Honoring Vanessa Cruz

Vanessa Cruz

Vanessa Cruz

Elementary Science Teacher

Fort Worth, TX

Vanessa Cruz teaches 5th grade at West Handley Elementary School in the Fort Worth Independent School District. She is the Science Lead at her school. She brings passion into her classroom and entices her students in her science class through hands on experiments. She is passionate about science and instilling in students a desire to learn. Ms. Cruz wants to provide opportunities for her students to succeed both in the classroom and outside. She emphasizes the importance of having qualities of empathy, compassion and understanding. In her classroom, students are free to engage in discussion about academics and other interests. Ms. Cruz makes an effort to connect with her students via their hobbies, favorite past times and sports. She firmly believes that students perform better if they feel adults around them care about what they have to say. Every voice matters and this is one of the reasons why she provides different ways to complete an assignment. Ms. Cruz is currently enrolled in the Master of Education with a STEM specialization in Southern Methodist University.

Why do you teach?

I teach to empower students and to help them realize their potential. It is my goal to help students meet their goals and seek the opportunities that exist. I also teach to give back to the community that helped me become who I am today. I teach because teacher believed in me. I do my job thinking of paying it forward and helping others achieve their dreams.

What do you love about teaching?

I love when students are engaged in their learning and wanting to participate in class. I also love when students tell me about their weekend, their fears and ambitions. The relationships you build as a teacher are the most rewarding aspect of teaching.

When you were a student, was there a great teacher who inspired you?

My high school teachers at Manhattan International High School with their kindness, support and understanding made me feel like I wasn’t alone though I didn’t speak any English at the time. They encouraged me and made me realize we all had a lot of offer to the world as long as we worked hard and didn’t let obstacles deter us from our dreams.

Honoring Cesar Garcia

Cesar Garcia

Cesar M. Garcia

High School Spanish teacher

Sparks, Nevada

Cesar Garcia has taught for 12 years. He grew up in Spain and moved to the United States at the age of 30 following his heart after meeting an American girl (his wife of 31 years now) in Madrid. His journey into his career as a teacher began in a boarding school in Soria, Spain but this dream was not fulfilled until after a career as a bodyguard for the first democratic President in Spain, Adolfo Suarez and then in the United States he worked in a grocery store at night so he could take care of his kids during the day. After all three of his children were in public schools, he decided to go back to college and start a degree in secondary education with a major in Spanish. Mr. Garcia graduated in December 2003 from the University of Nevada, Reno and soon after was offered a job at Sparks High School to teach Spanish for Spanish Speakers and Spanish to high school students. The program has been very successful and currently he is also teaching AP Spanish Language and Culture as well as AP Spanish Literature and Culture.

Why do you teach?

I started teaching because I wanted to fulfill an old, delayed dream of mine. For seven years in my native Spain I went to a boarding school to get an education. My teachers were almost all priests and wanted me to become a priest and to dedicate my life to teaching. At age 30, I moved to Reno, Nevada in order for my wife, a native of Reno, to finish her Master’s degree in Foreign Language and Literature. What should have been an American adventure of only two or three years became a permanent move. After raising three children in public schools it became clear to me that the time had come for me to give back to society, so I decided the best way to accomplish that would be to use my knowledge, expertise, and experiences in life to teach students with socio-economic challenges. Sparks High School was and is the perfect place to fulfill my dream.

What do you love about teaching?

At this moment in my life I love everything about teaching. The relationship with students, the relevance of the topics, and the increasing rigor of the materials taught after the first year or two. My students are like my patients. They enter my class every day with different symptoms (happy, angry, rested, tired, traumatized, calm, crying, laughing….) It is my mission to engage, inspire, and teach them regardless of their situation in life or their mood. Teaching gave me the opportunity to get up every morning happy and ready to go with a purpose in life and the opportunity to change or make a difference in a student’s life. I had several jobs in my life and none of them gave me the feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction that being a teacher does. That’s why I would love to continue teaching in the future. In 2012, I was diagnosed with sarcoma, a type of cancer, and during that difficult time my students were the best therapy against the illness. I owe them big!

