Jenice Ramírez

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As part of Kelly Pope’s investigation of the interaction of American public school systems with Latino students, Ramirez offers her opinion on what resources American public schools are lacking for parents who don’t speak English. Ramirez is the Vice President of an organization called Immersion for Spanish Language Acquisition (ISLA), and was hired during the summer of 2013. She brings a passion for education and serving Latino communities, because unfortunately she witnessed a disconnect between native-English speakers and the Latino community at her former job as a high school teacher. According to Ramirez, ISLA is an organization that works against discriminatory educational systems and the union of families of both communities. She also speaks about the dynamic between parents and their children, and how some students are ashamed of and feel superior to their own parents. Ramirez says ISLA encourages students to be proud of their roots, while also attending American public schools.



Kelly Pope: Ok, we are recording and my name is Kelly Pope and I’m interviewing Jenice and she works for ISLA. It is April 5th, 2014 and we are at St. Thomas Moore. Yay! How are you?
Jenice Ramirez: I’m good, how are you?
KP: Good. So, tell me a little bit about ISLA and how you got involved
JR: ISLA is a non-profit organization by the 1C3. It was started by Aerin Benavides three years ago; well, this is our second year. She started it because she wanted to essentially create a school for native Spanish speakers to attend and learn the Spanish language and be able to reach the same level of their peers in Latin American countries. So, she has created this curriculum to do that and we are very hands on, we are literacy focused, and now more science focused than ever. I got involved because I stopped teaching last year and I wanted to bring my passion for education and be able to be part of the Latin American community. So I found this organization on LinkedIn.
KP: Really?
JR: Yes.
KP: Wow.
JR: I sent my resume by email one day and hoped for a job and I got it. So this has been probably one of the best experiences I have had thus far, I’m able to do what I like. And I’m able to do it with a group of people who appreciate what we are doing and they enjoy what they are doing and I’m being able to put that passion for learning into our kids; which I think, is one of the more important things about ISLA.
KP: So how long have you been working here?
JR: I started in July so it’s going to be a year in a few months.
KP: Cool. And how does ISLA differentiate from other more traditional schools?
JR: Well, we have a very broad curriculum. We are not so much focused on standards. We do have objectives that I try to meet every single Saturday, but it’s more student-led than teacher-led, which is where we are going. I feel like the more traditional school is, it’s very set on standardized testing and reaching particular goals and that’s not really our mission. Our mission is for kids to enjoy learning the Spanish language and be able to learn them and still reach that same level as kids in Latin American countries who are in traditional school, so…
KP: So what would you say the vision is for ISLA, where would you see ISLA going in the future?
JR: I see it being pre-k through 12th grade school, Saturday school where the kids are here for three hours and they learn just as much they learn in Monday through Friday in three hours.
KP: Wow that’s awesome. So how does ISLA fill gaps that maybe other public or private schools can’t fill?
JR: I think we bridge a gap... we build a bridge for closing that gap between the Latin American community and the public schools because we give them a place to feel comfortable and not feel almost inferior; especially the parents. So we provide them a place for them to be able to ask, you know, questions and for us to help them on every day things that they might have with their kids. And even with the kids some of the strategies that we teach them –how to read in Spanish and write in Spanish –are strategies that they can later take to, you know, their school and and their Monday through Friday. And also be prideful in who they are in their culture. That’s another big part of ISLA is providing that; that pride in who they are and learning about their background, their parents background and taking and sharing it with other people. And a lot of our other kids do go to their schools and tell them about their Saturday school. So I think its beneficial for the community and them.
KP: Why do you think it’s important for them to understand and be proud of their background, these students that come here?
JR: Because one, they are able to speak two languages, speak fluently, read, write, and it provides many more opportunities –especially with the growing Spanish population in our country. And I think it’s important for them to be prideful of who they are. I mean, just because you’re in a different country then where your parents are from doesn’t mean its still not a part of you. For them to be able to have something to share with someone else is just as important to making them cultured.
KP: So you mentioned something about maybe feeling inferior in other schools. Have you witnessed, or what’s your opinion on students of Latino descent maybe feeling inferior in public schools?
JR: Yeah, well most recent, I guess, working here now I see it in a different light. The big thing is, a lot of the time they go to the public schools they –you look at some of our children and they look Hispanic. You can tell they are Hispanic Latinos and automatically they are labeled as ESL or they need to be in possibly a separate in a separate…what was I saying
KP: We were talking about the feeling inferior.
