Saturday, May 12, 2007 | The program for San Diego Unified School District’s annual Day of the Teacher Celebration features an unusual biography for Rudy Jimenez Ortiz:

“He credits his success and love of learning to his mom, a retired Pre-K teacher, and his father, a retired Army Master Sergeant and Vietnam Veteran, who always told him they believed in him; something he can’t say about any of his former teachers,” it reads. “As he looks back, he can’t pick out one teacher who told him he’d be successful.”

So Ortiz, a preschool teacher at Euclid Elementary, says he dedicated his life to becoming the teacher he never had, one who relies on student self-esteem and confidence as tools to build high academic achievement.

On Tuesday, Ortiz was named the district’s elementary school teacher of the year, one of three teachers awarded the coveted distinction reserved for San Diego’s top educators.

To Ortiz, who lives in his childhood house directly across the street from Euclid, the honor is a way to highlight the importance of preschool in building successful learners, and as a symbol that defies the stereotypes associated with the inner-city neighborhood of City Heights, where the school is located.

In a video tribute prepared by the district, Ortiz’s students praise his sharp dressing habits, his ability to command respect and to organize uniform lines of students, and his approach to teaching. (In the same video, Ortiz places one kid inside a trash can, reenacting an action scene from a book he is reading to the class.)

But students, Ortiz said in an interview, is only one target for his teaching. The other is their parents.

You talked about this at the reception, but I was curious if you could tell me a little bit about how you got into teaching, and preschool in particular?

Well, to get into teaching, one of the biggest things I tell people is that I wanted to be the teacher I never had. I never had a teacher that would tell me what I could do with my life, or how I could do it, or one that could inspire me. Basically, it was my parents that did that. But more importantly, when I was in middle school, I had an eighth grade counselor who told my parents that I wasn’t college material. To me, growing up, my parents always told me that it wasn’t matter of me going to college, it was what college I was going to. So it was very embarrassing to be in that meeting, when he told my parents they weren’t going to sign me up for any [Advanced Placement] classes. It was just to tell my parents that I wasn’t college material, so they weren’t going to sign me up for those kind of classes.

I found out really early, when I was in high school, I did some tutoring and spent some time at elementary schools, and I come from a history of teachers in my family. My mother was a veteran preschool teacher, she just retired recently from the district, and my aunt also being a teacher in the Imperial Valley. So it was kind of in my blood. And I knew once I went to college, that’s what I wanted to do. But more importantly, what I wanted to do was be a role model and inspire them.

My first thought was that I wanted to be a middle school teacher, because that was where I had that bad middle school experience. I started out as an assistant working at Wilson Middle School. And while I was there, I started noticing that a lot of the students were underperforming because they didn’t get a lot of the substantive knowledge they needed from the earlier grades, so I went down to kindergarten and first, because that was where I thought I could start and give those students a great foundation. And that wasn’t it, so I went to the first place they start, which was preschool.

I was lucky in that for two years at college, I was a preschool assistant, and I really wanted to build a high-quality preschool. And the more research I did on it, the students who were in a high-quality preschool end up being more likely to go to college. So I thought I could give those students a great foundation, but more importantly, show the parents how to be very supportive of their child’s education. I do as much for the parents at my school to do what my parents did for me, basically. I didn’t have the greatest support of teachers, and I didn’t have the greatest counselors, but I did it with the support of my parents, and the passion I had for education. …

So, that’s what got me into teaching preschool, knowing that it’s the first level, and it’s where everything starts.

I know a lot of teachers really value parent involvement, but what is the trick for actually getting it?

You know what, one of the biggest things I do is, every other Friday, I hold a family Friday at my classroom, and I invite them in. It first started as a time to read to the students. Everyone is really big on literacy, so I had to go out and get them books in those different languages — I have about six different languages in my classroom. And then, I thought about it, this could be a more malleable time. It’s a time we can do science, we could do art together. Sometimes, we can do cultures, and these are neighbors actually too, so they can get to know the people they live with. And more importantly, I tell them stories of me growing up and I let them into my life. So they get to know me better.

