#LatinosTeach, Recognizing Jonathon Acosta


Jonathon is a passionate educator who sees his work as inextricably tied to social justice. Growing up in a low-income, single-parent household, his mother had a daily mantra: “If you get a good education, you can have any life you choose.” She made it clear that this was the only way to be truly successful. After graduating from Brown University, Acosta served as a 2011 Teach for America Corps member in his hometown of Miami. In his first year teaching, Mr. Acosta’s students were 100% proficient on their End-of-Course Algebra exam and in his second year teaching, his students were 93% proficient. He coached the first-ever wrestling team at his school which produced a second place district winner, a first place district winner and a third place county winner. Jonathon spent two years teaching eighth grade math and Algebra 1 Honors in Miami Dade County before relocating to Blackstone Valley Prep in Rhode Island where he taught eighth grade math before his promotion to Dean of Culture. Jonathon is currently enrolled in the Masters of Urban Education Policy at Brown University.

Why do you teach? When I was 10 years old I was publicly removed from my fifth period class and told I couldn’t take a gifted math class because I wasn’t labeled as “Gifted and Talented.” What the counselor didn’t acknowledge was that I had spent first grade living in Colombia with my grandmother and never had the opportunity to take the test. In response to this cruel exercise of policy, my teacher started to sneak me into her classroom for 6 months while she fed my grades to my supposed teacher. At the end of that time, she stormed into the office and demanded that I be tested. She said that she knew what she had done was illegal but that I deserved the opportunity to learn. I was taken aback by the risk that this teacher had taken for me. Mrs. Earle changed my life. Years later when I was graduating from an Ivy League university I knew I had a debt to pay. I teach for all the kids like me who just deserve an opportunity. I teach math in honor of Mrs. Earle.

What do you love about teaching? I love thinking. There is nothing more powerful than the ability and freedom to think. Our thoughts turn to actions that can change the world. By teaching our youth to think, we can empower them to change the world. I want to help change the world.

When you were a student, was there a great teacher who inspired you? Mrs. Earle’s impact is described above. When I was in high school my life was generally unstable. Economic insecurity, family insecurity, and teenage anxiety combined for a combustible angry brown youth. One day I went to school looking for a problem. Earlier that morning I had found my mother crying in the kitchen over the complicated birth of my cousin. I went to school with a chip on my shoulder. In class, Mrs. Scott immediately noticed something was wrong. Instead of kicking me out of class for not doing work or being unresponsive she responded by talking to me. She validated my frustration and gave me a shoulder to cry on. She built me back up and encouraged me to be brave. Years later Mrs. Scott wrote my college recommendation and included our exchange. She recounted the event as an exercise of my strength and bravery. What she didn’t realize was that her bravery had inspired mine. Working together made me better. That is a large part of why I teach; because we work and grow along with our kids.

#LatinosTeach, Recognizing Gisela Marisol Castillo


Gisela Marisol Castillo is a founding teacher at E.L. Haynes Public Charter High School in Washington D.C. and has been teaching for 11 years. She grew up in San Antonio, TX and was raised by an incredibly dedicated Mexican mother and father. They emphasized the importance of education and instilled in Marisol the desire to achieve. Through their support, Marisol earned a B.A. in comparative literature and political science with honors in education at Stanford University. Her experiences as an English language learner as well as those that stem from coming from a traditionally undeserved background, motivated her to teach. To that end, she obtained a Master’s degree in education and her teaching credential through Stanford’s School of Education. She taught 9th through 12th grade for four years in California’s Bay Area in an urban setting. In 2009 she received her National Board Certification. She then taught at a small high school for three years in the South Bronx. In 2011 she joined E.L. Haynes PCS’s high school in Washington, D.C. where she taught 9th grade for three years and is currently teaching 12th grade English and serves as department chair. She was a member of Teach Plus’s inaugural Washington, D.C. Teaching Policy Fellowship.

Why do you teach? I teach because my students serve as a constant motivation to get better.

What do you love about teaching? I love that teaching is never boring. I love that it constantly invites the practice of reflection and revision.

When you were a student, was there a great teacher who inspired you? The teachers that inspired me were those that gave me access to a world beyond my own, who motivated me to get out of my comfort zone so that I could struggle and grow.

