Chasing the American Dream: Washington’s Carlos Rosario School has the keys

Like many immigrants, the Carlos Rosario School in Washington, D.C. started from scratch, lost everything and then achieved great success. After beginning in the basement of its founder, the eight-person staff eventually came together to create the nation’s first adult education public charter school.

Today, the school employs more than 250 full and part-time employees and offers free tuition to around 3000 students. The only requirement to register? One must live in the nation’s capital.

Founded in 1970 by Puerto Rican activist and community leader Carlos Manuel Rosario as the Program for English Instruction for Latin Americans (PEILA), it merged with another program to create the Gordon Center, which welcomed immigrants who wanted to learn English as part of the Washington, D.C. public school system.

Upon Rosario’s death in 1987, the school commemorated its founder’s legacy by renaming itself the Carlos Rosario Adult Education Center. It was the first time a school in Washington had taken the name of a Hispanic leader. 

But financial issues forced the center to close in the early 1990s, even after being named a “national model school” by the U.S. Department of Education. 

But its supporters didn’t give up. In 1997, it reopened in the basement of Sonia Gutiérrez’s home. Then in 1998, it took advantage of the District of Columbia School Reform Act of 1995, which allowed for charters in the nation’s capital and included a provision for adults, to reopen as the first-of-its-kind adult education charter school and the only one solely serving adult immigrants.

“It was like a mandate,” said today’s CEO Allison Kokkoros. “Washington D.C had no effective education for its adult immigrant community.”

“The community itself was crying for our school to reopen,” she added. “It wasn’t easy … but staying true to the mission was important.”

Kokkoros, who has worked with the center from the beginning, takes pride in what the school has accomplished in helping the city’s immigrant community. Her office temporarily hosts an array of artwork she acquired on a recent trip to Ethiopia, which is also the former home of the school’s largest group of students. Salvadoran immigrants represent the second-largest group at Carlos Rosario.

Today, the Carlos Rosario School has expanded to two locations and has grown to offer foundational skills as well as more than a dozen academic programs, including English as a Second Language (ESL), computer literacy, citizenship and GED education. Other programs include culinary arts, nursing, bilingual teacher training and the construction trades. All classes are free for students. 

The school also provides students with bilingual credential counselors and case managers, whom Kokkoros terms “the most important part of our model.”

“We offer wrap-around services free for our students and most schools in D.C do not,” said Director of Student Services Selvon Malcolm Waldron.

The services include navigating transportation, healthcare, childcare, mental health support, résumé and career-building skills. 

Kokkoros refers to the school as a safe haven, a place where immigrants are championed in a country where anti-immigrant rhetoric has been on the rise.

“Our students hear a lot of negativity outside, but they can come here and be at home,” she said.

In chasing the American dream, Carlos Rosario gave immigrants the keys to a boundless number of doors.

“The cost of not having this is really hard to measure, the benefit of having it is tremendous,” Kokkoros said.

Amanda La Rosa is a driven journalist in search of the truth. As an international relations major, her goal is to inform readers of the events around the globe. She seeks to bring inspiration to others with her passion for writing.