CharterFolk Contributor Julio Vázquez – A Charter School Founder Welcomes His Great-Granddaughter to the School He Made: Why We Established Rochester’s First Community-Based Bilingual Charter School

Good afternoon, CharterFolk.

Today we celebrate having the privilege to share with you a great Contributor Column from Julio Vázquez, Sr., the co-founder of Eugenio María de Hostos Charter School in Rochester, New York.

I provide a brief bio for Julio below.

Julio Vázquez Sr. retired as the Commissioner of Community Development of the city of Rochester in 2009, a position he held for three and a half years. He is the co-founder of Eugenio María de Hostos Charter School in 2000 and has served as the volunteer CEO/Chairman of the board of trustees for the last 22 years. He also serves on five other boards in the community. Julio was President and CEO of Ibero-American Action League from 1993 to 2006. From 1971 to 1984, he also worked in various positions at this agency, including community organizing. From 1987 to 1990, he owned and operated a Super Duper supermarket in the city, and worked briefly with the CSD as a Spanish teacher. Julio has a bachelor science degree in social services administration from SUNY Empire State College and a master’s degree in education from SUNY College at Brockport. He is the author of Journey of a Puerto Rican Jíbaro, a memoir. 

Julio Vazquez is a passionate advocate for Bilingual Education for two reasons. First, research shows that it works and secondly because of his own experience as a student in the Rochester City School District (RCSD). On December 20, 1959, Julio’s parents brought him to live in Rochester, New York from a small rustic coffee farm at the top of Cerro Tumbado in Guayama, Puerto Rico. He was 13 years old. Although he struggled to attend school in Guayama, having to walk up and down the mountain without shoes and hungry, he was a proud and good student.

Because he could not compete in English in school, he was classified by the system as a slow learner and placed on a special education program called School Work, which became a very humiliating experience for him during his young life. In 1969, he had to return to Puerto Rico to “find himself.” In Puerto Rico he worked in a program servicing youths for the city government, got a high school equivalency diploma and attended college. In 1971, full of self-confidence, he returned to Rochester again to work for Ibero-American Action League as a Community Organizer.

This one, CharterFolk, is a special one. Many thanks to Julio for contributing it. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I do.

A Charter School Founder Welcomes His Great-Granddaughter to the School He Made – Why We Established Rochester’s First Community Based Bilingual School Charter School

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

-Nelson Mandela

In 1993, I was appointed President and CEO of Ibero-American Action league (Ibero).

Ibero is a community based multi-service and advocacy agency servicing mainly the Hispanic community of the Rochester New York region. I had been involved with Ibero from the beginning, first as a member of the Catholic Brothers Association and Spanish Apostolate when it was conceived in 1967, then as a board member in 1968 when it was incorporated, and later in that year when I was hired to work as a community organizer.

Julio in 1968 in the second row, with glasses.

By 1980 I had become the Assistant Executive Director, and after thirteen more years of service, I was named CEO.

Julio at the time of his appointment as CEO of Ibero

The role of the President and CEO of Ibero is to oversee the agency’s operations and drive the mission of the agency, which is to provide community social services and advocate on behalf of our community.

As we constantly studied all the socioeconomic conditions afflicting our community, we came to the conclusion that fighting for better education outcomes for our children was the most important issue we had to deal with. A good education was fundamental to what we strongly believed was the key to the “survival” of our people in this new information age economy going forward. For sure, we had to address all other socioeconomic issues, but providing a good education for our children was the ultimate answer to our community struggle for equity and social justice.

Unfortunately, for many decades, the Rochester City School District (RCSD) has been known to be among the poorest performing school districts in the United States.

And we closest to the community felt most deeply how the failure of the district’s schools was harming our kids. Catholic schools, the only alternative where many of our poor Hispanic families in the inner-city of Rochester sent their children with the hope of obtaining a decent education, had left our neighborhoods, trapping all our children in a failing school system that seemed to get worse every year.

Two decades earlier in 1972, we had fought and worked with the RCSD successfully to institutionalize bilingual education in Rochester. From our perspective however, the system never implemented the program appropriately. It always considered it as a deficit special education model, where Hispanic students were segregated and placed for a period of time. We were advocating for a Dual Bilingual Education model serving K-12, where both languages and cultures were celebrated within a welcoming and nurturing environment, and where students were challenged and held to higher academic standards.

After numerous attempts to work in good faith within the system, participating in different task forces to deal with this issue, we were frustrated with the lack of progress. Therefore, we began to dream and discuss how Ibero could provide our community another education alternative and perhaps provide the school system with a model they could look up to or replicate. My colleague at Ibero and good friend, Eugenio Marlin called it the Ibero-American Bilingual Education Community Academy.

Eugenio Marlin

The big troubling question was, how to make this dream come true since our parents in the inner-city could not afford to pay tuition? An impossible dream! But the leadership of Ibero never dismissed an idea simply because it seemed impossible at the beginning; we continued to dream. We were taught by our previous humble, but great visionary community leaders, to believe in the proverb that “if there is will, there is a way.” We may not have a clue now about how to make it happen, but eventually, if we continue to believe we know we will find the way. 