#LatinosTeach, Recognizing Edwin Castillo


Edwin Castillo is a product of two Mexican immigrants that arrived in the U.S. in the 70’s. Thanks to their support and motivation, he was able to achieve a Bachelor’s degree in Math and a Masters in Teaching from University of California, Irvine. After college, he spent the first seven years of his career teaching math in urban schools. As a teacher, he was able to positively impact the lives of thousands of students. He is deeply passionate about creating systemic and progressive change in underserved communities and believes the best way to do that is through empowering youth. He is now in his ninth year in the field of education as the Dean of Students at Simon Technology Academy HS in Watts, Los Angeles. As a school administrator, he is able to take a more global approach to helping students and teachers be successful. As a former student of the hood, he knows what it took to rise up against adversity and promote that to his students on a daily basis. In his free time he enjoys watching and playing basketball and dabbles in acrylic painting.

Why do you teach? As a youngster I admired my teachers. They symbolized the person I wanted to be. I teach because I feel it is my duty to give back to communities that provided me with the opportunity to have a happy life.

What do you love about teaching? The kids. Creating those meaningful connections is the name of the game. I got in the teaching game to help kids, but in reality, they are the ones that motivate me. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

When you were a student, was there a great teacher who inspired you? My 11th grade physics teacher, Dr. Reynolds, had an unmatched passion for science and math that stuck with me throughout college and career. I owe him a great deal of gratitude for his guidance. He is the teacher I strived to be.

#LatinosTeach, Recognizing Angelina Sáenz


Angelina Sáenz, M.Ed. piloted the acclaimed Aldama Elementary Dual Language program in Northeast LA in 2008 and served as the lead teacher of the program from 2009-2013. She has worked with the Los Angeles Unified School District for fifteen years. She provides school based support in elementary writing as a Teacher Consultant and fellow of the UCLA Writing Project. She is a grant writer who has secured more than $100,000 in grant money for teachers at Aldama. Voted the “Highland Park-Mt. Washington Person of the Year of 2012” she also received the 2014 La Opinion Exceptional Woman Award for her work in Education. Saenz was a finalist for the Commitment to Excellence Award as a Champion of Change with President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. She served on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council and has worked on educational policy as a Teach Plus Fellow. She is a mother of two boys who are LAUSD students at Aldama Elementary as well. She is a poet who has been published in university journals and online. She graduated from Occidental College in 1998, with a B.A. in Theater and Anthropology and received her Master’s in Education in 2001 from Claremont Graduate University.

Why do you teach?  I teach because I am deeply invested in the future of the next generation of stewards of this country and planet. I believe that the 180 days of life that students spend in my class can impact and forever change their lives in a positive way, so that they will remember a positive educational experience that affirmed their humanity and was a valuable use of their time.

What do you love about teaching?  What I love about teaching is the number of families and children that I am able to have a positive effect on. After fifteen years of teaching, I can say that I have spent time with hundreds of families, affirming their cultural and linguistic identities, encouraging them to use the path of education to improve their lives and the lives of their children, and to encourage them to advocate for their needs and access to opportunities. I cannot think of a career that would provide me with this level of access to the daily lives of ordinary people.

When you were a student, was there a great teacher who inspired you?  A teacher who had a tremendous and long-lasting influence in my life was during my undergrad years at Occidental College. His name is Jamie Angell, and he supported me through the difficult transition of coming from a poverty-stricken, violent and unstable community, to the privileged campus of Occidental. Mr. Angell helped me to cope with the transition, sharing his own difficult experiences of being a working-class student at an Ivy League university, encouraging me to do well in school, for the sake of my community and my ancestors, and providing me with the emotional and academic skills to navigate a university campus dominated by wealth and rigorous academic standards. I do believe that a big reason that I graduated from Occidental College is because of the faithful friendship and encouragement of Mr. Angell.

#LatinosTeach, Recognizing David Upegui


David Upegui, MA, is a science teacher at his alma mater, Central Falls High School and adjunct professor of Biology at Rhode Island College. David was selected as a state finalist for The Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2015. Recipient of the National Association of Biology Teacher’s Evolution Education Award: 2014, Rhode Island College Alumni Honor Roll Award – Faculty of Arts & Science: 2014, National Science Teachers Association Shell Science Lab Challenge: District 1: 2014, Amgen Award for Science Teaching Excellence: 2013, Latino Public Radio: Outstanding Achievement: 2013 and Rhode Island Department of Education Golden Apple: 2012. He started the Science Olympiad team and runs an after-school science club.

