Creating a home for students

Las Animas Principal Silvia Reyes, left, works Thursday morning

Having bounced back and forth between Salinas and Oxnard as the
oldest of seven children in a migrant family, Silvia Reyes knows
what it’s like to feel out of place.
Having bounced back and forth between Salinas and Oxnard as the oldest of seven children in a migrant family, Silvia Reyes knows what it’s like to feel out of place.

“I was kind of the odd kid out all the time,” said the principal of Las Animas Elementary School and this year’s recipient of the Chamber of Commerce Educator of the Year award. “The ones that befriended me were the outsiders, the geeks, the ones who were not in the mainstream classes, who needed friends. I was looking for friends too.”

With more than two decades of experience teaching everyone from kindergartners to adults under her belt, Reyes has made a home for herself in the Gilroy Unified School District. Yet, she still remembers the lost feeling that washed over her each of the 16 times she and her family moved to a different school district or neighborhood to follow the lettuce, lemon, celery or strawberry crop. It’s a feeling that, if she can help it, none of her students should have to experience at Las Animas.

“I really do not like to see kids segregated,” she said, student artwork strung into a banner behind her on her office wall.

Programs created to unite students, despite their differences, and instill in them a deep respect for their diverse backgrounds thrive at Las Animas. The school educates students from 133 different cultures, as well as the district’s mobile migrant population – a group of children with which Reyes identifies closely – special needs students, gifted and talented children, and more than two hundred students enrolled in the school’s Dual Immersion program, in which instruction is done in both English and Spanish.

But for each of the 700 students that attend her school, Reyes has two priorities: collaboration and “kids come first.”

These goals have served her students well. Las Animas earned a high score of 814 on the state’s premiere standardized last year, and joins Luigi Aprea Elementary School as the only two elementary schools in the district to meet the state’s goal for student achievement. The school was also the recipient of the prestigious 2008 California Distinguished School Award and the Title I Academic Achievement Award.

Reyes never intended to become a teacher, she said. But after a few semesters of business classes at Hartnell College, Reyes “was going through that stage where I was asking myself, ‘Do I really want to do this?'” she said. “At that point I was lost.”

She even seriously considered becoming a nun. One particularly inspiring teacher, Agnes Crawford, pulled Reyes aside and asked if she had ever thought of teaching.

“I never had before,” Reyes said. “I knew I wanted to make an impact though.”

That suggestion by her own teacher set Reyes’ life on a new track.

“The impact we have on children is tremendous,” she said, remembering how one passing comment she made to a second grade boy about his handsome sweater made him not want to take it off for days. “We don’t even realize the power that we have. Even these small comments stay with them in their memories for a lifetime.”

Reyes stuck out as one of Gilroy’s “quiet leaders,” said Susan Valenta, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce. “Everyone I talked to spoke so highly of her.”

“I want to preface this by saying that our educators are phenomenal,” Valenta said. “That being said, this was a difficult decision. But from her start as a bracero to becoming an accomplished educator and role model … it speaks volumes about her leadership.”

The mother of three recently celebrated her 24th wedding anniversary with her husband and has sent two children off to college. Her third child is a ninth grader at Gilroy High School. Juggling her professional and home lives gets hectic at times, but her passion for teaching and working with children keeps her going and almost brings tears to her eyes when she talks about her work.

“Mrs. Reyes has been an inspirational role model in many ways,” said fourth and fifth grade teacher Patricia Mondragón. “With her leadership, there is no job that can’t be done.”

Other parents and teachers who nominated Reyes for Educator of the Year agreed.

“I remember my first impressions of Principal Reyes,” said Diana Wolf Torres, the mother of a second grader. “I thought she was straightforward and plain spoken. Even though Las Animas had made impressive academic gains over the previous seven years, she was still one of the most humble people I’d ever met.”

Reyes said she was shocked when she learned of the award.

“It’s just an honor that the people around me think that highly of me,” Reyes said. “That to me means more than anything else.”

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