When you were a student, was there a great teacher who inspired you?

As I mentioned, I attended a Catholic boarding school in Spain from thirteen to twenty years old during Franco’s dictatorship. Not one, but several of my teachers challenged me to think outside the box, examine uncomfortable things and give back to society. I tried to inspire my students using the same philosophy that I learned more than 40 years ago. In America, Diane Rosner (Chair of the Foreign Language Department in South Lake Tahoe and Director of the Intensive Summer Spanish Institute) was instrumental in me becoming a teacher. Every day I want my students to feel in my classroom the way I felt in hers.

Honoring Sara Torres

Sara Torres

Sara Torres

Elementary Science Teacher

San Marcos, TX

As a child, Sara Torres grew up in South Texas and attended a segregated school. This school had two classes in each grade level, the smart class and the “other” class. She was in the “other” class all through elementary school. Interestingly by the time students reached high school, 4 out of the 7 students in the highest math class that school offered were from the “other” class. Early on she learned that conditions impact the outcome of schooling, but they do not need to determine them.

The last 15 years she has taught in the San Marcos CISD as a bilingual teacher, gifted and talented facilitator and currently is a STEM teacher at Travis Elementary. She is passionate about public school education! She entrusted her four biological children to public schools. She worked to learn new instruction to benefit students. This passion has moved her to action and initiated partnerships with Texas State University Professors to implement physics labs, non-bias science fairs, after school clubs and engineering opportunities for local students and families. This partnership recently secured a NASA grant that works to implement Engineering concepts to all students in the district with a focus on Aerospace Engineering home extension activities; this work will continue in the summer through a close relationship with Centro Cultural Hispano de San Marcos a community center dedicated to support families and share the Hispanic cultural wealth with everyone in the community.

She is a graduate of the University of Texas at San Antonio and earned her Master’s of Education in Leadership at Texas State University in May. She understands that administrative leaders looking for the quick fix by pursuing perfect programs has been a futile attempt to improve schools. She believes barriers are much more complicated than choosing the right program. Issues of health, economic language and curricular realignment are needed to transform public schools. She understands that these topics of discussion in educational settings are critical. She believes in order to make education better it will take many conversations and forming partnerships between public schools, universities, and community assets. Her goals and aspirations are to continue education through the doctoral program at Texas State University.

In her spare time, she plays the flute with her Church choir, attends Bible classes and cheers her children on at cross-country competitions.

Why do you teach?

I believe that our vocation as human beings is to remain hopeful and that we can improve public education. Too many times the answer to improve education is to open a new Academy or Private School. This solution only addresses the privileged. Public schools are the only way to change the world we live in because Public schools educate every child. Our youth need to be inspired that THEY can make a difference and I am the person to convince them of that fact.

What do you love about teaching?

I love building relationships with students, families, and community members. Teaching isn’t about transferring information to students. It’s about what we learn from each other. Being a witness to students developing skills in collaboration, communication, and empathy of others is very gratifying. Every child deserves to achieve their greatness and has the right to have an advocate in his or her corner.

Was there a great teacher who inspired you?

A year ago, I met Dr. Miguel Guajardo, professor at Texas State University. He has taught me that a cup of coffee and a great conversation can change the world. His ability to help people develop educational awareness, autonomy, and their critical consciousness has inspired me to continue on this path of giving those around me an opportunity to be successful in their aspirations.

Honoring Angela Palacios

Angela Palacios

Angela Palacios, Ed.D

Spanish High School Teacher

Phoenix, AZ

Dr. Angela Palacios has spent 10 years teaching Spanish with Phoenix Union High School District, where she began her teaching career at Cesar Chavez High School.  In addition to teaching, she has spent time mentoring teachers in and out of the classroom.  She also spent one year as a Curriculum and Instructional Coach for an elementary school in Phoenix.  She has served as a trainer and facilitator for the implementation of professional learning communities, curriculum and instruction, and Freshman House Academy within her school. She is currently serving on South Mountain High School’s Open House Committee, Multicultural Committee, and Graduation Committee.  She also has the privilege to call out the names at the graduation ceremony.  Dr. Palacios was recently selected to participate in the year three pilot of the Teacher Leadership Initiative (TLI), a joint endeavor of the National Education Association (NEA), the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ), and The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (National Board).  She also participates as part of the President’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative which convenes leaders and stakeholders from around the country to work together to form integrated strategies to help every young person find their way to class every day.