In 1997, I attended a National Puerto Rican Coalition Conference where one of the workshops was about charter schools. This was the first time that I heard about the concept and movement of charter schools. “Wow! This is probably the answer” I said to myself. When I returned from Washington I enthusiastically informed Eugenio that I had found the answer for us to make our dream of a bilingual community academy come true.

I also saw the charter school movement as a possible community political tool to put pressure on the system to improve. Therefore, I invited a colleague from the Manhattan Institute, an expert in charter schools, to give a community presentation regarding the charter schools movement. I invited the County Executive, City Mayor, the Superintendent of Schools and all my colleagues from all the community agencies and Hispanic community leaders. We were surprised when all of them showed up or at least sent representatives to the event.

Unfortunately, though, there were no takers. Some of my colleagues told me privately that there was nothing for their agencies. I understood. Still, I found the statement to be a little disturbing coming from CEOs of community based organizations servicing the poor in the inner-city of Rochester. Worst of all, there was no support from our Hispanic Leaders either, although they promised not to fight our project publicly.  

The Board of Directors of Ibero allowed us to continue pursuing the project even though there was not yet a charter school law in New York State. Although I had taught Spanish in the school system before coming back to run Ibero and had a master’s degree in bilingual education, I did not have the experience to establish or run a school. Therefore, I asked my sister Dr. Miriam Vázquez, a well-respected principal of one the RCSD elementary schools and an expert in bilingual education, to join us, which she enthusiastically accepted.

Dr. Miriam Vázquez

Our task force of three people, Miriam, Eugenio and I, began to do the research and put together a model.  We asked a group in Albany, which eventually became the New York Charter School Center, for funding and guidance. The group gave us a $500 grant and a model for developing a school that we could follow. Right as our plans were coming into place late in 1998, the state legislature passed and Governor Pataki signed the New York Charter Schools Act.

We immediately expanded the task force to include representation from the Nazareth College, Geneseo State College and a parent. And since the model included partnering with the YMCA for physical and aquatic education, Hochstein Music of Music for music instruction, and Strong Museum to enhance our social studies curriculum, we invited the CEOs of those organization to be part of the task force, which they gladly accepted. The CEO of the YMCA, George Romell, and the CEO of Hochstein School of Music, Dr. Margaret Quakenbush became founding board members.

After many months of research and long discussions under the great leadership of Miriam, we had developed our community-based bilingual education academy model. Eugenio Marlin suggested the glorious name of Eugenio María de Hostos Charter School (EMHCS) and the group accepted. Eugenio María de Hostos (Puerto Rican 1839-1903) was known as El Gran Ciudadano de Americas.

Eugenio María de Hostos

He was a famous educator, philosopher, and author who was outspoken for the independence of Puerto Rico. Mr. de Hostos was a champion for social justice and is a great role model for our students to emulate.  

Miriam’s vision as an educator – “If a child cannot learn the way we teach, then we learn to teach the way the child can learn” – became our powerful and unwavering school vision.  

On May 20, 1999, the board of Ibero officially authorized the project, and on August of the same year, we submitted the proposal to the State University of New York to establish a K-12 bilingual charter school beginning with K, first and second grades, 20 students in each classroom with a teacher and a teacher aid. Our instructional program was based on the America’s Choice Model.

On January 25, 2000 SUNY approved our proposal, and on April 11, the board of trustees of EMHCS wisely selected Miriam to lead the school.  On September 5, EMHCS officially came into existence …

… as we welcomed our first group of K-2 120 students.

Developing the school from K to 12 grade has been an incredibly challenging community enterprise, the most difficult project we have taken on in this community. Under the leadership of Miriam, the school became one of the highest performing charter schools in Rochester, and became part of a vibrant community of successful charter schools in the city.

However, at the end of the school year in 2009, Miriam retired. In our third renewal in 2015, we were authorized to develop the high school component. The expansion created many challenges, including serious leadership issues, and the school was in danger of failing academically. In 2018, the board of trustees asked Miriam to return to oversee the restructuring of the school, refocusing on the school’s vision, mission and strategic planning.

In 2020, we graduated our first high school students.

Eighty-five (85%) percent of the class graduated, all with Regent or Advance-Regent Diplomas and more than 50% received the Seal of Bi-literacy from the State of New York. We will not rest until 100% of our student graduate from high school with the Seal of Bi-literacy on their diplomas.  

Having seen the transformational impact that our school is having on our community in Rochester, I understand even more deeply Nelson Mandela’s immortal words:“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

On September 5, 2000, as I was welcoming our first 120 students, I was very emotional. In the privacy of my car on my way back to my office, I broke down and shed some tears and said a prayer: “Dear God, what an immense responsibility! Please do not allow us to fail these precious children”. For the last 22 years welcoming our students back to school in September has been a very special event for me; but this year was an extra special moment because among all our children entering our school was my precious 5 year old great-grand-daughter.

Julio’s Great Granddaughter – Isabella E. Vazquez-Negron

You ask, “Why did we make Eugenio María de Hostos Charter School?”

We made it for her and for all the students of Rochester who deserve an outstanding public education. It is a commitment that transcends generations.