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El Cajon charter school earns state recognition for service to community, teaching style

For nearly 20 years, EJE Academies Charter School has been a bilingual incubator, born out of a need for Latino kids.

EL CAJON, Calif. — An El Cajon charter school is getting recognition from state lawmakers for its staff's community service and the way its been teaching kids.

For nearly 20 years, EJE Academies Charter School has been a bilingual incubator.

On the school campus on South Johnson Avenue, you'll likely hear kids playing, laughing, and learning. For mom Rosa Karp, that's the sound of belonging. Her oldest son will soon turn 15, and her youngest is now eight years old-- both are lifelong EJE students.

"The initial instinct to bring our kids here was for them to be bilingual," Karp said. "When our kids started school here, one of the things that really impacted me was the teachers never asked the kids if they thought about going to college; it was more like, 'which college are you going to go to.'"

Karp says she knew the school would be a fit for her family from the very first orientation she attended.

"I remember sitting in the crowd and the moment I heard the teachers talking about the things our kids were going to be exposed to, the culture that they were gonna be surrounded with, I had a sense of pride and just a feeling of blessing," she added.

About 840 kids kids attend EJE Academies, from TK through 8th grade. 

90% of them are Latinos, and 82% get free/reduced lunch, given they come from low-income households. 67% of the kids will be the first in their families to graduate college.

The curriculum at EJE is typical, except for a couple of things. Classes happen in either or both languages, with the idea being kids will strengthen their native one while learning the other, all at high academic levels. 

"Here you can speak in English, you can speak in Spanish, or you can speak in your third language because we have students who Spanish will be their third language," Executive Director Eva Pacheco said. 

Pacheco is also one of the school's founders, a position she wound up in after her daughter's first time in school.

"She was very outspoken, very social, and being in a classroom with a monolingual teacher, of course she couldn't understand anything the teacher was teaching," Pacheco explained.

At that moment, Pacheco says she and her husband talked with other parents in similar situations. 

They figured out how to get their concerns in front of the right people in the school system. Soon after, they started a program for bilingual kids, with bilingual teachers. About ten years later, EJE officially opened as a charter school.

Last month, State Senator Brian Jones presented Pacheco with a resolution, recognizing her service to the community.

"We embrace it, I think that's the beauty of this unique space," she said. "You embrace the culture, you embrace the language, and you embrace people."

Fifth grader Maylene Hernandez is well on her way to her goal of becoming a doctor or a speech writer.

While looking at her favorite section of the library, she explained one of the things she thinks is imperative to learn.

"Communication is really important because sometimes you don't know what's going on in [someone's] life and you don't know what they're doing," she said.

College prep is also important on-campus. AVID, a prep class, is one of the most popular electives, often full with students. And most, if not all of the kids, have big personalities to boot.

"Kids here don't feel like they're unseen," Karp said. "They really feel like they're important to the staff."

The school says they have a waiting list for students to get in at the moment. 

They're also in the process of renovating their current campus, and building an extension for the higher grades and to support alumni in high school and college who come back for guidance.

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