Why do you teach?  I teach because I have come to appreciate education (especially science education) as the avenue for lasting social justice. It is when students are empowered to ask questions and demand publicly verifiable data that they begin to understand their own true potential. Education is not exclusively about content delivery; when done wholeheartedly, education is about forming and shaping a person to become a full participant in the human experience. Lastly, I teach because others have educated me and encouraged me to become an academic.

What do you love about teaching?  Over the years I have seen students reach their dreams. From the poorest school in Rhode Island, students have pursued their dreams in some of the most academically demanding programs in the world (MIT, Harvard, Brown Med, Tufts, Naval Academy, etc.). Moreover, student success cannot be measured exclusively by the few, instead I cherish the fact that a large majority of my students have a deeper understanding of the natural world and a greater respect for themselves. I begin all my classes telling students that there is nothing I can do to make them great – because they already are GREAT. My job then becomes that of a mirror that allows them to see their greatness via the academic challenges I pose for them. I love their reactions when they realize that I was correct and that they in fact, have greatness coursing through their blood.

When you were a student, was there a great teacher who inspired you?  All my mentors teach through me. I often catch myself repeating a concept in the same way that my professors in college explained it (for example, the “tube within a tube” body plan). There have been so many teachers that inspired me that I cannot list them here (in fear I will exclude any of them). Furthermore, what set them apart from other teachers was their fundamental belief that I deserved and had the capacity to learn. Those instrumental teachers treated me as a capable learner rather than just as a poor, smelly, hairy Latino kid from the barrio.


#LatinosTeach, Recognizing Irene Castillon


Irene Castillon is the proud daughter of Celedonio and Consuelo Castillon; both of whom she considers her greatest teachers. Although they don’t have a high school or college degree they have taught her lessons of resiliency, sacrifice and humility. Irene received a Bachelor’s in Education from Brown University and her Master’s in Education from Stanford University. Irene is currently the founding Academic Dean and Mexican-American history teacher at the Luis Valdez Leadership Academy (LVLA) in east San Jose; a charter school managed by the Foundation for Hispanic Education. Irene is collaborating with Stanford Professor Albert Camarillo to plan the Mexican-American history course with the goal of creating an on-line portal where other teachers will be able to access the course content. As a first-generation college graduate who shares a similar background to the students in east San Jose, she feels fortunate and humbled to work in a community to which she feels such a close connection. LVLA is committed to providing a rigorous academic program designed to instill a lifelong passion for learning and to equip students with the skills for social and academic success at four-year colleges, universities and local community colleges.

Why do you teach?  Each day, my students are the proof that I was not the “exception to the rule.” The “rule” embedded in some people’s stereotypical beliefs that Latinos from low-socioeconomic backgrounds living in urban areas are not expected to achieve academically because they end up pregnant or involved in gangs. My students defy statistics with every question that they pose, with every essay that they write and with every college application they submit. I remember sitting at my Brown commencement, eager to start the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) and being excited about the hope that one day one of my students would be sitting in a classroom at Brown. Three years ago, I read the same opening line of a Brown acceptance letter, but this time it was addressed to Julia, one of my students. Again, I felt the overwhelming feeling of joy as she hugged me and told me that she had been accepted. Julia was the first person from her high school to apply to Brown and get accepted. She is the first person in her family to graduate from high school and attend college. While in high school, Julia, her mother and her younger brothers were homeless. Through everything, Julia remained focused on her college going goal. When Julia graduates from college in two years, she will break the cycle of poverty in her family and change her family’s trajectory forever. Julia has expressed that after graduation she wants to return to San Jose as either a science teacher or a computer science engineer. I teach because education creates change; because I believe that education has the power to transform not just a student, but families, communities and societies.

What do you love about teaching?  I love teaching because I get to see the breakthroughs that students make on a daily basis. I love when students question and challenge the status quo through class discussions; I love to see them believe that they can change the trajectory of the trends of injustice that they encounter. Forging relationships and genuine connections with students and families over time is at the center of my practice. I love getting invited to students’ quinceañeras or family parties and seeing the school and the home, two worlds that students often see as clashing, become one-harmoniously.

When you were a student, was there a great teacher who inspired you?  Ms. Scambray, my AP Literature teacher challenged me to dream big; she supported me along my college journey- from proofreading my personal statements, to walking me through how to fill out my FAFSA to letting me borrow her credit card to pay for college applications due to my family’s financial circumstances. She was a teacher that believed in me when I was ready to give up on myself; she was the teacher that made me want to be someone’s Ms. Scambray.