By the end of the year, these parents that don’t know each other do really become a family. And we become the best family we can be for these students. …

Other things I really try to do is I live in the community I teach in. I actually live right across the street from Euclid. The reason I did that was to learn all of the resources in the community. You know, health resources, and the resources that parents can go to. … And so, if any parents come to me during family Friday with any concerns or questions, I can guide them to the right place to go, because to me, our students need the basic necessities: health; food; and those necessities. So if I can start this now for these students and their families, then they can learn. …

A lot of my parents and students don’t only look at me as a teacher, but also as their neighbor. And it’s really great, when I’m walking down to the corner store, or the 7-Eleven, or walking to the park, they always see me, and it’s really special. What I try to do is not only make myself a teacher of the community, but a part of the community. And when the parents see that, they’re not afraid to approach me, because they see me just as they are. So I try to make myself accessible, and to provide them with the knowledge and any assistance or support that they may need. But more importantly, not only being of assistance to them, but making sure that once they leave my classroom, they know where to find help themselves, so they don’t always need Mr. Ortiz. …

What I’m trying to do for these students is, once they see their parents in the classroom, they know that their parents are committed to their education. And I give them those moments that they try to remember. I remember when my mom and dad went into my classroom and we made a book together, or planted plants together, or do math project together. So I just try to make those moments through out the year and I try to educate the parents how to set up a homework area at home or what to expect from them.

What kind of a student makeup does Euclid have, in terms of socioeconomic status and English learners?

We’re a Title I school, we are a low-income school. We have African American students. We have Swahili students. We have Vietnamese students. We have Filipino students. I hope I’m not leaving anything out. But it’s a highly Latino-based student base, and many people come from low-income families. One of the things at Euclid is that we have fresh, newcomer students as well that are from Africa or are from Vietnam or are from Mexico. A majority of our population is learning English here at Euclid. … Everything we do is in English, but we do support the students that we have and their parents.

So that’s the makeup of this neighborhood. When you hear about City Heights, most of the things you hear are negative. And me, when it comes to work, I see a lot of loving families who are loving being here in the United States. And, as much as possible, want to be successful. … That’s what I really want to show. There’s a lot of hard-working families here. There are a lot of things that are negative, but it’s not the people in the community that do them, it just so happens that they happen here. And so, I suppose that one of the things I want to do is to bring a lot of positive, and to make people proud to live here, and change the false stereotype of the neighborhood.

You mentioned also that you wanted to use this award to show the importance of preschool. And in this state, in the last few years, there’s been a lot of debate about universal preschool. So what are some of the lessons about that issue that people may not know about?

Well, one is that kindergarten is the first class kids are required to go to. They can actually start school in the first grade and be OK, but kindergarten is now how first grade used to be, in terms of academic rigorness. The way I look at it is, preschool is the time for these students to get ready for kindergarten, to learn their colors, their numbers, their alphabet. But more importantly, to get those social skills of how to become a learner. And preschool does that for our students. You’re going to learn how to be in the classroom. You’re going to learn how to interact with others. You’re going to learn how to be a learner.

We don’t teach our students how to be learners; we just tell them, “Go to school and learn.” And one of the things that preschool can do is to really to teach our students how to be great learners, teach our parents how to be great learners, and give them the foundation for success. You know, there’s been a lot of talk about putting universal preschool out there. And as more research is done, we’re starting to see that students who go to preschool will have the greatest success in their academic career — and are more likely to go to college than those who don’t have preschool.

There’s a lot of research out there showing the importance of preschool. But I think a lot of it is that our district and our schools are low-funded to begin with, so when we get these initiatives, people think that it’s going to take money away from a low-funded education system. But the way I look at it, if we put more money in preschool, and we have universal preschool, there’s going to be less reason for intervention later. And intervention costs a lot more money. And it’s hard, once these students are behind — it’s not impossible, but it’s a lot of hard work. But once they are behind, it’s very hard to catch up. And it makes learning not a fun experience but a frustrating one. So if we can get them to be successful in the early years, they’re not going to have these troubles in the later years, and I think we’ll have a lower crime rate because of preschool. Instead of saying, “Let’s just wait until they’re in trouble.” That’s the way I look at it.