Dr. Palacios holds a Bachelor’s of Arts in Communications with a minor in Spanish from the Sul Ross State University of Texas.  She earned her certification as a 6-12 Spanish Teacher at the University of Mississippi and then returned to the Arizona State University to earn her Master’s in Secondary Education and most recently completed her Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Administration also from Arizona State University where she conducted a study highlighting the challenges of five DREAMers and strategies they used to overcome those challenges.  As the daughter of immigrants, Dr. Palacios is aware of the sacrifices and contributions of immigrants.  She can also relate very well to challenges of obtaining a higher education on many levels.

Why do you teach?

As an educator, I strive to develop leaders that are critical thinkers and problem solvers who develop a sense of responsibility to change their own lives and that of their families and communities. I teach because it’s the best way to affect social change.   There’s nothing more fulfilling than seeing student transformations in and out of the classroom.  I make every effort to teach with corazón because once you win the students’ hearts, you can equip their brain with vast knowledge.

What do you love about teaching?

Here is a video made by students that includes students and colleagues acknowledging my doctoral degree.  I made it against all odds.  I am now part of the 1% of the world with a doctorate degree.  I am part of the .5% because I am Mexican, a woman, and also a single mom.  In addition, I am proud to be part of the 8% of Latina teachers that many articles talk about. This video makes me very proud of my accomplishments.  I strive to be a positive role model and it brings me to tears every time I watch it.  To empower students and hear from their own mouths that I made a difference is priceless.  They are the reason I love teaching!

When you were a student, was there a great teacher who inspired you?   

There are many teachers that helped me along the way.  My biggest supporter and mentor, however, was Mrs. Stapleton, my high school Spanish teacher.  She always provided opportunities for growth, resources, and constantly reminded me of my potential.  Had it not been for her, I wouldn’t have gone to college.  Current teachers like Bolivia Gaytan, Debbie Kunes, and Carla Flores always keep me grounded, inspired, and help me keep perspective on what is important in life.

Honoring Maria Dominguez

Maria Dominguez

Maria Dominguez

1st Grade Bilingual Teacher

Austin, TX

Maria was born in Guanajuato, Mexico where she lived in a modest house with her mother, grandmother, and three siblings. When she was eight years old, her mother received a phone call that would change her. Her father had passed away in an automobile accident in Texas. Her mother then decided that they would migrate to the United States, bringing along her four children.

She graduated high school with honors, she knew that continuing her education would be an adversity. She was an undocumented student, but she did not give up and decided to enroll in Austin Community College. As she got ready to transfer to a four-year university, she made the ultimate decision that would change her life: she would become a bilingual teacher. She received her Bachelor’s Degree from Texas State University in Bilingual Education in December 2007.

Because of her legal status she could not teach at public schools. Nevertheless, she began to teach Sunday School at her church, giving her the opportunity to teach children. She later on enrolled in Texas State University for her Master’s Degree in Bilingual Education and minor in Educational Leadership.

On June 15, 2012, President Obama announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which would grant certain undocumented immigrants a two-year work permit and a suspension of deportation. Maria was excited and thankful because she would have the opportunity to practice her profession. She applied for DACA in August 2012 and received her approval in December 2012. In February 2013, she was hired by the Austin Independent School District as a Pre-K bilingual teacher. She works at a Title I school where over 96% of the students receive free or reduced lunch. She attended a similar school and now she has the opportunity to give back to a community that reflects the community where she came from. Her students come from similar walks of life and they all share similar stories. This allows the teachers, to become their role models and make a positive impact in their lives.

