Latino educators talk about choosing CCS, why they have stayed
More than 60 years of combined educational experience was at the table when Title I and Migrant Education Specialist Orlando Hernandez, Siler City Elementary teacher William Ureña and Siler City Elementary ESL teacher Mr. Alirio Estevez sat down to talk about their careers. In addition to having a love for education in common, all three also share the experience of immigrating to the U.S. from other countries. In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, they came together with Assistant Superintendent Dr. Kelly Batten to talk about why they chose Chatham and why they have devoted so much of their careers to Chatham County Schools.
Ureña, who has been in Chatham County for 21 years, initially came to the U.S. through an exchange program. He chose Chatham County because he wanted something rural that wasn’t too far from a city. He liked the area, but decided not to stay after about a year-and-a-half. He returned to the district, though, when he heard about an ESL position at Bonlee.
At Bonlee, he said he felt respected and there was interest in serving ESL students. He was able to help alter some perceptions in his new role. There was a notion some people held that if a student didn’t speak English, he or she had learning difficulties. Children were being referred to Exceptional Children’s services, when it was actually a language barrier. He helped address the issue and educate people about the role the language barrier was playing in children’s learning.
He next became the Parent Involvement Coordinator with the district, which is where he began working with parents. He helped them understand how things like kindergarten and report cards were structured in the U.S., which differed from their home countries. He helped them be part of their child’s learning experience. “That kept me motivated,” he said.
He was part of the Strategic Plan Committee and helped get migrant families involved in the process so the plan would reflect their experiences and perspectives.
He eventually wanted to return to the classroom and came back to Siler City Elementary. That’s when he encountered the district’s dual-language program. “Once I saw it, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’” That was 10 years ago.
He’s been courted by other school districts over the years, but he’s chosen not to leave.
“It is hard to teach, there are challenges, but our kids are good. Our kids are what make us want to do this. They listen. They make connections. Our kids — they need opportunity. There are opportunities for them here that are aligned to what they need. I have roots here. I am not in a hurry to leave. … The kids make it a great place to work. The kids are the ones that feed me, that make me feel like, yes, we’re doing something.”
Ureña says the students aren’t all that has kept him in Chatham County.
“It’s the adults, colleagues and administration. When you are treated as a human being first, that keeps you here. When you see that people care for you, you want to be there. It gives you the strength to go through the hard times because you know you can reach out. It makes a difference. You want to be appreciated. That’s what kept me here.”
Estevez has been with the district about seven years. He was very intentional in choosing Chatham. After reading about the district and schools that boasted 70% of students were Latino, “I said I want to go there. He also was drawn by the dual-language program. “This was a place where I could do something.”
The sense of community has been important for Estevez.
“I love the kids, the way they behave, the connections, the families. It’s so great to work with the families.”
He’s also chosen to stay at Siler City Elementary because of the environment the school’s principal has created.
“One of the reasons I’m staying here is because of Mrs. Poston. The way she connects with the kids … she cares about the children and for me, that’s important. It’s not all about data. We’re here for the kids, we see the kids like human beings, not numbers.”
Estevez also praised the dual-language program, which the district offers at certain schools in grades K-12. Both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking students participate in the program and become fluent in both languages.
He has ideas to further grow the program and benefit the district, suggesting in the future, perhaps there could be college scholarships for students in the dual-language tied to them returning to Chatham to teach, like the Teaching Fellows program.
“I want to see more Latinos here in our schools as teachers. I want to see students who have the experience of being here. The students have already experienced our school system, so when they start teaching here, they would already have that advantage.”
Estevez plans to continue to be a part of Chatham County Schools and his students’ lives.
“I stayed here because I love this school. I love the children. I love the community, I enjoy my colleagues and love the culture of this school. I love the connection the school has with the families.”
Hernandez has worked for Chatham County Schools for 14 years, but his interaction with the district started earlier than that.
When he worked for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, he was part of a program tasked with counting migrant students. He came to Chatham to teach people about the program. In 2000, DPI leaders asked if he would be interested in working for multiple school systems in a different capacity. He managed 50 counties, with Chatham being among them. There were great ESL policies, and the migrant programs he was working with were some of the best in the country.
When Hernández decided to leave DPI, he began to do contract work with different school districts, including Chatham. Eventually, though, his role with Chatham grew. Fourteen years later, Hernández is still with the district. He still works with federal programs, including Title I. “Time flies when you’re having fun,” he said.
The work Hernández has spent the bulk of his career doing is rewarding, he said.
“I always dealt one-to-one with migrant families trying to advocate for them.”
CCS is deeply grateful for the enrichment and advocacy Hernández, Estevez, Ureña and so many others have brought to the district through their heritage, culture and experiences. We celebrate their contributions not just this month, but every month.