There’s been initiatives, but I think they’ve been brought forward poorly, not stating how they’re funded. I think the last one was going to be funded from the top 5 percent of rich people, so, I know, I think it needs more attention, and bringing all of the stats out, and really show what a high-quality preschool can do. And I’m just really happy to represent preschool. In this district, we have a great preschool program. It serves everyone from low-income families, to we have a first-come, first-served families, our working families, our child-development centers. Not every school has a preschool program, but I would love to see that. If you talk to the kindergarten teachers, the first grade teachers, they know the difference between a student who’s been to preschool, and one who hasn’t. A lot of students who go to preschool are the ones who later become [gifted and talented] students, because of the skills necessary to do higher-level work. And that’s what I tell the parents: My goal is not only to get your students ready for kindergarten, but when they get to kindergarten, they’re one of those higher-end students. And I think one of the reasons that my students are is because they have the self-esteem and the self-confidence to do it. They know it’s going to be hard at times, but they know how to ask questions, they know how to do work, they know how to get the support and help. Once they have that, it’s going to support them down the line.

I think once we truly get the message out there — the importance of how preschool works — and not only look at it from the money point of view, but also how it’s going to save money in the long run, and how it’s going to serve California and the United States better. And it’s not a daycare service. A lot of people think, “Well, they’re just going to go to preschool and play all day.” And yes, they do play, but they also learn and work with others, and they develop their social skills. But more important, through that play, they learn how to be learners. And there is a very structured time with large groups, and small groups, and one-one-one time, and learning time. It’s a balance. Once again, there’s a false stereotype of what people think preschool is. They think that the kids go and they drink milk and eat cookies and play all day.

I’m very happy, because if I can be that one that shows what preschool looks like, and what an average day of preschool is, and people begin to understand what is preschool, and the great help that it provides to students in their later academic success.

And the last thing I wanted to ask you about, I know you were a student in this district. How has it changed over the years?

You know, it has changed. One of the things that’s sad to me is that we’ve lost all of our arts and science and things like that. I remember doing science in our classroom, and doing art and music. Not every class has that. It’s so focused on just oral literacy, and language, and just taking tests, and things like that.

A lot of the activities at Euclid is really trying to make time for those things, and make time to have a well-balanced education, not just filling in bubbles and having students take tests. I think one of the biggest things, and maybe it’s just me … is we’ve learned that we want students to be critical thinkers, and we want our students to think more. I look at my students, and I think about when I was smaller, and they can just — because they’ve been asked to think, and they can think — they just wow, they amaze me. The things they can do. I think the expectations are being held higher, compared to when I was in preschool, and when I went to kindergarten and to the first grade. And I think it’s a great thing. But I think among those expectations is the focus on oral language, and the writing and speaking, and the idea that they’re more important than the arts. We need to be self-conscious about that. It’s not the teachers’ fault, it’s not the schools’ fault, it’s just the funding. We just don’t have the funding to keep a lot of music, and woodshop and things like that. And those are things, when I was young, made me want to go to school. I loved going to learn how to play the flute, or I loved going to woodshop or the creative arts, and expressing myself in different ways, just not by speaking.

It shouldn’t always be a money issue. But we, as teachers, feel that we should be doing these things more, and allowing kids to express themselves and critically think in different ways. But it is difficult when you’re forced to take money out of your pocket to go buy these things, because the school won’t, because the money that comes from the national and state level is not providing for it.

The students get science, I think it’s once a week, instead of, as it should be, every day. So it’s different, of course, the school is different, and the makeup is different. I think it has its pros and its disadvantages. The pros is that we ask our students to really think, and we see them have great success with that. But we also see that some of those great programs that keep our students at school, we’re losing them as well.

— Interview by VLADIMIR KOGAN

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