JR: Oh yeah, so you know they all of a sudden get labeled as not being, you know, learning the language. So they are placed and its almost like this attention set on them that’s not positive attention. It’s not a positive thing to be automatically pulled out during maybe your Spanish class or your math class to go to a classroom of 5 people to work on something that you already know how to do. So I think with a lot of kids that’s happened to them because they are in schools that are, the majority are not Hispanic. So in that sense, and then also with the parents, you know, there is not that same parent involvement as maybe some American parents are; just for several reasons. Some are their culture just really isn’t like that, and two they might be working when things are available to them. So then automatically its like ok, well my parents aren’t involved, I don’t get to do this, I don’t get to do that, and it just kind of sets them apart. In that sense, that’s what I have seen here. Now when I was actually teaching in the public school systems, one of the things I saw, not only being just labeled because they were Spanish, but it was also this like almost when –let’s say –teachers would give information to the whole class about particular things with the parents. A lot of the times the Spanish students, the teachers that knew that their parents did not speak Spanish, did not have anything for them. So the chances of that student actually giving their parent information, giving it to them properly is slim to none. And the teachers know that. So in that sense I think it made them feel like, well there is no need for my family or me to be very involved in the community of our school. And I found that to be a real issue, so I just started translating stuff for everybody to give to their parents.
KP: So then how does ISLA kind of help the family dynamic?
JR: Well the big part is providing them with that big happiness for being Latino and having to learn about their background and learning about everyone else’s background too because we do have different Latin American countries represented here. So they are able to take that back home and appreciate it. Because you do have kids that come from Spanish backgrounds and they have zero respect for their parents because their parents might be immigrants and they can’t work, or you know they, can work but it’s like these jobs they work 12, 15-hour days. So it’s like there’s this lack of respect for them almost because they maybe feel that they’re superior to their own parents, whereas here we’re letting them know that their parents’ culture is very important and their parents are important and that’s where that tiempo cultural is so important to them. Being able to see their parents in front of them and everyone like "oh wow", wanting to learn from their parents. Where other kids might not have that.
KP: So I know what it is, but could you explain tiempo cultural?
JR: Yeah, tiempo cultural is thirty minutes that we set aside for the parents to come into the classroom and give some type of presentation that has to do with their culture. It could be reading a story, could be cooking something, it could be actually talking about what city they’re from, a festival that might happen in a particular city. Anything whatsoever that has to do with their cultural background. And it’s set aside for the parents to teach the children.
KP: Cool. So, what kind of messages do students receive from either ISLA or public school systems that help them determine whether or not they value their background?
JR: What’s the question again?
KP: So what messages do students, you kind of touched on it, what messages are they reading and receiving that determine whether or not they value their background?
JR: Well, they’re only allowed to speak Spanish here. So, they’re having to use that which is a big part of their culture. Their parents are clearly being involved and we have… we celebrate different holidays that are typically celebrated in the different Latin American countries. So we are showing them that it’s important to us, so it needs to be important to them. So I think that’s how we send our message to them about their culture. As far as public school systems... I don’t think there is anything. I mean at least all the schools I was in, there was nothing. Cinco de Mayo, but that doesn’t really count. So...
KP: So, you went to school en los Estados Unidos?
JR: Yes
KP: Yeah?
JR: Yes, I went to school here, yeah.
KP: Cool. And where? Was it in North Carolina?
JR: In Fayetteville, North Carolina.
KP: Ok, so you were...
JR: I was an army brat. I bounced from school to school to school to school. Yeah.
KP: And how, was it frustrating for you at all growing up in a school like that and why?
JR: Well, I guess the first experience that we had that was directly related to our culture was when we first moved to Fayetteville. My mom put us in a little elementary school and we had been in American schools before, so I was already in 5th grade and as soon as they came in the first thing they did was put me in ESL. A separate class. So in this class there were 4 people all day and learning the basics, ABCs, like sentence structure, things like that and making cupcakes. Like, it was just stuff that didn’t make sense. So, one day I asked my mom why I wasn’t in the regular classes. So my mom looked into it and sure enough because she didn’t read the paperwork correctly, they had automatically put me in ESL, me and my brother; so, my little brother, he’s just a year younger. So from that point on we started making sure that I was in regular classes because just because I’m Spanish didn’t mean that I had any any issues whatsoever. And that was when we went to the public school systems because before we were always on base with base schools on post. So, it was a little different to travel from post to post. So yeah.
