When I think back throughout, you know, time in school, there's one teacher who stands out. You know, just of all my teachers, there's one teacher. And believe it or not, it was my first teacher. That was Mrs. Silverman. Mrs. Silverman was my kindergarten teacher back in 1963. And I was the only English language learner in her class. And do you know that Mrs. Silverman never made me feel like I was any less than any of the other kids.
She made me feel like I was important, that I could do just as well as any of the other students. In fact, last year, I just found out about something she did that my mother never told me about. My mom told me that Mrs. Silverman had called her to arrange, I guess we call them play dates now, but not in 1963, for me to go over and visit Brenda Castor's house.
Because, you know, Mrs. Silverman knew that I needed a friend, somebody to practice my English with, somebody to have in class that I could say was my best friend. Well, I never knew this. But my entire life, all I knew is that Brenda Castor was my best friend. And Mrs. Silverman went above and beyond and made that happen for me. So I owe her so much. She led me on my path to making education my career.
Different teachers, different expectations
My first grade teacher actually lived around the block from where I lived. And I remember very clearly, very clearly, how I was put in a reading group that all we did was study the alphabet. nd I wanted to be in the Blue Jays. Because they were reading "On Cherry Street". You know, I actually have found that book after I started teaching discarded, in the cupboard discarded. Because that book meant so much to me that I wanted, because I felt I could read in that book.
You see, my grandmother was a teacher and a principal in Mexico. And my mother used to spend time with me. And we used to talk about the cuentos in stories. So I knew now that I had sequencing skills and I could read in Spanish. And my teacher had low expectations for me. And my parents went and they went to the school and they talked to the teacher. And they were told no, no, no. This is where she belongs because she doesn't know enough English.
Then they went to the principal. And the principal said the same thing. And my parents, not knowing English well enough, you know, as much as they could tried to be advocates for me. Well, the following year, they pulled me out of that school and put me in another school.
And, you know, I was in the second highest reading group at this other school. Now, how did that happen, you know? It was because all along I could do it. So I learned from Mrs. Silverman what it means to have high expectations. And I learned from my first grade teacher what it means when people have low expectations for you. And so that's why also I'm passionate about ensuring that all students have the opportunity to have high expectations and to believe in themselves.
Moving away from the deficit model
What's important also is that we need to move away from a deficit model. You know, that kids can't, that they're not able to do it. That English language learners will never understand. We need to think back like Mrs. Silverman did and to see that every child is capable, English language learners are capable. And that we as leaders need to figure out the key that will help them unlock, unlock the world that is before them in school.
And so as leaders in schools, as leaders in school districts, it's important that leaders take responsibility for having high expectations and for learning and growing as administrators in the strategies that will help support English language learners.
Higher education expectations
When I was in my junior year, I remember going to see my counselor. And everybody goes junior year after the PSAT. And I think everybody has that shared experience. I remember walking into the counselor's office and seeing my folder closed, you know, in front of me. And the counselor asks me, "What do you want to do? Where do you want to go?" And I said, "I want to go to UCLA." And she looked at me and she said, "Absolutely not." And I remember just being shocked. Because that was my dream to go to UCLA.
And I said, "Why not?" And she says, "Oh, no, no, no. You can't make it there." So I said, "Well, where do you think I should go?" And she said, "I think you should go, and she named Rio Hondo, a community college." And, you know, community colleges are wonderful places. And I have encouraged people, you know, students. But when you have a dream to go to a place and somebody tries to steal that dream from you, that's where I think I've had a hard time with what this counselor said to me.
So I said, "Well, what about Cal State Los Angeles?" Which is a state university. And she says, "Oh, no, no, no. Like I said, you need to go to a community college." My folder's still closed in front of me and in front of her. So I left discouraged and then decided that I don't care what my counselor says. I'm going to go to Cal State Los Angeles. Because I wasn't bold at that point to think I should apply for UCLA. Because I wasn't sure if she would support that.
But I applied to Call State Los Angeles. And I got in. And my first year, I was taking classes. The second, the end of my first year in the summer, I took a political science class. And I happened to have a professor, Professor Rocco, who also was a professor at UCLA. And I guess he taught a summer course at Cal State, Los Angeles.
So after the first exam, I went into see him. Because right here and right here, I still had that dream of UCLA. And since he was a professor there, I wanted to ask him a question. So I went in and I said, "Professor Roco," I said, "You've seen what my work in class. You've seen my grade on my last exam. I said, tell me truthfully. Do you really think, I mean, do you think I could make it at UCLA?" And, you know, he looked at me. And he said, almost exactly what my counselor had said to me only shorter. He said, "Absolutely. Absolutely."
So I left his office and I went home and talked to my parents. And, you know, the story is that I'm the oldest and I had a younger brother and a younger sister. And my younger brother's four years younger than me. My parents were concerned that, you know, they wanted to be sure, because he wanted to go to USC, that there was enough money for him to be able to attend there.
