"California's Future Depends on its Latino Teachers"

California Association for Bilingual Education
Keynote Address

Los Angeles, CA

Giselle Fernandez,
Business Woman
Television Broadcaster

February 23, 2005



Good afternoon everyone ... Buenas tardes.

I am so honored to be here with you all today. I was just telling my brother who teaches high school kids in Oxnard that I was coming here this afternoon.

As always, I was listening to him go on about not having enough time in the day as a high school teacher to do it all, especially when it comes to the dating scene. He needed some sisterly advice. You see, there is a fellow teacher that he is really attracted to, but she's always busy too, forever grading papers, seeing kids after class, visiting their parents. You know what I'm talking about. You all have a 24/7 job. Your profession is no 9 to 5 number, so he was asking me for advice on how to get her attention.

"The next time she says she's too busy in the classroom to go out with you, look her in the eye," I told him, "and tell her to give you a call when she has no class!"

I really am honored to be here with you today. You are the most important people in all of California right now and I so admire the heroic mission you are on - to ensure a bright future for this great state and its kids.

It's often said history calls forth the right leaders for the times; and you, gathered in this room, are the ones who have answered this noble calling.

You do so at a very critical time in our history when the charge to educate the diverse and unique community of multi- cultural kids is more important than ever.

The demands of the 21st Century are pressing. Your students will need to be prepared to meet the needs of a new economy and a more knowledge based work force. The challenges you face to get them ready are significant.

But boy, if you win and succeed in leading this charge, and arm our kids with the tools they need to prosper and compete on an equal playing field over the next decade, there will be no greater legacy you can leave. For the future of these kids and that of California will be your legacy.

These are not just words. In my career as a broadcast journalist I've interviewed a lot of important people from movie stars to presidents to dictators to news makers of all kinds, and in twenty years I have not felt more awed by a group of leaders as I am of you right now. And never before have I been with so many in one place that really do hold the future in their hands as you do.

Maybe I have such great respect for you because I come from a family of educators. I grew up witnessing how creative you have to be to reach and teach and inspire. I've seen first hand the hours after school, the late nights it takes to teach your children well.

I've also been witness to the real challenges you face that have less to do with language barriers and more to do with obstacles to teaching ... like poverty and crime, cultural differences that keep our kids from best navigating the system. You deal with it all, and despite the frustrations and restrictions, you put your heart and soul into these kids day in and day out and you make a difference.

My mom, taught ESL to kids and adults for years as well as Mexican folklore. Now she is a ranchera singer. My father, when he was alive, taught flamenco dancing. My step dad still teaches 19th Century Spanish literature and Spanish to college kids at Cal Lutheran. And my brother, to whom I give dating advice, is a high school teacher in Oxnard and has taught at risk kids in Canyon Country and Montery County for the past twenty years.

So, while I'm not an educator myself, I am guilty by association. And in my own way through my writings, my documentaries and news reporting, have been an educator of sorts. You see, through my work, I, too, hope to leave a legacy of helping others learn about the world in the hope they will make it a better place.

Perhaps some of you know me from my network news days covering wars and unrest in Israel, Panama, Cuba, Haiti - or from the national stories I've covered with CBS and NBC - or more recently my work with KTLA morning news or the History Channel. Not bad for a lower income Mexican-American girl from the public school system in Los Angeles. It's possible!

Made possible because of my teachers, individual committed teachers, like my nursery school teacher Kathy Troup. She told me I was special and could be anything I wanted to be. I am still in touch with her today.

And there is Tony Danchek and Mr. Milan from Sherman Oaks Elementary, who were also very inspiring. They told me I was smart and encouraged me to work hard and study in order to achieve my dreams.

They not only spent hours with me after school, they also handed out a little TLC and a shoulder to cry on when my parents got divorced. Teachers are second parents, mentors and role models. These were mine.

I have to mention my high school teacher, Virginia Gangsei, too, she is the first person to encourage me to write. And that is what brings me here today.

