Assistant Principal, Spotswood Elementary School
“I’m a man of challenges; I love to be pushed.”
Sal talks about coming to America from Mexico illegally 21 years ago and how his experience drives his passion and commitment as an educator, today.
Spotswood Elementary School is one of five elementary schools. We have about 440 students, pre-K through fourth grade. We have about 90% free and reduced lunch. We have about 65% children who are speaking English as a second language. It’s very diverse, very diverse.
We have kids coming from some of the most wealthy neighborhoods in the city; we have homes on this one side of the school that are half a million dollar homes, whereas on the other side of the school we have a lot of subsidized housing and low income neighborhoods where a lot of the kids are living with single parents, a lot of times single moms, and just with a lot of challenges.
A lot of the children who we serve come with just, not only the academic, they’re not only behind academically, their background knowledge is very weak. These children don’t have the opportunities to go places in the summertime, when a lot of the other kids have their parents take them places where they can actually gain some learning. They spend a lot of time unsupervised. This is probably one of the most challenging elementary schools in the city at this point.
I came from Mexico 21 years ago, from a state called Juanajuato. A beautiful part of Mexico that is very much like the Shenandoah Valley here in Harrisonburg, with lots of mountains and beautiful scenery. When my four other siblings and I we were getting ready to go to the middle school, my dad figured that he wanted something better for us, and so he decided with my mom to bring us along to this country. We came illegally to the U.S.; we crossed the border illegally.
So my dad began the process, as soon as we got here, to legalize our status. He initially brought my two younger siblings, George and Erika. My two other sisters and myself, he left us behind for about six months until he would be able to earn some money to pay to bring us here. He came directly to Harrisonburg because of the poultry industry. It’s still is a pretty large part of the businesses around here. We have a lot of people working in poultry.
We lived in a small trailer when we first got here, at a trailer park where a lot of the Latinos in the area lived, mostly Mexicans. First six months or a year, we lived with another family related to us, my uncle and aunt and three other children.
I was put into a middle school in eighth grade, and first year, really nobody knew how to help me, what to do with me. I was 13; I came with no English. So I spent a lot of time on my own the first couple of years. At high school, I was one of very few Latinos in the school. It was a county school. It was not a very pleasant experience. I was little, I was different, and I was a perfect target for kids who were looking to bully another. I almost quit a couple times, but my dad would always say, “Well, we’re not going to let you quit. That’s your only choice: school.”
A couple of times, in the summers, he said, “So you think you want to quit school? I’m going to take you to work for the summer.” He would take me into the poultry industry, and I would work there for the summer. He would make sure that I would do some of the harder jobs so that I would really be able to experience what it would be like for the rest of my life if I chose not to go to school.
They would always say, you know, is this what you want for the rest of your life? So they would, every opportunity they had they would say, just imagine yourself doing this. Now imagine yourself learning English and having a better job.
My father never went to school. He was never fortunate to learn to read and write, and so he basically learned what he knows nowadays on his own. He speaks English and can write some English, is doing well with computers and knowing technology and all that on his own. He’s a bright man. When he was seven years old, he started to work. And he would care for the cattle.
This rich man in the area would want to have the cattle taken to the pasture miles away. So he would leave early in the morning, come back late at night, as a seven-year-old with no shoes at times, you know? So he would tell me some of those stories, and I would be like, I cannot imagine a seven-year-old having to have that responsibility.
And the things he’d gone through, I look at my dad and I’m so proud of my dad and my mom as well. Because they had some odds against them. Way worse than I did. So they knew that their goal, when they first brought us here, they knew why they brought us here. They had in mind that they wanted a bright future for us, that they were going to do everything they could to make sure that we were successful in school.
Then when it was finally my senior year, I was finally learning to feel comfortable with the language, and I was more confident with myself. I had it down to the point where I had to step up to those people bullying me, and I knew I had to do that. You know? My time had come.
But I knew that there was something better for me. Because I was the oldest, my parents relied on me for interpretation. Especially my mom, who didn’t speak it. So I always knew that I wanted to do something where I would be helping people. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I knew that there was a lot of people in my community that needed help, that needed help with translation, they needed help with just standing up for themselves and really, when people were not being fair, just to say, you know what? I have a right. You must treat me with respect. And so I knew I had to do something along those lines.