As a teacher, Education Austin member and AFT member she has been granted the opportunity to work with the immigrant community – in particular undocumented youth. She helps U.S. residents fill out their citizenship applications and Dreamers fill out their DACA application. She has also shared her story at DACA forums. She has also attended several conferences with AFT that focus on immigration, and how members can work with their locals to help members, parents and students.

Thanks to the work she is doing in her classroom and in her community, the White House honored her this past July 24th, as a DACAmented Teacher Champion of Change. She felt thrilled to receive this kind of recognition by the White House. There needs to be constant people who advocate for students, parents and the community.

Why do you teach?

I teach because I believe I can make a positive difference in the lives of my students.  I care about my students and my goal is to help them achieve their dreams, even if that simply means believing in them. I feel I have been given the opportunity to achieve my potential and I truly believe that sometimes children only need someone who is going to care enough to guide them and motivate them.

What do you love about teaching?

The best part of being a teacher is that I am also a student, I learn with my students. We grow together; we learn together, they motivate me to try new ways of teaching. At the end of the day, everything is worth it when I see my students’ academic and personal achievements. I love to hear my students say, “I got it!” during a math lesson. I love seeing them struggling to read and seeing them become fluent readers at the end of the school year.

When you were a student, was there a great teacher who inspired you?

Yes, definitely! I had great teachers that made a difference in my life. They saw something in me that I did not see at the time. They believed in me, they made me feel like they cared about me. I remember Ms. Morin in middle school, my ESL teacher, who pushed me to learn English and motivated me to speak English because I was a very shy student. Sgt. Claywell, my ROTC instructor, who knowing I was undocumented saw my potential and helped me write letters to congressmen trying to find a way for me to go to college. I thank these amazing teachers for believing in me.

Honoring Emily Grijalva


Emily Grijalva

High School English Teacher

Los Angeles, CA

Emily Grijalva roots her pedagogy in social justice and love. The youngest daughter of Central American immigrants, she has been an English teacher for 9 years. Currently, she teaches at Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School in Boyle Heights. She holds a B.A. in Sociology with an Education Studies Minor and a M.A. in Education with a Teaching Credential from UCLA. She also has a M.S. in School Counseling because she realized that her students needed social-emotional support as well as literacy skills. Emily received the United Way’s Inspirational Teacher award in 2014 and is a UCLA Writing Project Fellow. Along with teaching, she is a Restorative Justice Lead teacher, Students Run LA marathon leader, and works to engage parents and community members in supporting students’ education.

Why do you teach? I came to teaching when I realized how little I knew of my cultural heritage. Throughout my K-12 education, I did not read a single Latino/a author. I had studied very view historical events that included Latino/as. It was almost as if we did not exist. When I had the opportunity to attend college and I took my first Sociology course, I was finally able to learn about Latin American history. I quickly enrolled in Ethnic Literature and Latin American poetry courses. I remember getting goose bumps when I read my first bilingual literary piece. To see myself, my language, my cultural heritage woven into words being taught in an academic institution was awakening and affirming. I realized right then that it was unjust that I had to wait to college to learn about my heritage and decided to become an educator who would strive to make her curriculum culturally-relevant, inspiring and reflective of my school community.

What do you love about teaching? I am fortunate to witness my students discovering their voices and realizing that they are important contributors to society. I love that as an English teacher, I can incorporate art, music, theatre, and personal experiences along with the written word, and thus find multiple ways to engage youth and have them express themselves. Also, seeing students dream and work hard to make their dreams come true is a blessing.

When you were a student, was there a great teacher who inspired you? My 6th grade teacher, Mr. Haberstock went beyond the classroom to make sure I didn’t fall behind. As a child, I struggled with Math- and in that particular year, I became ill and would need to miss many days of school. Mr. Haberstock made it a point to come to my house afterschool and tutor me. I was able to keep up with the work and advance to the next math level. Now, I strive to be like him and always be mindful of my students’ realities and find ways to overcome obstacles that may keep them from learning.

Welcome Chief of Staff Michelle Moreno

IMG_3250The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (Initiative) welcomes Michelle Moreno to serve as Chief of Staff.

