuses in Newark.
First senior class
The high school will serve about 300 students when school starts Monday.
López Waite wants to keep enrollment at the high school to under 500 students in order to adequately serve their needs.
Many of her students are referred to ASPIRA from other schools because of the high concentration of Latinos and the ASPIRA’s ability to meet their needs, she said.
Students are required to take four credits of Spanish, and the other core subjects are taught in English.
ASPIRA’s schools have 160 staff members, and many are bilingual. López Waite said the school is always looking for multilingual teachers to hire.
The school’s focus on dual language immersion means students are learning a second language, whether it’s English or Spanish.
“Whether they’re teaching Spanish or they’re teaching math, they all have a joint mission to support the students that need to navigate the English language,” López Waite said. “When you have that population, you’re able to make it a more focused approach.”
Tours were given Wednesday to the 100 people who came to the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The school definitely had that new smell, with fresh coats of yellow and blue paint on the walls, a new lunch kitchen and squeaky clean hardwood on its gym, which featured a large digital scoreboard.
Previously, the high school had its food brought over from the lower school, where it was made fresh.
The renovations include an exercise room for students – academic or athlete – to lift weights or get in some cardio.
There’s also locker rooms specifically for referees.
López Waite joked that referees normally have to get changed in their car or somewhere else, so she’s hoping ASPIRA’s sports teams will get a few extra calls their way in return for the referee-dedicated spaces.
The school offers nearly every sport except football. López Waite says she has gotten requests to add a football team, but there are no plans to do so in the near future.
“We made a promise to our students that they would get the full high school experience before they graduated,” said López Waite, who is also the founder of the school. “I feel good that we’ve accomplished that and that we fulfilled that promise to them.”
The high school, which sits on 22 acres, cost the school $20 million to purchase and renovate. High school students had been in the warehouse, which is leased from the Life Community Church.
During the ribbon-cutting ceremony, López Waite thanked the construction group for staying at or under budget with its renovations, which had become increasingly difficult because of the increased costs of equipment and supplies.
The renovations took three years, and there is still a small unfinished section of the school expected to be completed by the end of the year.
It will house a life skills classroom, which looks like a modern apartment and will help students with everyday tasks such as cooking, washing and ironing clothes. The section also will include a lounge.
None of the renovation money came from state capital funds. Charters do not qualify for those.
“They did not have to raise all of that,” said Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network.
Charter schools have the flexibility to use funding from local and state funds to pay down debt, she said.
On average, she said, charters spend about 20% of the operating funds on rent, lease or mortgage payments.
“So we do utilize funding that comes from the state, but it’s separate from the capital funding,” she said.
López Waite said the money came from bonds, which the school will pay off over time, similar to a mortgage.
The school now is looking to renovate its outdoor sports fields, and is about $500,000 away from beginning that project.
The money will come from its $12 million expansion campaign. López Waite said a lot of that money came from grants and donations from local and federal foundations.
Several schools across the country are part of the national ASPIRA Association, which started in the 1970s in New York City to help educate the rapidly growing Latino community.
The Delaware high school started in 2020 with ninth graders and then a grade was added each year.
The original freshman will be ASPIRA’s first senior class, which will graduate in the spring.
Raised in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Jarek earned a B.A. in journalism and a B.A. in political science from Temple University in 2021. After running CNN’s Michael Smerconish’s YouTube channel, Jarek became a reporter for the Bucks County Herald before joining Delaware LIVE News.
Jarek can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at (215) 450-9982. Follow him on Twitter @jarekrutz
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