Crossing the Finish Line: An Inspiring Story from Houston ISD



For most educators in America, this is the home stretch of the school year. It’s the time to assess, report, celebrate, and soon enough (let’s hope!) get some rest.

Teachers, administrators, specialists, and staff: if you’re tired, you ought to be. Infusing joy in learning while serving as a springboard so students can rebound from setbacks, and setting stepping stones a single beat ahead of each child’s learning journey is, quite frankly, exhausting.

But if you need a splash of fresh water on your face, if a reminder of the rewards of your hard work will propel you to the finish line, look no further than this uplifting article published in the Houston Chronicle last week. It tells the story of Sofia Alfaro and her trek, at age 5, from El Salvador to America, as well as Sofia’s rise from a student laboring to learn English to valedictorian of her senior class.

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The Chronicle’s piece also tells the story of Sofia’s peers in Houston, where “nearly half of this year’s highest-ranking students once struggled to speak English, making them among the largest groups of non-native English speakers to be named valedictorians and salutatorians,” the paper reported.

Houston ISD’s assistant superintendent of multilingual programs, Gracie Guerrero, can relate. In an interview with Ellevation, she recalled the challenge of learning English after emigrating from Mexico in the fourth grade. But she also remembered the assistant principal who advocated for her when she was ready for an academic push, said Guerrero, who now holds a doctorate degree.

“We can’t allow students to fall through the cracks, because then how different would our district be?” she said of HISD, which celebrates the richness that multilingual students bring to the classroom. Guerrero credited that respect for diversity, compliance with ELL law, and personal connections for the success Houston has achieved with English learners.

“Students are encouraged to collaborate with each other, which fosters a sense of belonging and encourages our students to have meaningful relationships,” she said.

The work is hard, for sure. With more than 60,000 ELLs in HISD, how could it not be? But when the weight of regulations feels daunting, Guerrero puts students’ stories—not to mention her own—at the forefront.

“… I keep my own experience as my perspective and lens and make sure we are doing the right thing for each individual kid,” she said. “It is my job and my duty to pay it forward, much like was done for me.”

We’re inspired by the work of our partners at HISD, and we hope the Chronicle’s piece will blow some wind in your sails as you continue the challenging—yet endlessly rewarding—work of raising students up through the rest of the year.

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P.S. If you’re looking for an activity to prolong academic and language learning this summer, check out this Summer Scavenger Hunt designed to help ELL and native English speakers keep their minds active all summer long.

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