No Excuses University

Monday, June 30, 2014

Daan Javier Solis wants to be a scientist when he grows up. Today, his parents work in a nursery.

Fernanda Benito Loza dreams of becoming a teacher. Her mom cleans houses, while her father works as a landscaper.

Their classmates dream of careers as dentists, doctors, artists and police officers.

The third- and fourth-graders in Tristin Jarmer’s class at Reedville Elementary School have big dreams. And Jarmer, a 2012 graduate of Pacific University’s master of arts in teaching program, hopes to help those dreams come true.

REEDVILLE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL WAS ESTABLISHED in 1847 and later became its own one-school district in what is today Hillsboro, Ore. In the mid-1990s, the school was incorporated into the Hillsboro School District, but it still retains its own sense of identity and community.

Today, the school is home to a population of students who would be classified as “high need.” More than 95 percent of students come from economically disadvantaged homes, and more than two-thirds are designated as English language learners.

Jarmer’s class, specifically, is a mixed-age group of third- and fourth-grade students all from primarily Spanish-speaking homes. The vast majority of her students’ parents hail from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, and the class is taught in both English and Spanish — a dual language model designed to ensure that students are developing their language skills and also getting the age-appropriate instruction they need in other subjects.

The school also is lucky to have tremendous community support, from area churches that donated playground equipment and iPads to Intel engineers who visit weekly to volunteer and to talk to the students about science and technology.

Sometimes, though, academics come second to the realities of students’ lives. At least nine of Jarmer’s students have parents or close family members who have been deported. Many guardians work multiple jobs. Some live in multifamily housing, or homes filled with extended family.

“I know which kids’ parents and family members have been deported, which need a backpack [of weekend food] on Fridays, who needs the school to buy them winter coats,” Jarmer said. “I think we talk a lot in this class about immigration, deportation, language barriers, those struggles and obstacles.”

They also talk a lot about the future.

Reedville has adopted No Excuses University as a model for college and career readiness. As part of a nationwide network of schools in the program, each classroom selects a college or university as its sponsor. Students learn about the university, its location and its programs, they try to take a tour if it’s nearby, and they collect shirts and stickers from the school. Each class presents what they’ve learned about their selected university at a schoolwide assembly some time during the year.

In the meantime, their teachers talk — regularly — about college not as an abstract idea but as a reality for the students’ future.

“Really, the focus is academic potential. You will go to college,” Jarmer said. “The more odds are stacked against them as young people, the more it’s my job to make sure they know it’s possible.”

JARMER’S CLASS HAS ADOPTED PACIFIC UNIVERSITY as its college partner this year, in part because it is Jarmer’s alma mater. Boxer sweatshirts and bumper stickers hang on a bulletin board outside the classroom, just down the hall from similar boards boasting swag from Oregon State and the University of Oregon.

In class, Jarmer wears a red Pacific sweatshirt. One student wears a Pacific T-shirt he received as a prize, while another shows off black and red sneakers matching Pacific’s school colors.

The students, prompted by questions from Jarmer, talk openly about their visions of college life. It’s hard, they say, with lots of paperwork and essays to write. It’s fun, because you can study what you like and learn lots of new things.

It’s expensive, some add, and it will require hard work to earn a scholarship and to save up for tuition.

Mostly, though, it’s opportunity.

“I plan to go to college because I want to have a better future,” says Chamilie Aguilar Garfias.

“I want to go to college because I could make my dreams come true, and I want to have a job of being a dentist,” says Leslie Villatoro.

“My mom never had a chance to go to college, and I want to make her proud,” Daniella Lopez adds.

Almost every student in the class says that their parents expect them to go to college — it’s not  an if, it’s a when.

“That’s probably their No. 1 goal for you,” Jarmer tells her students. “For you to have more opportunities than they did.”

JARMER KNOWS THAT WAS HER OWN PARENTS’ DREAM. Her father went to college on a football scholarship but dropped out before graduating. She said he always expected his children to finish.

But she didn’t always know what she wanted to do.

As a student at Beaverton High School, she spent her senior year studying abroad in Santiago, Chile.

“My mom always called me an old spirit. I was just done with high school and ready to do something different. I was shocked my parents even let me go,” she said. “It changed my life to go there and learn I could be independent.”

She earned a liberal arts degree from Portland State University (again spending time abroad in Chile), then worked for the Washington County District Attorney’s Office as a victim advocate for five years before turning to Pacific, where she went to part-time classes in the evening for more than a year to earn a master’s degree in teaching.

“I loved Pacific,” she said. “The professors were so real, so laid back, talking about real things that happen, not an idealized world.

“It was a very small cohort, which was excellent after PSU … and we had great student teaching placements.”

She was able to complete an international placement, again in Chile — what she calls her “go-to place” after four trips abroad — and also to earn an endorsement in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), which allows her to teach in the dual-language program at Reedville.

She credits Pacific, her master’s degree and her bilingual skills for having a teaching job right after graduation, first in the Salem-Kaiser School District and now at Reedville.

“Teaching is really hard. It’s way, way, way harder than I thought it would be. But the great thing about elementary kids is … even if you’re not your best, they think you’re the greatest thing. They love you.”

And, she said, she knows she is making a difference.

“The parents are so appreciative to have a program like this. I’m fortunate I can communicate directly with them without an interpreter.

As a parent, I can imagine that’s a huge relief.

“It can be intimidating for parents to come in and register their children, especially if they fear their immigration status will be an issue. With the dual language program, the community perceives (the school) to be so much more welcoming.

“We just make sure it’s a safe place they can bring their kids.”