When I went to college the first couple of years, I was really working hard. I just kept thinking about my parents and thinking about, you know, seeing my dad coming from work on a regular basis with his hands swelled up because he had been hanging turkeys the whole days. Raw turkeys. And we’re talking about 40-45 pound turkeys, hanging them as they were going down the line at the poultry plant and just thinking about the pain he was going through.
Seeing my mother coming from work after a long, long day at work and seeing her pain, you know? I always thought, I may not have what it takes, but I had the desire, I had the perseverance, I had the courage. I tell the parents at school, your kids are bright. Your kids can get places. They can do anything they want. They’re doing well in school right now. They need your support
How have these experiences impacted who you are as a school administrator?
When I think about what I do here at school, I really have to put myself in a lot of different positions. I have to think as a parent, I have children myself, but I have to think as a parent. What do the parents expect from us for their kids? How can we get the parents more involved?
They’re not, a lot of time, parents are not reading to them. They don’t have access to a lot of books; they don’t have access to high quality daycares and after school programs. Their homes are very challenging as well. They don’t always have the clothes they need to wear to school, or food to have on the table. They come with a lot of emotional needs. This is a huge challenge.
So when they come to us, we got to take care of them, you know? A lot of the social skills they unfortunately don’t have, so at Spotswood, we’re focusing on building those social skills in a proactive manner. We got to make sure that 86% of those kids come in and go to the cafeteria for breakfast, because we’ve got to meet those basic needs. And you know, once they feel safe and they have a full belly, then we have a much likelihood of them being successful.
I, as an educator know, I truly know this: Our kids, no matter their background, can be successful if they have their life resources in place, and the people that really care for those kids. We care about our kids 100%. So our kids can be successful. The biggest trouble is that when the kids and the parents are not, don’t have the legal means. And I’m talking specifically about some of the Hispanics in this area.
They don’t have the legal means. Then they know that their kids can go through school, all the way through high school, graduate, and then what? Because their being illegal, they’re not going to be able to go to college. Being here illegally and not having a path to become legalized because their parents are not residents or citizens, they really have no opportunity.
So we’re seeing a lot of our kids in the high school, middle school high school level, who are just dropping out of school left and right. And graduation rates are not the best. You know that your vision and your goals may not be able to be attained because this huge thing, this law is in the way of you getting there, then why bother? So they think, I’ll get a head start on working [a job] right now and get a head start on making some money.
In kindergarten we’re asking kids, What do you want to be when you grow up? Alot of times kids will say, I want to work at a poultry plant just like my mom. Or I want to become a construction worker just like my dad, or I want to go to the apple orchards. That’s how they see themselves. They see their grandparents, they see their parents, they see their older siblings who are just in this, they’ve been in the same neighborhood forever, they don’t have jobs, they may be out of housing, so they kind of see themselves already failing. Because they really haven’t seen anybody in their family be successful. It becomes one of those cycles that you wish you could just get out of.
I think we’re doing a lot of great things nowadays in our division to allow kids those opportunities to really try to be challenged and to really give them a vision about a bright future. We try that, but we’ve got to have the parents in this with them. We’ve got to have the community in this with us. We can’t do it alone.
I can work with kids 180 days out of the year and more with summer school, and I can really work myself to death, but we can’t do it alone. We can’t change kids alone. I see kids now that I used to teach five, six years ago, and when I see they’re doing great, I’m proud of them and I feel great about them.
But when I see kids that made the newspaper because they got in trouble with the law, I mean, that really frustrates me. I know that we did what we could with those kids, and unfortunately we were not able to do enough for those children. So it’s a struggle each day.
I go home every day, I have two children, one is six and one is two, and my wife. She will ask me every day how things went, and I’ll say, it was a busy day. A busy day as always. There’s never a slow day at Spotswood.
But I know at least I am at the place where I know I can continue to make a difference. We want to see kids walk out of this school each and every day knowing that we’re doing what we can for them, and for them to really be seeing the benefits of being successful in the classroom and in the community.
I’m a man of challenges, I love to be pushed because I feel like there were times in my life when I really wanted to show people and show myself and show my parents how capable I was of doing things. I was always struggling just to get through the day.
But now I feel, as a grown man at 34, I feel that I have the confidence, I have the educational background, I have the passion, I have the desire and the will to do well. I really do think that I have so much to offer yet.