Cesar Chavez and Lidia Reguerin

The Evolution of Escuela Popular

Written on May 6, 2013 by Martha Kanter.

“Students must have initiative; they should not be mere imitators. They must learn to think and act for themselves – and be free.”

— Cesar Chavez


Escuela Popular “educates to transform lives” as it carries out its mission on North White Road in San Jose, California. Open throughout the year, Escuela Popular  offers a dual language curriculum for children and adults to more than 1000 students a day. The Dual Language Academy serves K-8 students, the High School Academy serves youth and adults, and childcare is freely provided so all family members are welcome.

The place was buzzing, even on Saturday, May 4th,  when I visited with Silicon Valley educators, government officials and non-profit leaders who have come together to advance the vision of its founder Lidia Reguerin who came to the U.S. from Bolivia. She started the school 23 years ago as an ESL teacher after she relocated to the Bay Area, earning her Master’s degree at Stanford. Today, her daughter Patricia Reguerin is the Executive Director, following in her mother’s footsteps after getting her Master’s Degree in Bilingual/Bicultural Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.

I was fascinated that parents and children were learning under one roof with early learning, elementary, high school and adult education classes being provided every day. Many are immigrants, learning English for the first time. Others are second-generation children and adults seeking to further their knowledge and skills to graduate from high school, get a GED and enter or move up in the workforce. All are part of a vibrant East San Jose community seeking to preserve its values, culture and character in the middle of fast-paced Silicon Valley.

Prominent Stanford Professor Guadalupe Valdez and Berkeley Professor Bernie Gifford are studying the school with rigorous research methods that will push the boundaries to align quantitative and qualitative methods that will help us better understand what it takes to increase academic success and close achievement gaps once and for all. Dr. Gifford shared federal data from the National Assessment of Education Progress that looked at the prevalence of English language in the home for 8th graders taking the NAEP Reading Exam from 2002-03 through 2010-11. He noted that over this time period in California, 37% of the nearly half a million 8th graders live in homes where English is rarely, if ever, spoken – up from 29% in 2002-03.

Escuela Popular’s family-centered language model is capturing the attention of many educators.  Chris Funk, Superintendent of the East Side Union High School District, and his Board Chair Frank Biehl spoke about the significance of Escuela Popular. Officials from Oakland, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara also participated in the discussion, including David Villarino-Gonzales, President and CEO of FIELD, the Farmworker Institute of Education and Leadership Development which provides “basic education and skills upgrade training to immigrants, farm workers and low-skilled workers in rural communities to give them confidence to realize their dreams.”

These leaders have come together to expand this model to others who can benefit.Having read the entire Immigration Reform bill that is now making its way through Congress, Dr. Gifford shared that Latinos comprise 9 million of the 11 million undocumented immigrants seeking a better life in the U.S. today. He reminded us of the history of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) – also called the Simpson-Mazzoli Act – enacted on November 6, 1986, giving legal status to 3 million immigrants – 2 million were of Irish descent.

Dr. Valdez emphasized the interrelationship of parent engagement and schooling. She said: “There is a secret at every level throughout Escuela Popular that needs to be shared. The challenge is how to replicate and scale this sensitive, smart and efficient model of helping immigrants learn English and other subjects they need for success.” The student stories were truly remarkable. Because there was so much to learn and to share, we ran out of time. But at the end of the day, Carina wanted us to hear her story even though our meeting had ended. Her confidence and determination to learn and succeed speaks to the value of Escuela Popular.

Carina’s Story

My name is Carina. I am from Mexico City and it is an honor to represent the “Old Dreamers” of Escuela Popular today. I arrived in this country six years ago. I have four children. Two of them are lawyers; one more is almost a professional in childcare and the last one has a two-year old son. Times are hard because I work at night and I study. Why did I decide to attend Escuela Popular? Because I researched schools on my second day here, and some of them helped me to reinforce my knowledge of the abc’s, numbers and colors but did not give me the opportunity to earn my high school diploma. In my pursuit, I found Escuela Popular and it met my expectations because it had a strong curriculum.

My experience as a student is that Escuelar Popuar gave me confidence in myself.  Escuelar Popular gave me Latino and American friends with whom I can communicate.

But the most important thing EP gave me is the power of knowledge – to keep going with my dreams in this beautiful country.I am proud of the founder Maestra Lidia, each one of my teachers and myself – all to be part of EP which grows with love and passion. My future goals are to get a high school diploma. I want to continue studying and become a nurse to help others with my experience and my knowledge.

Thanks a lot to everyone and have a wonderful day!

Martha Kanter is Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.