So I promised them that I would get a job. That if I got into UCLA, that it wouldn't cost them any money. That I'd work. And so, I went in my application. I had missed the deadline to go in as a fall student, but applied for the winter quarter.
Well, I got in with my high school grades because I didn't have enough units to go in as a transfer student, my high school grades, my high school SAT. And I was a straight A student at Cal State Los Angeles. And the next part I don't say to brag, but I graduated cum laude from UCLA. And I almost didn't get to go.
So that story also fuels the passion that I have about ensuring that we have high expectations for kids, for students, that we assure them that they are capable of doing absolutely anything they want to do. And that we open the doors for them to dream and to have dreams that they can fulfill. Because that door was almost closed for me, but was open because people believed in me.
Understanding your ELLs
I think what's important for administrators to do, whether at the site level or the district level, is to really understand who their English language learner population is, is to look at the data. But we aggregate the data. We say English language learners. But within English language learners, if you disaggregate, you'll see that it's a very diverse group of students.
And what's important is to understand how many years they've been in the program, where their family's from. What is their literacy? How are they doing in their primary language and in English? I mean, there's lots of different things that we need to look at as administrators. And based on that, then we look for the appropriate strategies and methods that will help support them in their learning. And also to think about the different content areas and how we can support that.
Because we want all the students to have access to academic vocabulary. So we need to figure out how to do that. We need to figure out how students can learn and grow in English. And wherever possible in the states that students are able to maintain their primary language, we need to continue to do that and to have a high quality program.
We also need to remember that students, English language learners, also need, we also need to include their parents. That we need to be open as school systems and to say that parents are very much a part of our students' success. And that we need to figure out ways and strategies to include parents in supporting their children. But there are districts that are doing amazing work with English language learners. And I think part of what we're trying to do in this administration is to build a community of practice around what we can do to help support English language learners. What are some of the practices that are effective?
And so, I'm excited about that. Because there is so much that we can share. But it's also important that if you're able to attend conferences that focus around English language learners, that have those promising practices, that have programs that help support English language learners and understand the theory that is behind acquisition of language and of learning. And reassuring that the students are able to have access to academic vocabulary and be successful in school.
Administration and policy support
What's really been exciting for me to be a part of this administration is that there's a lot of support. There's support from the President. And there's support from teacher Secretary of Education in ensuring that English language learners are at the forefront of policy development. We've been included in the policy discussions on reauthorization. I'm really excited about some of our proposals looking at ensuring that English language learners are not at the side or sort of at the fringes, but brought into the mainstream, into the center of Title I work.
And that we look at English language learners as a responsibility of the entire school district, of the entire nation, the entire state. That English language learners are a part of the discussion. We in the Race to the Top assessments, we have stated in the two consortia that, you know, have received the grant are expected to be able to include from the very beginning English language learners in the design of their grant. So that, of their assessments. So that English language learners are not just about accommodations, but about the development and universal design of the assessments.
And I'm really excited about that. I'm excited that we just announced the enhanced assessment grant that will be focused on creating new, actually generation of language proficiency assessments that are linked to the Common Core Standards that the National Governors Association and the State Chiefs developed.
So we're happy to support English language learners even through the I3 grant where it's a competitive priority. So this administration believes strongly that we need to move forward to move our English language learners, to support them, any way we can. But also that we need to look at multilingualism, that we need to support ourselves to be able to support our economy, our place in a global, to be globally competitive in this world.
And so I'm excited that the administration has supported. And these are just a couple of examples of policies that have been put in place to support English language learners.
There's a story that I talk about every, every once in awhile. Because it really impacted mmy career. It's a story about a little boy named Jesus. And Jesus was a kindergartner when I was a principal that was in my office almost every day. He acted up in class. He wasn't focused.
And his older siblings were part of a, you know, had already been identified for special education. They were receiving resource specialist support. And so, Jesus was sort of moving in that direction. But I worked with an amazing group of teachers. And we all sat together and said, "You know, we want to set a goal." We want all of our first grade students reading at grade level. How are we going to accomplish that?
So we worked on developing a program, individualized program. And we worked with some consultants and put that program in place. And our kindergarten teachers helped, our first grade teachers, our special ed teacher. So we had a team. And it was sort of a school-wide commitment that we had made.
Well, Jesus happened to be moving into first grade that year. Well, it was astounding. I saw a change in Jesus. Jesus wasn't in my office every single day. Jesus was carrying a book around. His teacher spoke very highly of Jesus.
And one day when I was meeting in the morning before school with the representatives of each of the grade levels, Jesus knew my office well because he had been in there in kindergarten, ran into my office. And he said, "Dr. Melendez, Dr. Melendez, yo puedo leer. (I can read.)"
And he opened his book and he read. My eyes welled up with tears. All the teachers. Because we knew that we had impacted a life forever. That we had taught a child to read. And that child was not going to end up like his brothers.
And that we had the ability to make a difference in the life of a child in that way, to change behavior, to open the world. So that is a story that I often tell because Jesus is somebody that I'll always remember.