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Passion fuels success at McGrath

Elementary school has won awards for teaching Spanish-speaking, poverty-stricken students

Posted: December 29, 2008 8:27 p.m.
Updated: December 30, 2008 4:55 a.m.

Fifth-grade students at McGrath Elementary School walk toward the theater at Edwards Cinema in the Valencia Town Center.

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The McGrath Elementary School staff is beating the odds, said Newhall School District Superintendent Marc Winger.

And for good reason: Passion has been fueling the success of the multiple-award-winning school that teaches a largely Spanish-speaking and poverty-stricken student population.

"I'm a Spanish-speaker myself (as a first language), and I know what it means for them (to speak English) because I used to be them. I am them," said Joseph Soqui, fourth-grade teacher. "I can relate to my students. They remind me of me, of my cousin, of my friends."

Soqui grew up in a California coastal community that shares a poor Latino population and he shared a childhood much like those of his students.

"I feel like I am that child from a few years ago," he said. "I understand them. I know what type of TV shows they watch, what they do on the weekends, why their eyes are swollen after a night of not sleeping. There is nothing they go through at home that I have not been through."

Of Soqui's 26 fourth-grade students, 55 percent are Spanish-as-a-first-language students. More than three-quarters of the school's combined student body is classified as poverty-stricken.

The fact his students face life struggles at an early age does not leave Soqui feeling powerless to change the future of his students.

"We don't use our environment to explain our problems. We teach how to work with that to our advantage," he said. "If kids truly believe you have their best interest at heart they will travel to the moon and back for you."

Students know McGrath leaders have high expectations for everyone, even for kids who are new to the country.

"Those kids are the same as the ones that were born here," Soqui said.

Third-grade teachers Karla Valenzuela and Nell Soto make home visits to any parent of a third-grader willing to allow it.

So far, the two women have personally visited 80 percent of the third grade at student homes.

"Students are so astonished that we can even go into their house," Valenzuela said. "We know where they live, who plays with who."

Reaching out door to door is an educational tool that joins parents and teachers in a relationship that benefits the student, the women said.

"We went to each house and were able to do a good amount of talking to parents," Valenzuela said. "Parents don't like to say much in conferences, and when we are in class we don't see the circumstances they have at home."

Teacher home visits offer a valuable perspective, she said.

"Visiting the student and knowing his background helps me give more consideration, but I still have to manage the classroom appropriately," she said.

Valenzuela and Soto were specially trained to know how to reach out to parents without intimidating them.
At the first home meeting, Valenzuela and Soto don't talk about grades. They talk about family. Parents are more than willing to share their lives, Valenzuela said.

"We've noticed that those children we've visited have better completion of their homework because they know what to expect. Their parents are so thankful," Valenzuela said. "The kids have been emphasizing how important it is (that we visit them) and they are more interested in school."

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