Innovation requires skill, vision, and courage. Taking a chance on creating something new, something that is out-of-the-box can be a daunting task, but Jennifer Sargent and the team of founding members made it happen with the creation of Hoboken’s HoLa Dual Language Charter School.
We had an opportunity to speak with Nicole Cammarota, president of HoLa’s Board of Trustees, and executive director Jennifer Sargent about how Hoboken’s HoLa Dual Language Charter School is honoring Hispanic Heritage Month, where the inspiration for founding the first bilingual school in the state came from, how they are adjusting to COVID, and celebrating HoLa’s 10-year anniversary.
HoLa opened its doors in 2010 for students in kindergarten through second grade and added a grade per year, with 2017 producing the first graduating class of 8th graders. It became the first free dual-language school in New Jersey, the first charter school to implement a weighted lottery system in favor of low-income families, and in 2018, HoLa expanded its lottery to include English Language Learners and increase the weight for low-income applicants.
Starting a school is no easy feat, especially when the concept of the school is completely different from every other school in the area. “In many parts of the world, some degree of bilingualism is the norm, and it is natural for schools to teach and support learning in two languages as an essential part of children’s core education. Immersion education is such a unique opportunity both to enhance children’s cognitive development, and to expand their worldview,” Jennifer told Hoboken Girl. “As a parent, I want my children to think of themselves as citizens of the world, and to feel responsible for making the effort to understand other people’s experiences, both literally and figuratively.”
Bilingual education may seem confusing at first, but the curriculum is tailored to work for all students, including those that are non-Spanish speaking. “I have two children at HoLa, and from a parent’s perspective with our family not having any native Spanish speakers, anyone can be in the program. One of the most common misperceptions is that bilingual education is just about learning another language,” Nicole explains.
She continues, “In a dual language classroom, language learning is a tool of instruction that accelerates a variety of other cognitive benefits. So, in K-2, academic content is delivered 90% in Spanish so that language is a tool of instruction, not a subject in and of itself. As students move to 3rd-8th grade, instruction switches to a 50/50 model, with one week being in Spanish and the next in English.”
The school is implementing the immersion model and providing rigorous academic and art instruction while incorporating a framework of social justice, multiculturalism, and global citizenship.
Honoring Hispanic Heritage Month
Hispanic Heritage Month takes place from September 15th to October 15th and is a month-long celebration of the Latinx, Indigenous, and Caribbean culture. As a bilingual and multicultural school, HoLa makes this month a priority, as the foundation of the school was built on honoring and observing all cultures.
“At HoLa, it’s always Hispanic Heritage Month. Our staff is primarily Latinx and represents a range of Spanish-speaking countries, as well as a wide array of backgrounds. It’s important to us to amplify the diversity of Latinx voices and experiences, and also to promote the visibility of the contributions of Hispanic-Americans,” Jennifer said.
While Hispanic Heritage Month is only a month-long, HoLa makes it a point to celebrate the Latinx community all year-round. Jennifer explained, “While we will have additional celebrations this month, we are focused all year long on embracing and encouraging our multicultural roots. One of our biggest traditions is a Dia de Los Muertos celebration, which will take the form of a virtual educational scavenger hunt this year.”
See More: 9 Latinx-Authored Books to Read ASAP
Educating students on all-things Latinx is a top priority at HoLa, which is why the school implemented a unique program that goes above and beyond the typical curriculum, it allows students and teachers to have authentic classroom experiences. Nicole told us, “The best thing about HoLa is our people. We work with Hispanic Serving Institutions like New Jersey City University and Rutgers University on intern and teacher placements and are the first school in New Jersey to have a partnership with the Spanish Government that allows teachers from Spain to teach at HoLa through a visiting teaching program.”
Adjusting to COVID
Like schools across the country, HoLa had to rethink and restructure the bases of operations to ensure the safety of the faculty and students. “Re-opening HoLa for in-person instruction this Fall was an incredible undertaking,” Jennifer shared.
“HoLa is operating under a hybrid schedule, with different in-person options for each grade. We are also offering a full-time supervised learning program for any of HoLa’s students who are economically disadvantaged, or who are children of essential workers or teachers,” Jennifer says.
Pre-COVID, students had at least one “special” class, including art, music, gym, dance, yoga, or instrumental. The classes are interactive and hands-on, with lots of opportunities to learn by doing, and through collaboration with classmates.
Celebrating 10 Years of Education
HoLa has been a top school for education for the last ten years, and the staff and students celebrated the milestone together over zoom. “Year 10 is a great example of what HoLa has always been about innovation, resilience, and community. We have stepped up to this major disruption and challenge to our traditional way of doing things and figured out how to keep our students learning and connected to their classroom community,” Jennifer says.
HoLa found a way to keep its mission alive and responsive to the immediate needs of our students and teachers. “We marked our tenth-year anniversary with a special virtual celebration on October 10th, which was a creative variation of our annual Sabor de HoLa gala event,” says Jennifer.
“Over the past ten years, there have been so many proud moments, both big and small. Among the big ones are certainly being named a Model Program by the New Jersey Department of Education for four cycles in a row, as well as being named a finalist for School of the Year by the Spanish government this past year.” Jennifer continues, “But hearing about the successes of our graduates as they have gone on to high school is something that makes me proudest of all.”
The Future of HoLa
The HoLa team and Board don’t plan to stop there, they plan to improve academic and linguistic outcomes for all students, build partnerships with other schools and community groups, and expand their classrooms into the world as much as they can. “I feel strongly that we are never ‘there’. we just have to keep growing as a school and as a community, and working to respond to the needs of our students,” Jennifer says. Nicole added that she would like to see HoLa have its own building, “Charter laws don’t provide facilities funding or the use of public buildings to charter schools. I would love HoLa to have its own home for its over 400 students one day soon.”
There is more than one way of learning and growing, and HoLa has proven that. As Jennifer puts it, “Once you understand that there is more than one way to say something, you can’t help but realize that there is also more than one way to see and experience the world. I really hope that encouraging children to learn a second language at a young age will help to promote empathy and open-mindedness.”