Every day when I greet the young children walking into the pre-kindergarten classroom at Rocky Mountain Prep in Colorado, where I’m a teaching assistant, I wonder what my middle school teachers would think if they could see me now.
My story starts out like so many others, but it has a happy ending. Why? Because a caring teacher at the school saw in me, a young mother with three kids, someone she wanted to help reach her potential. So here I am.
Back then, no one would have guessed I would end up here. It felt like no one at the Denver middle school I attended took education seriously. The teachers who didn’t bother to learn my name didn’t take me seriously. The kids who walked in and out class whenever they wanted sure didn’t.
Even though I wanted to get an education and improve my English, after a while I started doing what my friends did.
First, I’d leave a class once in a while before it was over. Then I started cutting classes. Next, I’d ditch full days. Then, in seventh grade, I stopped going completely. Yes, that’s right. I dropped out of school at 13.
As a pre-K teaching assistant, I serve as a second educator in the classroom for our young scholars’ first experience at school.
I guess you could say my dropping out was no big surprise. In a lot of ways, the process started when I was little. In elementary school, I was one of the thousands of Denver kids who didn’t speak much English. But I could never find the help I needed and wanted at my school.
I just felt lost, like no one there cared about me.
It was worse when I started middle school. My mom didn’t want me to go to one closest to home because it had gang problems.
I walked 45 minutes to and from school every day. I always walked. There was no school bus and public transit would have taken even longer.
Rain or snow or hot sun, there I was, walking to school by myself. I had to wake up at 5:45 am to get to school on time. My mom was already at work at that hour.
When I dropped out, my mom was upset. She always worked very hard at her job in a nursing home. She had three kids and worked from 5am to 3pm. My dad wasn’t around.
She wasn’t going to put up with me hanging out and getting in trouble, so she sent me down to México to live with my grandparents and maybe finish school there, in rural Chihuahua.
The school I went to in México was much better for me. Reading, writing, math and Spanish classes were hard. But the teachers really cared. They checked in with me one-on-one every day. It was the first time I began to realize that there were adults outside my family who really cared about me. That made a big difference.
I had met a boy I liked in México, and when I came back to Denver, I was 16 and pregnant. My daughter Alisson was born in Denver. Eventually her father and I got married and we now have three children.
But at 16, I knew I needed to get a high school diploma if I wanted to get anywhere in the world. I attended an online high school for a while, and then a private religious school where I could take online courses. I was very proud when I graduated.
I never considered the possibility that I might go to college someday.
When Alisson turned four, I needed to find a school for her. We lived right across the street from an elementary school. But everyone told me it was not a great school. I knew how to look up information about test scores and every school I looked at near our home did not have the best scores, or at least anything close to my expectations.
I went to my mom crying. We felt stuck. I really wanted my daughter to receive a better education than I had. I wanted a high quality school that would provide the attention and support she would need. A school that would care for her education as much as I did.
Then in June, someone knocked on my door. It was a teacher from Rocky Mountain Prep charter school. They said they were opening that fall in Kepner Middle School, just a few blocks from our house. I invited her in and asked her questions for an hour. I liked what I heard.
I sent Alisson to the school and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s nothing like any of the schools I attended. The teachers love the kids. Allison has learned so much.
At the end of her first year, I had a conference with her teacher, Laura. She said Alisson was an advanced student. I asked what I could do with her over the summer to make sure she stayed on top of her schoolwork.
That’s when Laura told me I should come work there because I was a natural teacher. I thought she was joking. I think my answer to her was, “Yeah, seriously.”
But she was serious. I didn’t think I had what it took. No college. No education, no experience. But she bugged me and bugged me until I said I’d apply. I did, and was hired as a teaching assistant.
I just finished my first year in the classroom. It went great. I love teaching. I love kids. I love that I get to be a part of what Rocky Mountain Prep is doing for my community in providing a strong foundation in education that I never received.
As a pre-K teaching assistant, I serve as a second educator in the classroom for our young scholars’ first experience at school. I share responsibility for helping to build their social skills and love of reading, writing, math, and science.
As a parent, I know firsthand how important those early years are for learning. I love that I also have a hand in helping so many little ones fall in love with coming to school and growing their brains.
My daughter is in first grade now. She is reading chapter books. And she’s always saying, “When I’m in college …” She has no doubt that’s what she’ll do when she finishes high school. As a mom, this makes me feel very proud.
Listening to those words coming from my own child has motivated me. I’m not always the most self-confident person, but thanks to Allison and our school, I know that’s my next step — going to college and making her as proud as she’s made me.
Karen Holguin is a pre-K teaching assistant Rocky Mountain Prep in Colorado.
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- From Dropout to Teaching Assistant - June 28, 2017