New York charter school focuses on family, community

Part 59 of 59 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson |

Many FLACS students learn English along with their regular academic work.

When Marilyn Calo was a kid, she couldn’t speak English. Her classmates teased her, and her teachers didn’t think she was very smart.

“My parents told me I’d never be a teacher, which is what I wanted to be,” she said. “They sent me to beauty school because I was into doing my hair in junior high, because I had an aunt that had a beauty salon, and that’s where I worked my teenage years.”

“The school was looking at that and not at the abilities that I did have,” she said.

Calo is CEO of Family Life Academy Charter Schools, a network in the Bronx boasting a K-8 school, a school with K-8 prospects and a third school to open this fall.

The cadence of her voice reveals that she’s a New Yorker, but hardly a hint that English isn’t her first language.

“I know what it is to not speak (English) well, and to be made fun of and to have staff and teachers who don’t think you’re that smart,” she said.

FLACS was a natural fit for her: the schools bring in large numbers of English learners — most Spanish-speaking, but others from Africa and Jamaica.

“When a child comes in, we immediately say, ‘Okay, this child may not speak English, but we’re going to take him and do everything possible to get him to speak well, to be able to not feel embarrassed about who they are, and be able to succeed.’ Everything we do here is focused on language and learning well the English language,” she said.

“Sometimes, schools will say, ‘It’s difficult to have our children. They won’t give us the high scores.’ We don’t shy away from that,” Calo said. “It doesn’t matter if they don’t speak the language, or have some sort of disability. It doesn’t matter. We’re going to take you, we’re going to work with you.”

Teachers and administrators teach students holistically. Academics are data-driven, and students are tested frequently to make sure they’re on track — but that’s not everything.

“Not just reading, writing, math — we’re making sure we’re going to score high, that’s important, but not as important as ensuring that we’re taking care of the entire child,” Calo said.

Students begin the day meeting with teachers over breakfast, which allows the teachers to touch base and understand with what the children may be struggling.

Students take part in health and yoga classes and spend some of their science and health classes working on the school’s rooftop garden growing herbs and learning about botany and nutrition. The school even employs a chef who graduated from culinary school in France.

Organically grown, family focused

The FLACS community is proud to have an “organically grown” charter school: one that grew out of conversations parents had while meeting at the local Latino Pastoral Action Center.

“Our founder is the Rev. Rivera, and he’s been doing some missionary work in this particular location for many years, and it was through the outcry of the community at large who came to him 13 years ago and said, ‘Please, the schools in our district are failing our children. Help us, Rev. Rivera, help us,’ and hence the creation of Family Life Academy happened,” said FLACS principal Angel Rodriguez.

Raymond Rivera had been working on community projects for years: he’s been “a minister-activist for most of my adult life,” he said.

Seeing the low quality of education the Bronx students were receiving, and “moved by the notion that children of color could learn just as well as any other child,” he founded the school.

“We are one of the poorest educational districts in the whole country, and because of the poverty, our children also did not have a level playing field because they had less resources, less early childhood education, no after-school centers,” Rivera said. “The structure in our community was not as strong as other communities, and community-based organizations, tutoring and mentoring were not as present. I felt an educational challenge in a community that was plagued by poverty.”

FLACS makes a point to draw in the community, and some staff see the school community as an extension of the family.

“The whole concept of family extends beyond your nuclear family, beyond your extended family. It’s the community of this family. They feel like they’re part of something good,” Rivera said.

Pedro Alvarez, whose son and daughter attended FLACS, agreed.

“I remember with my son, he was going to sixth grade (in the district school), and he was having a problem,” Alvarez said. “I couldn’t speak to anyone. No one seems to be concerned because he was not performing. I knew he didn’t know how to write well, and that he wasn’t doing his homework. When I went to the school, they said, ‘No, he’s fine.’ I said, ‘Okay, okay,’ but they did not help. They just basically go there. The children learn or don’t learn.”

Things changed when his children attended FLACS. Teachers are open with him about student work and achievement, he said.

“It’s all up to us,” he said. “We made up the school system, so we want to be a part of it and help it to improve by improving ourselves. I can finally learn what should our children be learning.”

The school makes a point of drawing in parents. Parents are well-represented on the school board, which Alvarez chairs, and teachers welcome parental input.

“Our children do quite well, and the parents feel quite comfortable coming to the school and are not afraid to speak to us, to ask questions,” Calo said.

The school hosts workshops for parents, teaching them the importance of reading to their children and other parenting skills like discipline and communication. Other workshops teach parents how to navigate the world of higher education. Parents who want to learn English are invited to English classes as well.

“For the longest time, they called us the ‘Mom and Pop’ schools,” Calo said. “There was a time when I got kind of upset about that, then I said, you know what, we’re a grassroots organization. We came from the grassroots. We’re not something that came in and said ‘Save the kids!’ We know what’s going on. We hear the parents, and they have a voice here in our school, and let’s move forward. Let’s be proud of being ‘Mom and Pop.’”

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at

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