Former TFA teacher stands for equitable education for Latino students

Teach for America is the national nonprofit organization committed to the idea that one day, all children will attain an excellent education. To this end, the organization partners with communities to inspire the next generation of leaders to address unequal educational opportunities that fall along the lines of race and class. They begin this lifelong work with an initial two-year commitment to teach in some of the nation’s most underserved schools. In this series, we spotlight current and past corps member teachers working in the Valley.

Alicia Reyna was a 2004 corps member at Teach For America. She continues to work in the RGV as a member of TFA’s national Human Assets team. She is also a member of the Donna ISD school board.

What motivated you to apply to join Teach For America and choose to teach in the Rio Grande Valley?
When I was a senior in college at Texas A&M, I learned about Teach For America from my college counselor. She handed me a brochure that said, “Educational equity is our generation’s civil rights issue.” That idea and the vision of Teach For America inspired me and spoke to my desire to do something that really mattered — to dedicate my work and efforts toward making our country more just and equitable for all.

I chose to teach in the Rio Grande Valley because I wanted to work with predominantly Latino/Hispanic students and growing up with a mother from Mexico, I knew I wanted to do something that would advance the Latino community in this country. I had visited the RGV previously through an organization at Texas A&M and I was excited about the possibilities of living on the border and in a rural community versus teaching in a big city. I was really inspired by the work happening in Donna in the 1990s that made them a leader in dual language education.

Where did you teach and what grade and subject(s)?
I taught seventh and then eighth grade Science at Sauceda Middle School in Donna. I remember teaching the first group of eighth graders that were to take the TAKS Science test.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned about education during your time as a classroom leader?
One surprising thing I learned was just how far behind many students were when they came into seventh and eighth grade. Going in, I was prepared for the fact that students wouldn’t all be on grade level. However, after I began to understand the reading, writing, and mathematical abilities of my students and how some students are multiple grade levels behind, it really made the issue of educational equity concrete and put faces and names to those words. Students were behind not because of their potential, ability or desire — it was truly a failure of the education system to provide children what they needed to reach their best.

As a classroom teacher, I saw firsthand how the intersection of various systems, policies and practices in our country impacted children and families in a very tangible way.

If you could have changed one thing for your students, what would it be?
I was continuously inspired by the resilience, tenacity, and incredible potential students possess despite different challenges that may face them. Therefore, if I could change one thing for students, I would create a system that allowed each child to get a rigorous education that is motivating, caringw and inspiring and that would lead them to have all the options and possibilities they could choose for their future. I want our children and their families to be supported and cared for at all levels of the system.

At a time when more people recognize the inequity of education in public schools, Teach For America has an important role to play. What do you view as Teach For America’s role in creating systemic change?
I view TFA’s role in creating systemic change as finding, developing and supporting the incredible leadership that is needed and required to really transform the many systems and institutions that are a part of educating the students in this country. Teach For America is essential in inspiring the next generation of leaders to join the movement for educational equity.

How are you engaged currently in the fight for educational equity?
There are a couple key ways I am currently working towards educational equity. I work on the Human Assets team at Teach For America where I focus on building the leadership and management skills of our staff members to make their greatest impact through our mission. In addition, I also serve on the local school board of Donna ISD, which is the district I taught in as a corps member. Along with my fellow school board members, we have dedicated our efforts to transforming our mindsets, behaviors, and actions, to directly impact and focus on students outcomes. We were named an exemplary cohort of Lone Star Governance by the Texas Education Agency this year.

Can you share an anecdote or personal experience from your work in this field?
Deputy Education Commissioner A.J. Crabill said, “Student outcomes don’t change until adult behaviors change.” When I was a classroom teacher through TFA, one of our core values was learning and continuously improving and that was based on the skill of self-reflection which was what drove me to continue to change what I was doing so that I could strengthen my work as a teacher and offer more opportunities for learning for my students. This quote also describes what I focus on both as a school board member and working in Human Assets. Outcomes for students change when adult mindsets and behaviors change. As we adjust what we are doing as adults and ensure the decisions we are making and how we are making them truly is what centers on students, we change the system to work for our children and take down the barriers that keep them from reaching their full potential.