I was asked to come this afternoon because I wrote a children's book called Gigi and the Birthday Ring, which I hope you will use in all of your classrooms.

It's the first book in what I hope will be a series of adventures of a Mexican-American girl raised by her abuelita, who through reading and a vivid imagination, is able to travel into exciting times throughout history, live out her dreams, all while doing good for the world.

It's a beautifully illustrated story, if I say so myself, thanks to Sheli Petersen who did the illustrations and published by Renaissance House.

It's my way of using my writing and storytelling to inspire kids, like you do every day in your classrooms, to fulfill their potentials.

I loved to read when I was a kid. It opened so many doors for me. So my hope was to write a book that featured a little Latina named Gigi, who would not only encourage kids to read more, but would also open windows to new worlds they otherwise would never know.

Whether in English or in Spanish, teaching a child the gift of literacy and infusing them with a love of reading is perhaps, in my mind, thee most important opportunity one can give a child. When a child learns to read in any language, it opens doors, goes beyond borders and awakens the imagination and all that is possible regardless of economic situations. To read enables one to travel and learn and dream bigger than they might have otherwise. Especially for multi-cultural kids, I think it's so important to see themselves in the books they read.

Without reading, many kids just are not exposed to other worlds and ways of living and understanding all that is possible. Reading gives them a window of opportunity and dreamscapes to widen their imagination and deepen their experience. That is something that allowed me to see beyond myself at a time when the world seemed very small. Opening windows through reading is so vital to leveling the playing field.

I happen to sit on the board of trustees of The Wonder of Reading, an organization that partners with Southland schools to renovate libraries, buy and bolster them with current books and classics, and provide them with staff to read one on one with students and parents. Their goal - to inspire the wonder of reading in kids and improve how we reach and teach and make a difference with kids through books despite structural constraints.

The challenges are enormous. The average copyright of a non- fiction library book in most of our schools today is 1982. Most of the school libraries are not only too small and poorly stocked, they can't possibly serve the needs of the students. Most don't even have credentialed librarians. And when dealing with a large Hispanic population, what a disadvantage it is not to have books that reflect who we are and what we look like and live like, so we can better relate to the stories.

I'm told access to books directly affects reading scores and exposure to spoken language. If we don't have books at home because our parents don't read, a book store nearby in the neighborhood or well stocked school libraries, our kids are at a disadvantage, not because of language issues, but because of resources.

There is a poem that Laurel Weaver wrote about the importance of reading I like so much. It goes like this...

      If you give a child a book
            Such wonders are in store
      Once they read a little bit
            They'll want to read some more.

      If you read a child a tale
            They'll want to search and look
      For yet another one of those
            Enticingly juicy books.

      If you teach a child to read
            You'll open up their mind
      The world will be an open book
            Oh the wonders they will find.

Gigi is all about exploring the wonders of the world with as many new friends she can. And she is all about encouraging kids to do good in the world and make a difference with their special gifts and calling.

You see, young Gigi can open any book in the library, gaze into her magic ring, and travel in time and space to live out any adventure she chooses. There is only one catch. The ring only has magic if Gigi uses the adventure to help others or make a positive difference in the world.

In this particular story, Gigi visits her friend, Dustin Meraz, who is sick in the hospital. With the help of her magic ring, she is able to whisk ten year old Dusty away to a library where a nice old librarian helps them pick out a book on a princess that needs help in medieval times.

So Gigi and Dusty go and battle the knights to free the princess from her captors, giving the idea hopefully that if you feel imprisoned anywhere, or stuck by circumstances, reading can provide a great escape beyond borders, boundaries and barriers.

Dusty Meraz frees the princess, and when he flies back to his hospital bed, he is forever transformed because now he knows he can adventure anywhere from his own bed with a good book in his hands to read.

Harry Potter has done so much to inspire a new generation of young readers. If only there was a Harry Potter named Jose Gonzales or Johnny Lee. Imagine the difference that would make.