In this role, she works on driving the Initiative’s mission of increasing the Hispanic community’s educational attainment and outcomes through the development of key partnerships,  implementation of operations and capacity-building. Michelle most recently served in a predominantly Latino local school district in San Antonio, Texas working to ensure access to and expand the school district’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) initiatives. Through her leadership, she helped further opportunities for students to engage in STEM project-based learning experiences, robotics programs, and gain 21st century skills in order to foster a generation of “Engineers of Change.”

Prior to her work in San Antonio, Michelle was a Program Officer for the Migrant Education Program at the United States Department of Education in Washington, D.C. Her commitment to education opportunities and academic success was strengthened by the work done across the country to provide equitable and quality educational programs to migrant farmworker families. Also, Michelle proudly served in the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs to improve health care services and benefits for our nation’s veterans.

Michelle is the first member of her family to graduate from college. She earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biomedical Science from Texas A&M University and a Master of Arts Degree in Public Administration from American University.

Michelle can be reached via email at Michelle.Moreno@ed.gov.


#LatinosTeach, Honoring Cirilo Ojeda


Cirilo Ojeda

High School Math Teacher

Pasadena, TX

Cirilo Moreno Ojeda, Jr. is the oldest boy of 9 siblings. He has a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems Technology from the University of Houston and a Master of Education in Instruction Leadership from Lamar University. This is his eleventh year as a classroom teacher and football coach where he serves as the offensive coordinator. Ojeda’s roles have included teaching 7th Grade Math, Algebra I, Math Models, Independent Studies Math, and now his role is focused on closing the achievement gap as the Math Department Intervention Teacher at Pasadena High School.

He commits his time to the whole school with various roles over the years as the sponsor for the Senior Class, Young Knights’ Leadership Academy, and the Eagle Elite Fitness Club. His leadership roles have included being the Algebra I Team Leader, Rice University School Mathematics Project, Expectation Graduation, and the campus Eagle Vision Team member.

Ojeda’s current time is spent working with at-risk students throughout the campus and helping them get on track and stay on track to graduate high school. It is very challenging at times, but well worth the effort. Ojeda has been nationally honored by Omega Delta Phi Fraternity, Inc. as a Knight of the Round Table. He has raised over $10,000 for various groups that he works with on campus. He volunteers his time to the East End Eagles Youth Football organization and has worked with local area youth with the Houston Texans Youth Football Camp and camps hosted by Arian Foster and Brian Cushing.

Why do you teach?

I teach because I am the oldest boy of 9 siblings. I accepted this role at a very young age and it has always been my job to lead and take care of others. Adversity, my story, and my experiences drive me to make me who I am. I feel it’s a calling that I have answered and take very seriously. There is always something I can give and the best part is when I can learn something from a student that helps me be a better educator. I teach because I always believe that every day there is someone I need to have a conversation with to help them get through their day. I like to build positive relationships and show young people that they can achieve anything. I feel it is important to teach them that their background, heritage, or socioeconomic status are NOT excuses to fail, but tools to help them grow to become stronger and successful individuals.

What do you love about teaching?

What I love about teaching is the daily interactions that I have with students to help them grow as a person. There are many choices students are faced with and being able to help them reflect on what they do and what they could do better is what I love the most. The academic piece is easier to achieve when positive relationships are built, confidence increases and expectations are raised and raised again as the year goes on. I love seeing and hearing from my former students that find success with higher education, careers, and their family.

When you were a student, was there a great teacher who inspired you?

Deborah Nasir inspired me to be more than I believed myself to be. I was a student athlete and while the term says what it should be, she said I was her oxymoron because I was a football player but also in advanced classes, top 10% in my class, and in the National Honor Society. She never let me produce anything less in her class than the expectation she individually set for me and I am truly grateful for the inspiration to become an educator like her.

