Expanding excellence: Nogales Unified School District and Mexicayotl Academy

Nogales is home to a variety of district, charter and private school options that contribute to an educational landscape almost as diverse as the community itself. Angel Canto, Assistant Superintendent of Nogales Unified School District #1 (NUSD), describes it as a “microcosm” of larger communities like Tucson or Phoenix, offering a range of options for families.

But while its selection of schools bears similarities to larger Arizona cities, Nogales is also home to a unique district-charter partnership that local education leaders say is creating a new model for cooperation in education: the partnership between NUSD and Mexicayotl Academy. 

“Historically, and certainly in our state… the relationship between a district and charter are not close and warm,” Canto said. “You might be competing for students, competing for teachers. For us, that’s not really the case.”

Many of the students who attend Mexicayotl Academy, a tuition-free public K-8 charter school in Nogales, feed directly into NUSD’s high school upon completion of eighth grade. Because of that, it’s in the best interest of the two entities to work together, said Baltazar Garcia, Director of Mexicayotl Academy.

“There’s always this link, because they know our commitment to this community and to our students,” Garcia said.

In the past, the partnership has included elements like hosting shared professional development opportunities for faculty and sending NUSD counselors to talk with Mexicayotl students about high school.

Now, thanks to a $70,000 Expansion Fund grant awarded by A for Arizona, that partnership is expanding even further with the hiring of a new faculty member who will work with both organizations to develop a modern environmental science curriculum.

“The idea of STEM, of being able to provide an educational component that is linked to what we consider intercultural education… that has always been a part of who we are,” Garcia said. “So, we said, now let’s build on that.”

The faculty member the two educational organizations hired is Constantinos Manoli. Manoli, who has a Master’s degree and a PhD in education, has taught earth education at the university level for years. Most recently, Manoli taught at the University of Arizona Cooper Center for Environmental Learning, where he became Associate Director in 2014.

Manoli said he’s worked with students from Mexicayotl for years through the Cooper Center’s youth programs and has long wanted to work more closely with Nogales’s younger generations. 

“It was always—without exaggerating, I would say—a dream of mine to be here, with this school and these students,” he said.

Canto said that this year, Manoli will work to develop content units for third, fourth and fifth grade students at Mexicayotl and NUSD elementary schools. Additionally, Manoli will help create new professional development opportunities for faculty at both Mexicayotl and NUSD specifically related to the state’s new science standards. 

“By having utilized the Expansion Funds to focus on Mr. Manoli, it really is highlighting what we both have shared in common, which is an interest in STEM. We really want to further what we’re able to do for our students in that area,” Canto said.  

An interest in STEM isn’t all that Mexicayotl and NUSD share in common; they also share similar demographics among their student populations. The vast majority of their students are Hispanic, and almost all of them are eligible for free and reduced lunch programs due to their families’ economic backgrounds. 

Garcia said hiring Mr. Manoli will have huge benefits for these students and shows that there’s more to the NUSD/Mexicayotl relationship than just words. 

“We have established a commitment at the teaching level to the students in this community that has now expanded,” Garcia said. “It’s not just unique. It’s got substance.”

Canto said she believes this expanded partnership between NUSD and Mexicayotl is “just the beginning of a formal relationship” that could grow even further in the future.

“I hope that this is something that can become a model for what others can do,” she said.

Nick Serpa

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