Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Teacher plants higher-education seed

Michelle De La Rosa | San Antonio Express-News

Manuel Guerrero is only 10, but ask him what he wants to be when he grows up, and he'll say, without skipping a beat, that he wants to be a surgeon.

Mary Barrera-Gomez, his fifth-grade teacher at Forbes Elementary School, would like to think she influenced his decisiveness. She's been Guerrero's teacher since kindergarten and has plied him and his classmates with can-do messages.

In fact, she's taught most of his classmates — some have moved away over the years since kindergarten or first grade and has gotten to know them in a way most teachers can't in just one year.

Outside of school, she routinely takes students' calls and attends basketball games and weddings. In the classroom, she's taught them that hard work and critical thinking will serve them well in life. And now, in her final year with them, she wants to leave her students with the most important lesson of all.

"That last piece of my plan is to plant that seed in them to pursue higher education," Barrera-Gomez said.

But she needs help. The San Antonio Independent School District gives schools $1 per student for field trips each year. That's about $400 a year for Forbes, Principal Anselma Chase said. Teachers and students raise additional money when they want to take trips. Barrera-Gomez is hoping one or more sponsors will step up to help pay the transportation costs to local colleges and to the University of Texas at Austin.

"I want to give them a blend of several colleges so they can start thinking and aspiring about which one they want to go to," Barrera-Gomez said.

She will end her 29-year career as an educator when she retires at the end of this school year, after seeing her students off to middle school. Barrera-Gomez herself has college plans: She hopes to earn a doctorate in history.

Her journey with the students began in 2002, when she returned to the classroom. She had been Forbes' instructional coordinator and knew, in detail, what every child was expected to learn at each grade level.

She wondered whether that would give her an edge in preparing students for the state's standardized test, which is based on the state curriculum. Barrera-Gomez decided to experiment and began with a group of kindergartners. At the end of every year, Chase gave Barrera-Gomez permission to move up a grade with her students — a practice called "looping."

Looping in elementary grades typically is done for two consecutive years, not six.

Academically, Barrera-Gomez's students did better than other SAISD fourth-graders in reading and math. Ninety percent of her students passed the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills reading and 86 percent passed math, compared with 79 percent district wide.

But 84 percent of her students passed writing, compared with 91 percent district wide.

Over the years, though, Barrera-Gomez said her focus shifted to producing well-rounded students. She wanted to teach her students to be critical thinkers who are aware that hard work — not just high test scores — will get them to college.

"She always told us, 'Do your best and you can make it to college and have a good degree,'" 10-year-old Manuel said.

Barbara Calderon, whose son George is in Barrera-Gomez's class, is excited about the potential college visit. Neither Calderon nor her husband finished high school.

"I thought, 'Oh, this is going to be better for me. I'm just going to go to work,'" Calderon said. "I really had no one at that time. Not even a counselor came to me and said, 'Oh, Barbara, I think you have potential, what do you want to do?'"

Barrera-Gomez is that someone for George, his mother said.

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