Honoring Mayra A. Lara


Mayra A. Lara

High School English Teacher

Maywood, CA

Mayra Lara is a high school English teacher who loves integrating literature to contemporary social issues. Mayra was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico and immigrated to the United States with her parents and older sister when she was three months old. She grew up in the Baldwin Village of Los Angeles and fondly remembers the apartment complex where she lived as it was filled with extraordinary people whose daily struggles were often dwarfed by urban sounds. Although the world outside of her complex was chaotic, the life her parents created for her and her siblings was rather calm. This background helps her create meaningful and lasting relationships with students so that they enter her classroom open to learning. Mayra received her B.A. in English Literature from California State University Long Beach where she also obtained her M.A. in Social and Cultural Analysis of Education. As a Teach Plus Policy Fellow, Mayra was featured in The Wall Street Journal and participated in a round table discussion with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. She is currently working on a doctoral degree in Educational Leadership for Social Justice at Loyola Marymount University and is enjoying applying theory to practice. In addition to teaching for nine years, Mayra has served as the English department chair, union representative, Students Run L.A. coach, adviser to several clubs, and was named Bell Teacher of the Year in 2014. Currently, she is working on helping to create safe spaces at her campus for young women to voice their dreams, fears, and aspirations

Why do you teach? I teach because growing up, school was one of my only safe spaces and I want to help create that for other students. I also love learning. I love sitting in classrooms and engaging in meaningful conversations with others and I think that I have learned more through dialoguing with my students over the years than they will ever learn from me.

What do you love about teaching? I love the sound of purposeful noise in my classroom just as much as I love the sound of awkward silence. I think that it’s during these times that the most important thinking and learning are happening. Most of all, though, what I love most about teaching is meeting young people, hearing their stories, and developing lasting student-teacher relationships

When you were a student, was there a great teacher who inspired you? Yes! Carlos Valverde was my high school AP Spanish teacher and one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. He always encouraged me to challenge myself academically as well as think about college as a reality even though, at that time, I was an undocumented student. I think more than anything, Dr. Valverde helped me understand the world around me and find my place in it.

Honoring Lessie Paugh Ortiz


Lessie Paugh Ortiz

High School ESOL Reading Teacher

Orlando, FL

From the tender age of six, Lessie Paugh Ortiz knew she wanted to become a teacher. She was quick to use any wall as a chalkboard and her siblings as pupils.  A 27-year veteran educator, she continues instilling her passion for language and reading to her high school students.  Today she proudly works at Freedom High School in Orlando, Florida as an ESOL reading teacher. Prior to assuming this role, Paugh Ortiz was an ESL teacher for 19-years in Puerto Rico.  Her commitment to education led her to support the work of the Project for Acquiring Language Mastery and Advanced Skills where she teaches adult learners twice a week. She also served in the Parent Leadership Council representing the Southwest Community. Lessie holds a Master’s degree in English as a Second Language from the University of Turabo and a Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez.

Why do I teach?

I have always known I wanted to be a teacher. I observed many of my teachers and emulated them – my siblings were my guinea pigs! Later on, I got the chance to help an English teacher with her first grade class. She explained what I needed to do. It was fun to see the students learn and practice the words in sentences. That was my “aha” moment that completely confirmed I wanted to be a teacher.

What do I love about teaching?

There are many moments that illustrate what I love about teaching. I love to interact with my students and see them accomplish significant benchmarks. I beam with pride when my students make literary reference to other books or authors. It is seeing the students’ progress long after they leave my class. It is seeing their eyes lit up because they start to believe in themselves.

When you were a student, was there a great teacher who inspired you?   

I was blessed to have many amazing teachers influence my life. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Bermúdez, was strict and ran a structured class, yet constantly demonstrated her endless patience. My family had just returned to Puerto Rico from the States and I did not speak Spanish at the time. Mrs. Bermúdez helped ease the transition. I learned to read, write and speak Spanish that year! In seventh grade, it was Mrs. Morales who taught English literature and made reading feel like an adventure. In high school, it was Miss Ortiz, my English teacher, who encouraged my reading and suggested that I teach. Many teachers inspired my teaching journey, and I continue to borrow from each of their methods and apply those methods in my classroom.