DF: Tell me a little bit about your educational journey. Why you decided to become a teacher, and an educational leader?
S.H.J.: A long time ago, when I was four years old, my mother enrolled me in the local two-year kindergarten program at the colonia where we lived in Ensenada, and that was the very beginning of my educational journey. I completed first, second, and third grade successfully at the elementary school adjacent to that same kindergarten, yet my mother noticed that my school lacked a lot of resources and support for students. My mother opted to enroll me in another public school with a better reputation for student success, engagement, and academic outcomes that was closer to the downtown of the city, not in the outskirts where we lived. This parental advocacy that my mother exercised by choosing to enroll me in a better school meant that we needed to get up very early each morning, walk to the bus stop with my little sister in tow, ride the bus together into the city, and then get off the bus to walk to my school. My mother and little sister would then return home, and do the same routine day in and day out to take me and pick me up from school. A year later, I completed fourth grade with honors, and my parents made yet another extremely crucial decision that would shape my life forever. We immigrated to Maywood the summer before I started fifth grade, and I attended Heliotrope Elementary School (my third elementary school) for one year before graduating and attending Nimitz Middle School for two years. Then we moved to Bakersfield in the middle of my eighth grade year, I graduated from Curran Middle School a few months later, and I enrolled in West High School, the only post-kindergarten school I attended without leaving or having to move before graduation, and I graduated with multiple academic and extracurricular honors as the seventh student of my graduating class. I share my story with you to begin shaping the context in which I was raised, that of a young, undocumented, Mexican-American child growing up constantly doing social and emotional balancing acts, with a lot of change and uncertainty in life, facing not just external obstacles such as lack of permanent housing upon immigrating to the U.S., lack of income, and lack of food security, but also a resilient kid who did not even know what resilience was when facing severe anxiety, serious bullying, and extremely low self-esteem.
I chose to become a teacher because I believe in the power and responsibility that teachers have to tremendously impact our children and their families in immensely positive ways that open up the door to magnificent opportunities in life. One of the most consistent factors in my life as a child was having teachers who cared about me, took the time to meet with my parents, and supported me through some of the toughest times growing up. I completed my A.A. in Liberal Studies: Social & Behavioral Sciences at Santa Barbara City College because I wanted to be a well-rounded teacher, and then I enrolled at UC Santa Barbara because that had been my dream school since I went to the campus for cheer camp in high school. When I graduated high school, I had to turn down the UC Regents scholarship because I was undocumented and could not redeem the scholarship without a social security number even though my family had been paying taxes for years. When I finally attended UCSB, I completed my B.A. in Chicana and Chicano Studies, which really pushed me forward to gain the skills and knowledge that shaped me into becoming a culturally-responsive and culturally-competent educator. I earned my Teaching Credential and then my M.A. in Urban Education with an emphasis on Policy and Administration from Loyola Marymount University, all while adjusting to living far from my family and approaching a new chapter in my life as a first-time mother. This is my fifth year teaching, and I profoundly believe it is one of the most rewarding professions that exists, yet also one that demands a great amount of support and dedication. I chose to run for school board because I want to amplify the positive impact I have on students, and I want to apply my skills, knowledge, education, and personal and professional experience to serve all our students and families in West Contra Costa.
DF: How did your experience as a teacher, mother and district resident impact your decision to run for WCCUSD School Board?
S.H.J.: Before becoming a teacher in West Contra Costa, I lived in Santa Barbara and held multiple roles in education as: an academic tutor for K-12 students who were behind on the academic progress and/or who had learning disabilities; an instructional assistant for students learning English as a second language in high school; a 1:1 special educational instructional assistant; a supported living services personal attendant for adults with developmental disabilities; a lab teaching assistant for adult education specifically geared toward GED preparation and High School Diploma attainment; a bilingual kindergarten instructional assistant; a playground supervisor; a STEM instructor at a non-profit. This past summer, I was the English Language Development Coach for the Extended School Year (summer school) in West Contra Costa, I served as co-advisor of my school’s No Place 4 Hate Student Coalition two years ago, and this is my second year as Student Success Team (SST) chairperson at my site. I mention all of these roles not as a laundry list, but as a reflection of the multiple hats I’ve worn in education since I was nineteen years old. Each of these positions I’ve held before and after becoming a teacher came with their own set of responsibilities and unique insight. My experience as a teacher in this district has specifically opened my eyes to the critical needs that our district has for leadership that actually knows what is happening in our classrooms right now, not many years ago, not in another district, but here, in our schools and classrooms. When I talk about assessments, when I speak of trauma-informed practices, when I bring up the need to pursue authentic parent engagement, I am speaking straight from the heart and mind, because I’m communicating directly from my experience as a current teacher. It’s not an abstract concept. I decided to run for school board because our children cannot wait. My daughter cannot wait. Parents cannot wait. Right now, is when we need to have leadership on the school board that reflects the children we serve, that understands what teachers experience day in and day out of the classroom, and that brings a real parent voice to the very conversations that focus on the decisions we make for our children.
D.F.: If elected to the WCCUSD school board, what would you consider your main priorities and goals?
S.H.J.: My main priorities are teacher retention, student achievement, and school climate. We need to drastically improve the way we support teachers and prevent burnout to keep our teachers from leaving the profession and having their development halted. Keeping and developing the capacities of our teachers will enable our schools to create the consistent and structured school culture that our students need to be supported and thrive in their academic and social-emotional learning. Student achievement is one of my priorities because we are not doing enough to provide what our students need to truly make progress, specifically our students classified as English Language Learners (ELLs), our Latinx students, our African-American students, and our students with disabilities. I want to engage the school board and school district in drafting transparent, fiscally responsible long-term plans with parent input, teacher input, and data for each program that our district has and can improve to close the opportunity gap.
For example, one of my goals is to create a cohesive plan for the responsible and transparent implementation of Dual Language Immersion (DLI) programs across the district, and for the support of a sustainable after-school program modeled after the Mafanikio After School Program that has worked successfully in several of our elementary schools. I deeply believe we need to address the social and emotional needs of our students if we expect them to achieve academic success. We need to ensure that all students feel emotionally, socially, and physically safe at each of our schools. My goal is that we bridge the gap between lack of mindfulness and social-emotional learning in our classrooms by having real supports for our kids and teachers, including access to an authentic Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum that teachers are trained in and kids are engaged in, access to services that develop mindfulness and healthy habits (including prevention programs), and formally assessing the non-academic student needs across all sites to identify where we need to provide more social-emotional, mental, and health support.
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