I can tell you the difference a real non-fiction Latino boy made in my life, and that is the real life character of Dustin who I wrote about. He was a little boy from Palmdale California who inspired me greatly. So much so, I not only put him in my book, I also have just completed a documentary film about him.

He was sick with cancer and asked me to make a documentary about all he goes through because he, too, wanted to leave behind a legacy of helping others if he were to die.

Can you imagine that? At 10 years old, this boy facing death, hoped by sharing his story, educating grownups about childhood cancer, would inspire them to take action, raise money for cures and save other kids from his same fate.

Why did he want to do this? He told me he wanted his life to matter, to make a difference in whatever time he had left. He wanted to leave his mark on the world, leave it a better place.

You and Dustin have a lot in common. Like you, he was a teacher of sorts, and believed education was the key to helping others make weight change in the world. And similar to you, the legacy he leaves behind will be seen in the children he helps save in the future.

I tell you about Dusty because he teaches us a lot about the importance, the significance of one child's potential.

He also reminds us how devastating the loss is when one light is extinguished - when a bud full of potential is not allowed the chance to bloom into the beautiful rose. Their contribution is lost to us all.

It reminds us how imperative it is to reach, save, touch and inspire the life of even one child, who, like an acorn, longs to become the mighty oak it is destined to grow into.

When I asked Dusty what he missed most when in the hospital, what he said might surprise you. He said "school." That most of all, other than his mom's enchiladas, he missed his school, his classes, his teachers, his second home - a source of inspiration and growth. School, a window into his future. He missed school. Above all else, a ten year old boy facing death missed school. The opportunity he knew it will give him, his friends, his teachers, his school. That's how important you are to a child.

I brought a clip from my documentary to show you. So you can see who the real Dusty in my book is, who couldn't take growing up for granted.

Clip: school ... and making a difference ... he dies.

Giselle back:

Dusty died two years ago this March. My documentary focuses on his courage, his mission to make a difference and leave the world a better place despite the obstacles he faced.

Dustin knew even though he was just one child, he could make a difference by educating the masses to his cause. He knew it just takes one with purpose and mission to drive a dream, and that education was the key.

Dusty was one of my greatest teachers.

We can learn a lot from Dustin's courage by the way he tackled the crisis he was in. Especially since you are facing a critical moment in time that will determine the future health or ills of our state and our childrens' place in it depending on the education you provide them today.

Time is of the essence. I think that is what made Dustin so powerful. He knew he was racing against the clock. That there was no time to waste.

In the newly published book, LA NUEVA CALIFORNIA, author David Hayes Bautista gives us a best case and worst case scenario of what the future of California looks like. To say it plainly, the fortunes of California he says in the 21st Century will ride on the backs of today's Latino grade school children.

Right now only 33 percent of Latino students graduate from high school. Only 13 percent enroll in U.C. campuses. If Latino students are to be proportionately represented in the universities of California, their numbers will have to triple or quadruple by the end of the decade.

The lack of college representation is not merely an issue of numbers and fairness and affirmative action. This is not about politics. These are statistics. By the year 2017 over half of the entrants into the work force in California will be Latinos.

If they are not educated to meet the needs of a more intellectually demanding labor force, not only will there not be a work force, the state's economy will be in jeopardy. The very future of California is at stake here.

How well we prepare what will be the largest segment of the population to fill the needs of a more knowledge based economy will determine our success or failure.

Only 12 percent of Latinos today are graduating from college. If this does not change over the next decade, when fifty percent of the labor force will be Latinos, we will be in a serious crisis. What you do in the classrooms today will determine our future, our economy.

And your challenge is not easy. It all comes down to the level of commitment and dedication you put forth to meet these challenges. This is what will determine our success or failure.

I'm not a teacher, not a parent, so you might ask who am I to say this. I am a humble journalist, a caring observer of the human condition, a lover of books that told the stories. Real life stories about daring dames and maverick men of history whose dynamic life work changed the world and made a difference.

