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PSU grad helps Beaverton schools build teacher diversity
Author: Wendy Owen | The Oregonian/OregonLive
Posted: June 16, 2015

 

Few Beaverton teachers look like Floricel Negrete, but nearly 9,800 students in the school district do.

When she joins the kindergarten staff at Vose Elementary next fall, Negrete will also join the 11 percent of minority teachers in the district. Of those, she will be one of about 4 percent who are Latino.

For the first time, Beaverton School District has more students of color than white students. It's a very slim margin, less than 1 percent difference, but it's growing. Of the estimated 39,600 students in the district, about 25 percent are Latino, 14 percent Asian, 3 percent black, 1 percent Pacific Islanders and .5 percent Native American. Students speak 96 different languages. In total, 19,800 kids in the district are students of color.

Beaverton sees it as an asset and an opportunity to better meet the needs of the students, said Sho Shigeoka, equity coordinator.

"Historically, students of color, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Pacific islanders, have not been served well," she said. "It gives us the opportunity to reflect on what we as a district need to do to address that."

Floricel Negrete Floricel Negrete works with students at William Walker Elementary

One way is to hire teachers who have a better understanding of the students' backgrounds and cultures. But it's not easy. Districts have struggled for years to attract minority teachers.

Negrete is, perhaps, the ideal example of how districts can recruit teachers of color. She graduated from Westview High in 2006, and with the support of Beaverton School District, she entered the Portland Teachers Program. The program, which focuses on minorities, helped cover her tuition at Portland Community College and Portland State University. In return, she agreed to teach in Beaverton for at least three years.

Negrete, 27, finished her student teaching at Beaverton's William Walker Elementary on June 12 and will graduate from Portland State University with her master's degree in early education and special education on June 14.

It is important to remember, Shigeoka said, that a quality teacher - someone who has empathy, can build relationships with students and inspire them to learn – is not based on the color of someone's skin.

"For some students, having teachers who share similar life experiences, may be an opportunity for them to engage in the (lessons)," she said. "We all bring in different life experiences. For some kids, having that life experience as a bridge really does help."

Life experience

Negrete's life experience is likely one that many students can relate to. Well, maybe not her birth. She was born in the backseat of a car near Grants Pass as her family traveled to Oregon. After that, life handed her one struggle after another. 

"Her life didn't come easy to her but she was always determined with a capital D," said Shigeoka, who was Negrete's counselor at Westview High.

Negrete's father died when she was a youngster and the family frequently moved as her mom sought work. She knows what it's like to be the only Latina in a classroom and she knows how far behind students fall when they move from school to school. She knows poverty. Her mom worked double shifts at a factory, and Negrete worked at Burger King to help pay bills.

College wasn't even a thought, she said. "For me, college meant money, and we didn't have money. We were being evicted."

But education was a priority for the family. Negrete's mom, Floriberta Cardenas, got her GED while working and juggling five kids with the help of Negrete's grandmother. When her mom studied at the library for the GED, Negrete gathered a pile of books and read.

"I was a bookworm," she said.

Negrete ended up at Westview, but she was behind in credits and in danger of not graduating.

That's when Shigeoka and bilingual community liaison Michelle Lira stepped in.

Shigoeka called it "tough love."

They saw her potential. Negrete had worked as a tutor with Latino students at Rock Creek Elementary and showed an innate ability to connect with the kids. Negrete loved it.

"The teachers at Rock Creek were so impressed with her natural ability to work with students, particularly kids who were struggling," Shigeoka said. "She would approach kids in a really sincerely caring way. She never approached with a predetermined assumption of what they're capable of doing."

Negrete got her credits back on track and the two women had her write essays, fill out scholarship applications and Shigeoka took her to visit college campuses.

Everything was in place. Negrete was ready to start at PCC, and the day before classes started, she discovered she was pregnant.

She didn't show up at school.

"I was embarrassed," Negrete said. "I was on my way. I had all these scholarships."

When she didn't arrive for classes, Shigeoka contacted her.

"I was surprised she was not angry," Negrete said. Instead, Shigeoka told her it was even more important to attend school now.

"When you feel you are part of the (ethnic) statistics, the societal message is you give up," Shigeoka said. "I didn't want her to believe that."

Negrete reapplied and headed off to college the following fall. Meanwhile, she got a job as an instructional assistant at Vose Elementary, which she kept for five years.

Negrete wanted to be the first in her family to graduate from college to prove that what her mom gave up by working long, hard jobs was worth it.

"She really wanted to do it for her mom," Shigeoka said.

But Negrete's mom and two younger brothers were killed in a car accident while vacationing in Mexico in 2010, just shy of Negrete receiving her associate's degree.

She kept it together, Shigeoka said.

Negrete, who is married and has two young children, is driven by them and the students in her classes to make a difference.

While she did not have any teachers who looked like her when she attended school, she understands the importance of being a role model to students of color.

"I can't put into words how powerful it is for them to see me in the classroom," she said of her student teaching.

It has been good for white students to see her in a position of authority as well.

"When you see a Latina, she's not just cleaning your home or serving you at a restaurant," Negrete said.

Ultimately, Negrete sees the difference it is making with her own children, ages 8 and 4.

"That's what is emotional for me," she said, wiping tears. "We're changing our story."


-- Wendy Owen