PATERSON, NJ- Students at International High School received some exciting news recently when they learned that all seven who had taken the AP Spanish exam had passed. Though an impressive feat in its own right, this result was made more extraordinary by the fact that IHS doesn’t even have an AP Spanish class.

The strong showing was a result of the AP Spanish Club, the brainchild of IHS teachers Julio Mora and Digna Perez, which was formed to give students a chance at college credit.

Perez and Mora, who attended Passaic High School together, hatched the plan in December with Department Chair Kat Esquiche, their shared schooling experience helping to form the foundation of the idea. “We spoke to each other and both agreed we wished we had the opportunity to have AP credits in college, to be ahead of the game,” says Mora.

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When presented with the idea, school principal Robina Puryear-Castro, greenlit the program immediately.

“I told them: whatever you need we will make it happen,” Puryear-Castro recalled for  TAPinto Paterson. “If educators are willing to step out and do what needs to be done, our students can achieve success.”

One of the reasons she was able to agree so quickly was that Mora and Perez were willing to stay after school for no additional stipend, cutting into their personal time. Because this was a late addition, the school did not have any money worked into the budget for this program. 

The administration simply couldn’t afford to pay the advisors or even buy books. It was still on the hook for the exam fee,slightly under $100 per test, which still had to be gathered through fundraisers.  

The lack of additional pay was no small commitment for Perez and Mora. AP Spanish is usually taught as a full-year course, so the students were already behind. This meant the club had to meet Monday-Friday, eventually branching into Saturdays as well.

Perez, mother of two teenagers, says she still didn’t mind sacrificing time to help her students. “I knew they were capable of doing it, and they were so enthusiastic to try it.”

The teachers, both advisors to the traditional Spanish Club, picked students from the club who they thought could pass. Some were unable to commit to the intense schedule, but seven were able to stick with it through to the testing period.

The students were:

Hilary Estevez

Olga Fanduiz

Gerard Herrera Inca

Miguelina Nunez

Ashley Polanco Estrell

Hisamar Reyes

Natalie Tineo

Natalie Tineo says she didn’t hesitate when her Spanish Club advisors approached her about the new class. “They were already a part of my life. I said it would be my honor.” 

Mora says some of the other kids were a little less sure. “At first they were a little skeptical, some asked ‘What if I don’t pass, will I have to pay you back for this test?” But Mora added that the students came around, especially after they learned that their advisors weren’t being paid for the extra work they’d been doing. 

“I can’t explain, it was like there was pressure for us to succeed, we knew they were proud of us whether we passed or not,” says Tineo, who stressed how powerful it was to know their teachers were on their side. 

Mora thinks it showed the kids that they serious about believing in them, and that it gave the “already great” kids extra motivation. “They had even more energy. They were even more willing to learn.”

Mora and Perez tried to treat the class like any other. The students were given homework, took quizzes, and studied together. Without the funding for textbooks, a lesson plan had to be developed from scratch.

“We did a lot of online research,” says Perez, who found a test similar to the AP exam which she used as a guide. 

Still, according to Tineo, the improvised nature of the class didn’t appear sloppy or disorganized. “They had everything planned. They didn’t have any trouble,” she says. 

As things progressed, the kids would sometimes grow tired of all the extra work. Mora and Perez tried to mitigate this by offering rewards such as lunches and snacks. “No matter what, they’re still kids,” says Mora.

With day of the test approaching, Saturday study days were added and the students buckled down. “Sometimes you get tired, but at the same time you know it’s worth it,” says Tineo, who found the time passed easier because she and her classmates were already friends from the Spanish club. 

On May 8, the day of the test, the students were nervous, but their advisors felt there was no need. “I was very confident. I knew they were going to pass,” says Perez. 

They waited outside for each of the students and congratulated them on finishing. “I told them, ‘Don’t tell me how you did, I know you all did great,’” says Mora. 

It took almost a month before they learned their scores, but on July 5, all seven students received the news they were hoping and waiting for. Every one of them passed the test, scoring at least a three out of five, and earning college credit that will immediately give them an advantage in their pursuit of higher education. 

“I felt happy because I worked so hard for it,” says Tineo, who plans to go to college for business.

Puryear-Castro says she’s thrilled with the results and her decision to sanction the experiment. “If I had to pay for it myself, I would have done that. We do what we need to do to ensure our students achieve a level of success.”

The club’s success has generated a list of students looking to join. “We’re a little popular right now,” laughs Mora. Next year, it will be replaced by a full-blown AP Spanish class, taught by Perez herself. 

As for the test group, the seven student who weathered the storm of five days a week for six months, they’ll have the brief respite of the summer before getting back to work to prepare for college applications and furthering their education. Luckily, they have the extra advantage of having a few credits under their belts. 

The group hasn’t been able to meet this summer, but they’re planning to get together in August to celebrate their success and the incredible work that got them there. 

“It was a lot of sacrifice, but the way we felt once we got the scores was that every single minute was worth it,” says Mora.