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A new immigrant’s path from learning English to representing 1,700 educators

on November 8, 2018

On a chilly morning in 2004, 13-year-old Demetrio Gonzalez who just immigrated to the U.S. sat in an eighth-grade English class at the Oak Crest Middle School in Encinitas, California and read Shakespeare’s articles for the first time.

He stared at his brand new English book and thought, “Qué es esto?”–“What is this” in Spanish.

The teacher noticed Gonzalez’s struggles with a language barrier from his nervous face, so she pulled him aside and offered to help.

“Through my very, very bad English, I understood that she wanted me to stay after school,” Gonzalez recalled recently, sitting in a conference room 14 years later at the United Teachers of Richmond. “She said, ‘You’re gonna stay here every day for this year to learn English.’”

Gonzalez, 28, is now president of the union representing the 1,700 educators at West Contra Costa Unified School District. He became a teacher, and then a union leader, motivated by his memory of himself as a child struggling to learn a foreign language and hoping he can improve the way immigrants are taught English.

Already, under his leadership, the union last year negotiated big raises for the teachers who were among the lowest paid in Contra Costa County to make them among the highest compensated in the county.

It was Gonzalez’s middle school and high school teachers’ help that enabled Gonzalez to succeed.

“If it wasn’t for her and other amazing teachers, I wouldn’t have been here today,” Gonzalez says.

His high school English teacher Susan Coppock remembers him as one of the hardest workers and most caring students she has ever taught.

“He always wanted to learn, always wanted to learn,” she recalled in an interview. He once traveled 30 miles to host a surprise birthday party for her.

Gonzalez was born in Mexico in 1990 and immigrated to the U.S. with his mother in 2004. They lived in Encinitas, where his father had already settled down as a real estate agent and was waiting for their arrival.

Gonzalez graduated from the Oak Crest Middle School and San Dieguito High School Academy before enrolling in California State University, Sacramento. He studied political science and Spanish.

Upon his graduation from college in 2013, Gonzalez joined Teach For America, a program that introduces newly graduates to impacting others through teaching. After a five-week training, he was assigned to a classroom in San Pablo to teach for two years.

Gonzalez taught second and third grade at Bayview ElementarySchool. His students were English-learners in the Transitional BilingualEducation program, which provides instruction in English and Spanish classes through second and third grade. By fourth grade, students are moved to English-only classes.

Although he had a passion for education, Gonzalez didn’t plan to stay in a classroom for more than two years. He thought he would find a job in the capitol and do political work, having majored in politics in college. But the kids made him stay.

“I felt like I couldn’t leave. I felt like my work was just a small piece done,” Gonzalez says–not just the special atmosphere he enjoyed in a classroom with his 25 students, but also his concerns about the bilingual education program.

Gonzalez noticed a majority of the students who went through the program didn’t gain strong enough English language skills for them to succeed academically. He reviewed the school district data, he says, and discovered that only five out of every 25 students in this program applied to college, and only one actually attended a higher education institution.

Gonzalez said his personal experience as an English-learner made him care about children who are similarly struggling from a language barrier. And that made him feel, “a huge urgency to advocate and to fix the program.”

After Gonzalez decided to continue teaching, he started advocating for the district to expand the Dual Immersion program, a different approach to helping English-learners adapt to school in the U.S. The program provides bilingual classes for both English-learners and English-only student through sixth grade.

In 2016, Gonzalez ran for the president of union and won. Third grade teacher Jesus Galindo said he voted for Gonzalez because of his, “unwavering devotion to these kids.”

Gonzalez said he believes supporting teachers is “ultimately supporting the kids.”

“If the right working conditions are not set for teachers, then they’re not gonna be teaching our kids,” he said.

Teachers at the West Contra Costa Unified School District used to earn the second lowest salary in the county.

John Wells, left, a fifth-grade teacher at Peres Elementary School hugs Demetrio Gonzalez, right, at Peres on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. Gonzalez, the president of United Teachers of Richmond, visited 54 schools and departments to give posters and talk to teachers. (Photo by Meiying Wu)

In early 2017, when Gonzalez’s teachers’ union started negotiating contracts for the next year, the union leadership learned through surveys and interviews that low salary was the primary reason teachers were leaving the district. Gonzalez said that was unusual and different from the international trend.

“Usually, the number one thing is support and climate,but here, because the pay has been so low for so long, teachers were leaving because of that piece,” he said.

After presenting the survey results to the school board and school district, the union went through many months of negotiations. Finally, the school board adopted a resolution to increase salaries by 17 percent over three years. Starting in 2020, teachers at the district will be the highest paid in the county. 

Gonzalez said he cannot take credit for the victory.

“It takes a lot of people’s efforts to get to that point,” he said, “A lot of it was our members making the community and district understand why teachers are leaving and make it a priority.”

Gonzalez said he is proud of the progress the union has made, but it’s not enough. And he is still advocating for better learning conditions for students.

Early last month, Gonzalez attended a monthly meeting to discuss the school district’s culture and climate.

Demetrio Gonzalez, center, the president of United Teachers of Richmond, attends a climate meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018. (Photo by Meiying Wu)

Gonzalez arrived a little bit early, when only three other educators were in the meeting room. He entered with a smile and started hugging the teachers he knew.

In the meeting, they discussed efforts the educators might undertake to improve the climate in schools. Rather than having a zero-tolerance policy for students’ violent behaviors, he and others advocated for creating more opportunities to talk to the offending students and their parents. The goal was to help students return to class after a suspension.

Gonzalez plans to look through data from different schools about students’ violent behavior before the next meeting this month.

When he’s not in a meeting, Gonzalez is in the classroom. Every Friday, he drives to Bayview Elementary School where he teaches fourth grade.

Outside of work, Gonzalez’s life is also very full. He’s preparing for his wedding in June of 2019.

But Gonzalez can’t get too far from education. He is marrying a third-generation teacher Alyssa Hoy. She currently teaches at same school in San Pablo.

Gonzalez lives in Richmond, and he said he is happy to call this city home.

Many immigrants, “move to a new place, and you never feel you’re part of the community,” he said. But in Richmond, he said, “I feel like now I finally found a place that I can call home.”

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