Benito Juarez Academy students, shown here with director Dr. Laurencio Peña, are attracted by the school's focus on Hispanic youth. The Saginaw-based public school academy was chartered in 1995 by Central Michigan University.
Many administrators search for the highest-achieving students to attend their schools,
but Dr. Laurencio Peña wants Michigan schools to send him the children who are struggling
in the traditional educational environment.
Peña is director of the Benito Juarez Academy in Saginaw, a charter school created in
1995 to serve troubled Hispanic youth in grades nine through twelve who he believes need
to be challenged at a level beyond that which their regular high schools provide.
Peña, a former Michigan Department of Education official, said that the academy seeks
to serve two specific groups of Hispanic youth: those whose academic performance is
average or below, and those who are involved in conflicts with teachers and may also be
involved in youth gangs.
"Our staff is particularly committed to working with at-risk, low-achieving,
culturally and linguistically different, gang-associated, and typically recalcitrant
youths. We select teachers who possess the belief that they can make a difference in these
kids' lives," said Peña.
The academy does make a difference: Parents and students alike are pleased with the
school's curriculum and programs as well as its promise for the future. "Diana has a
much better chance of being successful at Benito Juarez," said parent Elvia
Hernandez. "The staff and Dr. Peña are very helpful. My daughter has already
experienced great improvement in mathematics."
Hernandez is not alone. According to an internal survey, 81 percent of parents and 89
percent of students said they would recommend the academy to others. "This is a sign
that Benito Juarez has made substantial progress in gaining acceptance within the
community," said Peña, who once served as a superintendent for a 1,000-student
public school district in Texas.
Peña credits the success of the school to the fact that it "does not ignore the
students' background. It celebrates their cultural and linguistic differences as positive
forces for today's society. Its vision is to educate students so that they can function in
a culturally pluralistic, cosmopolitan, technological, and economically interdependent
society," he said.
Founded in 1995, the Juarez school is the product of a committee of concerned citizens
organized in 1993 by the Michigan chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens
(LULAC), a Hispanic service organization.
"It was the committee's assessment that not only were large numbers of Hispanic
youth not graduating from high school, but many students frequently found themselves in
trouble for bad behavior that resulted in reprimands and school suspensions," said
The committee developed a proposal for a school that would address the needs of those
children most in danger of dropping out or developing behavioral problems. Central
Michigan University, which authorizes many of the state's charter schools, approved the
proposal for the Juarez academy on August 15, 1995.
Charter schools, also known as public school academies, are publicly funded
alternatives to traditional public schools that are free from some of the bureaucratic
control that often burdens school districts.
Hispanic students, especially those who are underperforming or otherwise troubled, need
"a new and distinct school environment" to help them become academically
competitive, said Peña.
Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a
coalition of charter school professionals and supporters, agrees. "The Benito Juarez
Academy is an excellent example of how charter schools are serving students whose needs
are not being met by the traditional system," he said.
"Low academic achievers and poorly behaving students are usually the first to drop
out or be expelled," added Quisenberry. "It is rare for a school to develop its
mission around serving these types of children, but that's precisely what the Benito
Juarez Academy is doing."
But the academy is more than just another school to Peña and the Hispanic community.
"For too long cultural and linguistic minority groups have blamed the public school
system for failing to educate our children," said Peña. "Charter schools allow
our communities the opportunity to take control of their destinies, and if we fail, there
is no one to blame but ourselves."