#LatinosTeach, Recognizing Jesus Martinez


Growing up, Jesus Martinez never thought he would end up as an educator; his journey into education was one of fate. He attended Southern Methodist University and graduated with a degree in English Lit. His goal was to work for a year and then attend law school and become an attorney and eventually start his own law firm. He decided to work a year as a teacher in Dallas Independent School District (ISD); he was hired on as an 8th grade English teacher and soccer coach.

His first day in the classroom changed his life; he realized he wanted to be an educator and completely scrapped his previous plans. Jesus then moved on to teach 10th grade in Dallas ISD and eventually went to Arlington ISD’s Alternative Education School where he was awarded First Year Hero Teacher of the Year. In that setting, he was teaching students that were constantly in trouble and had been removed from the regular educational setting. It was challenging and fun, because those are the types of students that need the most help academically and socially. He was at that school for 5 years, and then went on to teach Advanced Placement English Language at a charter school, Peak Preparatory.

This setting presented a different kind of challenge: teaching high school juniors, mainly low-income, English Language Learners, a college-level course. It ended up a very successful year, with 25% of his students eligible for college credit in English and 100% of them going to college upon graduation. He completed his Masters in Educational Administration from University of North Texas that year, and began his journey as an administrator. He began by doing summer school at Peak Preparatory and was then hired on at Jack E. Singley Academy in Irving ISD as Dean of Students. He learned a lot my first year in an administrator role and proceeded to work as assistant principal for Irving ISD Summer School Program. He was then hired on at Irving High School, and is now in his second year as Assistant Principal in charge of Advanced Placement courses, Languages other than English, Visual Arts and GT programs.

Why do you teach?  I believe that teaching is a calling; it is something that some people do because they are passionate about their content and about our students. It is a profession that is rewarding and fulfilling beyond any paycheck or accolade. One gets to change the world by inspiring young people to follow their dreams, one gets to guide young people into greatness. Given my background and upbringing, I also feel that I teach by serving as a positive role model and offering guidance and mentoring to the many students I have served throughout my career.

What do you love about teaching?  I love that every day is unpredictable, I love the variety that education provides and I love being inspired by our youth that work hard and overcome great odds to become successful students. It is truly a profession that keeps one young.

When you were a student, was there a great teacher who inspired you?  I was fortunate enough to have many great educators in my life that had the patience and wisdom to put up with my rambunctious behavior. Mr. Correa was my high school English teacher and he was an inspiration due to his fun and funny presentation of the material; he is still teaching to this day because he loves what he does. I even called upon him to provide some guidance when I began teaching AP English; he was glad to help and offered me resources and advice – living proof that a teacher is a teacher for life.

#LatinosTeach, Recognizing Lilliana Pedraza


Lilliana Pedraza is a Special Education Teacher at Francisca Alvarez Elementary School in McAllen, TX. She has been teaching for the past 6 years within the Rio Grande Valley. This includes 3 years as a Spanish Dual-Language Teacher in grades 1st- 3rd. As a Spanish Dual- Language Teacher, she provided effective classroom instruction so that learning was maximized for all students including English Language Learners, as well as students with Learning Disabilities. She has utilized International Baccalaureate to help develop inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring students through highly effective teaching practices. The other 3 years have been as a Self-Contained Special Education Teacher with students in grades 1st through 5th who have Intellectual Disabilities, Autism, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and Hearing Impairments.

Lilliana’s strength and determination stems from growing up with her mother in a single parent home with scarce resources. Her mother did everything within her power to instill strong beliefs and values so that Lilliana could have a much better way of life. Lilliana received her Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies with a Minor in Special Education from the University of Texas- Pan American in 2009. She graduated with her Master’s in Education Administration from Lamar University in May 2015. She has since registered for the Reading Specialist Certification Program through Sul Ross State University. Lilliana has formed excellent relationships with colleagues, parents, and members of the community. She recently participated in McAllen ISD’s Mid-Management Roundtable for aspiring assistant principals. Lilliana has also served as the Intra-District Educational Assembly Representative, International Baccalaureate Leadership Team Representative, and Math Vertical Team Representative for her campus. Her greatest strengths include inspiring and motivating students and teachers. She firmly believes that better educational decisions are made through active participation, effective communication and collaboration. Lilliana strives to continue bettering herself in an effort to be a great role model for her students, and an inspiration to her colleagues.

