Daniel Lagesse, a Chicago Public Schools teacher, was looking for a two-for-one deal when considering schools for his daughters, Nicole, 13, and Kaitlyn, 10.
And he found it in the Inter-American Magnet School in Lakeview, where classes are taught in English and Spanish.
Lagesse reasoned that the school’s dual-language curriculum would give his daughters a unique opportunity to overcome the problem he had trying to learn Spanish in high school and college: Book learning alone just wasn’t enough.
“We figured that the program at Inter-American was like double-dipping,” Lagesse said. “We’ve found on vacations to Spanish-speaking countries that our daughters can converse fluently. Inter-American has a rigorous curriculum, but it’s fun for the students.”
Indeed, the fun part of the curriculum is evident all over the school. Recently, a rain forest depicted in cardboard, construction paper and papier-mache stretched to the ceilings in several rooms. Snakes dangled, jaguars stalked and parrots perched overhead.
“We don’t even have an art teacher here, but every room looks like an art room,” said the school’s principal, Eva Helwing.
The school also is known for innovative teaching, as evidenced by its five Golden Apple awards, more than any other school.
A teacher’s ability to engage pupils in learning is among the criteria considered when determining which nominees will win the awards, given annually by the Chicago-based Golden Apple Foundation for Excellence in Teaching.
The fact that Helwing was even hired as principal in 1986 is testimony to the school’s culture, which places a love of learning above all else.
At the time, Helwing didn’t speak Spanish. Because everything at Inter-American is taught in Spanish and English, it would have been easy to dismiss Helwing. But Helwing had grown up speaking Hungarian, learned German as a teenager and picked up English when she moved to the United States.
“I was on the committee that interviewed our principal,” said Ana Bensinger, a teacher at Inter-American since 1978 and the school’s first Golden Apple winner, in 1991. “We’ve always attracted teachers who wanted a challenge, and we knew she would keep the spirit alive.”
Helwing spent her first six summers at Inter-American traveling and studying in Mexico and Spain. Her Spanish is now as good as her English–and Hungarian and German.
Inter-American was founded in 1975 by teachers Adela Coronado-Greeley and Janet Nolan as a bilingual preschool program housed in two rooms at a Rogers Park school. Parental demand overcame second-guessing by the Chicago Board of Education, and the school added a grade a year until 1983, when it moved to its present site at 919 W. Barry Ave. as a stand-alone school serving preschool through 8th grade.
Inter-American is a dual-language school, not a bilingual school, Helwing stressed. Bilingual programs, she said, aim to immerse pupils in English at the expense of their first language. At Inter-American, pupils do 80 percent of their work in Spanish from preschool through 4th grade, 60 percent in 5th grade, and 50 percent in 6th through 8th grades. About 65 percent of the school’s pupils are Hispanic.
About 150 schools nationwide have similar programs, she said.
Pupils at Inter-American routinely score above state averages on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test and have some of the highest scores within the Chicago Public Schools. Success comes with a price, though. Only about 3 percent of the pupils who apply to Inter-American are accepted. A complex magnet-school formula based on neighborhood residence, race and relationship to current pupils leaves relatively few seats available for other applicants, and those are filled by lottery.
Pupils who make the cut, however, are guaranteed to become fluent in two languages by the time they graduate. Adults said this will give them greater job opportunities. The kids, for the most part, hardly notice.
“Sometimes we learn in Spanish, sometimes we learn in English, but it really doesn’t matter to me,” Kaitlyn Lagesse said while sitting with friends around a table in the school’s library.
“The teachers here teach us. They actually do stuff, and that’s cool.”