KP: Yeah, so you have a little brother, older brother?
JR: I have two younger brothers.
KP: Mhm, and what are they doing now?
JR: The middle brother, he is in Charlotte. He has a baby. He’s in the Air Force reserves and he works for security clearance, something for Bank of America. He graduated from UNCG, as so did I and went to Chattanooga –Interstate Chattanooga, Tennessee –for wrestling; big wrestler, all through high school, college, and then grad school. And then my youngest brother lives with me in Greensboro and he’s currently in school to be a physical therapist and works for Tim or Honda Jet. He fixes the outside of planes because he’s in the Air Force Reserves. Did I say my other brother was Air Force Reserves? He’s Coastguard Reserves, or Army Reserves. One of those. So they kind of stayed in the military branches.
KP: Cool.
JR: Yeah.
KP: Let’s see. So, you said you were teaching somewhere else, so what area were you teaching in?
JR: I was teaching in a more rural area, I guess that would be. It’s kind of… we had a lot of farmers and then we had city kids. And they would travel far to go to this school. But I taught high school, 9th grade through 12th grade. I was Special Ed. So I started with occupational course of study and then which is kids with disabilities in the 50s 60s IQ range. And then I went into regular classrooms and pulled kids out for math and reading. So I did that for three years.
KP: So how did that kind of location influence your opinions of Latinos in schools that kind of more rural, did you say, more rural culture?
JR: In that area I really saw that the kids just really thought their parents were just dummies. Like they just didn’t know anything and they thought they were superior to them. And I think it has a lot to do with that they were high school kids, but there was that lack of respect. So it was very little involvement from the parents. So that’s really what I saw there and the Latino population wasn’t that large, but what was there, it was kind of discouraging and kind of made me think “ok they’re not even educated about where they’re from and how important it is to appreciate that.” A lot of them didn’t even want you to know they spoke Spanish. So its a very… it was different. It was… I’ve never experienced that before.
KP: So that kind of discomfort with being Latino, do you think it came from just being in that environments, or from other students, or...
JR: I think it was environmental, and well including their peers because you know there’s a lot of people that had been in that particular area generation after generations after generations. And you know this group of Latin American people came in and most recently gotten hired there. So there’s that like push from the community. So I guess you would see, the right way to say... you saw more racism um even with them, the school and young children which is very interesting.
KP: Do you think this kind of dynamic will change in the future?
JR: I hope so, yeah. I think, for example like Chapel Hill area, Fayetteville area, they’re really getting into this immersion and the importance of learning two languages and appreciating knowing another language. So it’s brought an interest to Latin American culture. So I think that that’s helped. I think children possibly feel more comfortable, because people want to know more and be more involved in that. So I think that’s good, but it’s not everywhere. Somewhere I’ve seen it in some places, but we are still working on it.
KP: What about, what do I have here? So back to ISLA, where did this school model come from? Do you know?
JR: Yeah, Aeirn, her husband was Peruvian and they lived in Peru for like ten years and there’s this school there called um Roosevelt American school, but they did the Spanish emersion program. But it was, I believe strictly English immersion. So the school is Spanish, but then they had this English program. And she saw the way, they just grew. Knowing first this one language and then just being exposed to the other language they were able to transfer these skills over to that other language and it was very good program, especially for the pre-k ages. It’s very hands on, very science oriented, very focused on literacy. So she kind of took that and what her ideal vision of what education and her philosophy I guess of what education is and made ISLA.
KP: Very cool. Um, so she brought the ISLA program here?
JR: She created it, yeah. She came up with the name, she did all of that. The idea came from this Roosevelt school, but everything was made off of her ideas of what this ideal school would be. And they also looked a lot at the Chinese Saturday programs, because there are a lot of those. And that’s kind of, I mean, having it on Saturday was why we got it from the Chinese and then the idea of having the school immersion program was from the Roosevelt school. And even now I could look at different schools around North Carolina and due to the duel language or emersion and see what their curriculums like compared to ours. What works for them, what works for us. That’s what we’ve been doing.
KP: Cool. Yeah I think that’s everything unless you want to add anything to it.
JR: Nope!
KP: Awesome thank you so much.
JR: You’re welcome