I love to read about their achievements and contributions to mankind. I love to interview and report on them and make films about them. Dusty was such a hero. They've made me a big believer in the human spirit and the human potential that can make the world a better place.

In ten years - twenty years - we journalists will be writing about the ways you contributed to the world, the difference you made. To me, educators are the heroes of today and will help determine what happens tomorrow.

It's easy to get discouraged with slashed budgets and dismal stats that show California's fourth graders, for example, ranking 48th in the nation. It's easy to feel fed up when the debate seems to center around antiquated bogus stereotypes about ethnicity and language - English only this and limited Spanish that - understandable to feel angry when resources are dwindling and the task is greater than ever.

When you feel overwhelmed I ask you to think of a ten year old boy facing his own death and racing against the clock, against every odd, to make a difference, to save other kids.

Being a teacher today doesn't just mean teaching. It's counseling, caring, going beyond the call of curriculum to untangle the knots that create barriers to learning.

You know so well the families of our children want to assimilate, want to learn English. Want their kids to speak English and have the life they've risked everything to give them. And they care, they participate, especially when they know how, are shown how. They are there! But they didn't come here with the same educational tools and preparation as other ethnic groups, so they need our help to better help their kids. Twice as many African- Americans graduate from high school than Latinos. Four times as many Asian Pacific Islanders.

When the task at hand seems overwhelming, when you know you can't rely on funding guidelines and neatly packaged government programs to save your kids, it comes down to you, doesn't it? One voice, in one classroom, in one school. What will make the difference in our schools right now is you.

I recently visited an elementary school called Pio Pico in Santa Ana, one of the toughest districts in the state where 99 percent of the 850 kids attending are Latino and poor. Eighty-nine percent of them English learners. What makes the difference there? Individual leadership. That's why I went there.

I was told about Principal Judith Magsaysay and the difference she makes. She is one of these amazing leaders whose vision and focus make the difference. In every classroom, in every teacher she hires, on every program and relationship built with the community to create the best learning advantages for her kids, her vision and imprint are tangible, accountable. It's her personal passion and drive and sense of mission. She is saving kids lives and the state of California in the future. That is her mission and she knows it.

Whether in the English classrooms or the limited Spanish language hours, I saw kids learning visual sentence patterns and construction. A consistent curriculum with thought out methodology and accountability. I was impressed.

Mrs. Magsaysay spoke so highly of each of her hand picked teachers who she made sure shared a well developed, common, clear vision with well defined standards of practice and performance to meet the diverse needs of English learners.

She showed me programs created from relationships with the local police and fire departments to help create a safer environment for her kids to get to school. She knew community partnerships make a difference.

This was once an area no mom would want her kids to go to because of gang crime. She and the community, working hand in hand, have changed that. It took individual leadership, passion and purpose. She's created a mentor program where community and civic leaders come and coach and read to tutor her kids regularly.

And she has created programs for the family, for parents, so they, too, can learn to read and write and participate in their children's learning.

I was told about one mom who attended her classes de Ingles gratis at night so she could learn to read and write and help her children do the same. Eva Perez was her name. She first learned to read in Spanish, then in English, and then went on to organize other English classes for more parents and even became the president of her own parents club.

Pio Pico is holding its second annual Literacy Fair coming up on March 19th, promoting the importance of reading for the whole community. I understand many of the moms are bringing tamales y gayetas para comer. This is a school doing it right, joining forces with families and the community to support their kids. They are making a difference despite the obstacles, one child at a time.

Judith Magsaysay understands that teaching children is a collaborative effort. It takes a community, a village, to succeed, to instill pride and sense of self along with a quality curriculum.

What I loved most is that she had the kids in her classrooms sing the school anthem for me which is sung in both English and Spanish. The works were so poignant. The last line of the song goes something like... "I am important and special in every way."