Why do you teach?  I have always known that I wanted to make a difference in the lives of students. I began my educational career as a Special Education Paraprofessional 13 years ago and thoroughly enjoyed working with students, and watching them grow academically. I have had the opportunity to work with hundreds of students throughout my years in education and have learned that sadly many times we are the only role models they have to look up to. I teach to inspire, motivate, and give my students the love and understanding that they need.

What do you love about teaching?  I love watching my students learn, and grow academically as well as socially. As a Special Education Teacher I have embraced every opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the lives of my students. I have learned to never take anything for granted and to appreciate the smallest things in life. Nothing makes me happier than to see the joy in my students’ faces when they have accomplished a goal that they have worked so hard towards achieving.

When you were a student, was there a great teacher who inspired you?  My 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Lilia Guerra was my greatest inspiration. She made learning so much fun, and always gave it her all to ensure that we were successful. She provided us with so many wonderful learning opportunities that I still treasure dearly. She was that one teacher that you always remember because she was absolutely wonderful and genuinely loved teaching.


#LatinosTeach, Recognizing Angel Acosta


Angel Acosta was born in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico, which is known for their leather industry. Due to economic circumstances, his family immigrated to Southern California when he was four years old. Despite growing up and struggling through poverty at an early age, his parents would always tell him to focus on his schoolwork so that he could go to college. He focused on his parents’ advice despite various economic and educational struggles that came from living in under-resourced communities. He ended up going to college and received a Bachelor of Arts in criminal justice and a Master of Arts in political science from California State University Fullerton.

Interested in helping his community, he decided to begin a career in teaching. Currently he is working towards a second master’s degree in special education from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is a special education teacher at Manual Arts High School teaching mathematics to 9th and 10th grade students. As a teacher, he works diligently to authentically understand his students’ academic and emotional needs. He further strives to help them understand and liberate their own potential in the process of learning and creating knowledge.

Why do you teach?

I teach with the goal of empowering students to take hold of their education and become self-advocates who will strive to succeed regardless of the ecological and social limitations placed on them.

What do you love about teaching?

I enjoy working with students with diverse needs who are bright, intelligent, but are usually misunderstood.

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

My brother was a great teacher that inspired me. He taught in the Bronx and in South Los Angeles. I saw him teach with great passion and humility, and even though some days he seemed exhausted, he never gave up on his students.


#LatinosTeach, Recognizing Bianca Belmonte-Sapien


Bianca Belmonte-Sapien became a National Board Certified Teacher out of her passion for history and politics and a desire to work in her community to serve Hispanic students who are struggling language learners. Over her 16 year career, she has taught incarcerated students and credit recovery online students, many of whom have dropped out of high school. She inspires at-risk students to be active participants in the world around them.

She received the ING Unsung Heroes Award and the PNM Foundation Grant in 2005, and hasn’t stopped writing grants for her students. She recently received the Bill of Rights Constitutional Connections grant to analyze the impact of spying on America’s values. With empathy and compassion, she uses technology, accessible texts, hands-on activities and high interest topics to push her students to excel. As a social studies and English language arts teacher, she develops inquiry from her experiences at conferences and as a CSPAN Summer Workshop Teacher, a two-time Gilder Lehrman Summer Seminar participant, and from being a committee member of the National Council for the Social Studies. She has shared her craft as a curriculum writer for the Bill of Rights Institute, Albuquerque’s Tricentennial Celebration, and the Albuquerque Teacher’s Institute. While in the classroom, she has also mentored teachers at every stage, especially those seeking state or national board licensure. In this role, she helps countless students as a teacher of teachers. Next year, she will teach exclusively with our virtual online high school preparing students to use technology in every aspect of learning.

Why do you teach?

I teach to make sure all kids have a chance to live the dream. Whatever they want to be, they need a teacher who believes in them, connects with them through their respective cultures and shows compassion for their stories. At-risk language learners need to graduate high school and continue their education to escape the cycle of poverty, garner higher wages and live out their life path.

What do you love about teaching?

I love connecting ideas with my students through language, culture, pictures, art and technology. Asking the right questions gets my students excited about learning and I love to see them work hard in a fun and positive environment. I love to make them laugh because I listen to the same music or watch the same shows and can share a fun experience with them even when their environment could be so negative.

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

Chicha Lynch, my Algebra teacher from middle school. She would not let me give up even when I struggled and did not understand. She would always help me and expected me to do well.