Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Open forum: Educators of the heart

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by Jose Antonio Tijerino

When Yihana Ritter of Gaithersburg High School won the Washington, D.C., regional Hispanic Heritage Youth Award last year she acknowledged her teacher, Jennifer Bado-Aleman, saying, ‘‘She pushed students to their limits, and thus helped boost self esteem as students were tackling academic challenges they had feared before.”

Yihana’s words rang true for the others who were recognized at the ceremony as well — 23 high school seniors of Hispanic descent from the Washington area, each of whom could identify that one remarkable teacher who taught them to be not only a better student, but a better person.

The National Parent Teacher Association and the National Education Association herald teachers throughout the year, but celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week annually between May 5 and May 9. The concept started decades ago, in 1953, when Eleanor Roosevelt persuaded the 81st Congress to proclaim a National Teacher Day.

Ms. Bado-Aleman was Yihana’s 10th grade English teacher at Gaithersburg High, and also founded a group in the school called Association of Latin American students, of which Yihana became president. The group’s purpose was to provide academic and social support for young Hispanics who were struggling in the high school environment.

Ms. Bado-Aleman was one of 12 teachers selected in regions throughout the country for the Hispanic Heritage Teacher Award, a prestigious honor created by Staples Foundation for Learning and the Hispanic Heritage Foundation. On June 11, another teacher will be selected from the Washington, D.C., region — and another student will stand in front of a crowd and talk about the significant impact that teacher has had on their young life. When that student speaks, the audience at the Washington, D.C., regional Hispanic Heritage Youth Awards will be focused on success and the importance of teachers who believe, as many do, that teaching is more than just a job.

The statistics on public education in America are staggering. According to a recent report issued by America’s Promise Alliance, only half of the students served by public school systems in the nation’s largest cities will receive diplomas. And in major metropolitan areas like Washington, the statistics are even worse, making the need for committed teachers even greater.

For Latinos in Montgomery County and the rest of the Washington area, the outlook is grimmer. Latinos are by far the least likely racial group to graduate from high school. In short, Yihana beat the odds. And she credits her teacher.

Let’s honor those teachers who, like Ms. Bado-Aleman, make a difference in their students’ lives every single day. When Staples Foundation for Learning and the Hispanic Heritage Foundation honor another teacher on June 11, a high school senior will again walk on stage and embrace a teacher with the same appreciation and ardor.

This scene will be repeated in 11 other regions across America as we celebrate a teacher’s ability to connect with one promising student at a time.

Cesar Chavez once said, ‘‘A word as to the education of the heart: We don’t believe that this can be imparted through books; it can only be imparted through the loving touch of the teacher.” Honoring the ‘‘educators of the heart” and holding them up as role models for other teachers is the only chance we have to raise the graduation rate in the Washington area and across the nation.

For decades we’ve collectively done an efficient job of pointing out the failures. Let us now celebrate success.

Jose Antonio Tijerino is president and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., and a National PTA Advisory Board member.