I know as a kid, especially one that traversed two worlds, two cultures, I longed for a sense of belonging, and certainly longed to feel special. To instill in a child a sense of importance, just for being you, to me is as important as teaching math and science and language. When you have self esteem you want to learn and you want to become something, so you realize school is your gateway to a dream.

My brother certainly believes this, too. And he believes teaching has to be creative, especially when dealing with diverse cultures and kids.

My brother, Jose Fernandez, developed a program for at risk kids where teaching students to take pride in who they are is the heart of his program. My brother has always believed these students had to be approached in a very creative way.

He developed a 20 week curriculum designed to heal the spirit of his students, who he referred to as "wounded warriors," so they would want to learn.

He called the program, Valhalla, because long ago when a Viking warrior fell dead upon the battlefield, Valkyrie took them to Valhalla - a Norse Heaven where they had their wounded spirits healed so that they might someday return to the battlefield whole.

He tapped into their great heritage and taught them that the blood that runs through our veins is the same blood that ran through the veins of Zapata who fought for Tierra y Libertad. The same as the blood that ran through the veins of Hidalgo and Villa. Their blood is our blood. We are them. The light that shined in their eyes is the same that shines in ours through the ages.

In this way he hoped to reveal to his students their true identity, their connection to history, their place in the world. To know who you are, you must know where you come from.

My brother believes that helping kids take pride in their identities is critical to self esteem and helps ignite the student within.

His classroom was a virtual Disneyland fantasy world with giant murals of Latino Gods and heroes that acted as constant reminders of who they are, and dared the students to be a hero in their own lives - to live out their dreams. He used them in his lesson plans. Acted out their characters to teach lessons of history, English and social studies.

Ninety-five percent of the kids in his program returned to the regular school system and stayed there. Over one third made the honor role and several moved on to college.

Did he lose some? Yes, my brother has attended 38 funerals of his kids over 20 years, but he has also helped save others.

Unorthodox? Yes, but it was tailor made to reach kids that a blanket curriculum could not reach. It was his way of leaving no child behind, and for some it worked.

I've seen leadership and creativity take shape in so many ways in the classrooms with the hope of reaching as many kids possible. And reaching as many possible is the absolute mandate.

California right now can make its history by realizing that the time is now to take action and make education a priority.

The best legacy the state can give its future generations is a well educated work force which will just happen to be predominantly Latinos.

But we can't wait for the state to make education the priority it needs to be. We don't have the time to analyze whether children are, or are not being left behind, whether English only or Spanish sometimes is right or wrong.

Over the next decade the die will be cast. So it is up to you to be the driving force - the devoted legions committed to saving these kids and the future of our state.

That's why I said at the beginning how much I admire the place in history you find yourselves in. You hold the reigns at the threshold of our future. And you will help paint the picture of what California will look like by what you do in your classrooms today.

I hope as you set out to take on the biggest challenge in California education yet, that you remember the message and courage of Dustin Meraz. I hope you are reminded of the enormous loss when just one child's contribution is denied the world, and how fortunate we are to be here today. We have the chance to leave our mark, to fulfill our highest potential.

I hope you think of Dusty as you return to your classrooms. Think of that little boy and how he was determined to make his mark on the world despite the obstacles he faced.

People live a lifetime searching for ways to make a difference. You as educators are all blessed knowing how you can do it, and in such a powerful way that can determine the future. I hope and pray you win - that California wins - that our children win.

In the next decade, your imprint, your mark on the world will be known to all through them. The kids today will be your legacy tomorrow.

I look out to all of you and see a window into what is possible. I believe in you. I have faith in you, because you care and are passionate and share the dreams and hopes of the kids you teach. And you know their true potential. You know how magnificent they can be, how imperative it is they get a great education for them and for our state.

I wish I could just give you Gigi's magic ring and travel ten years into the future to a prosperous California. But the real magic will have to come from you in your classrooms to make tomorrows dreams come true.

God bless you all and the important work before you.

Thank you.

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Copyright © Giselle Fernandez - 2005
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