Meet Marcella Bermudez, she is an elementary school counselor in Spotsylvania County, Virginia.
An educator for over thirty years, Marcella began her career in the classroom teaching 4th grade. Sixteen years ago she went back to school to become a school counselor. This was around the time that the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL's) were being introduced. She felt she wanted to make a change and take a new approach.
College readiness for elementary school students is not about prepping kids for college entry of course, it is about changing mindsets and helping students set potentially life changing expectations. In Virginia there is a big push behind this - most formally in the way of the Virginia College and Career Readiness Initiative. Marcella sees this a little more intimately however as she works with a population of students who have very few expectations set for them - much less set by themselves.
Spotswood Elementary is a Title 1 school with a 60% ECD population. In other words, more than half of the students here receive free and reduced price meals. This is a population of students who often live with the belief that college is out of reach for them, if they even consider it at all. Making this challenge all the greater is the unfortunate fact that many of the adults in these students lives hold these same perceptions.
I had the opportunity to talk with Marcella and have her share a little bit about her own story, and that of her students. Here is some of what she had to say:
1. Do you remember when you knew you wanted to go to college?
When I went to High School - you had to pick a route: Academic or a Vocational. I remember I didn't want to take the vocational route because I didn't want to be with the group of people who were going that way - all my friends had chosen the Academic route. It goes back to the group of people you choose to hang around with. It impacts your future.
Something else, that I only just now remembered, was something my dad had said. We were driving around and it just came up out of the blue, and he said "Don't rely on a man...think about how you are going to support yourself". It was unexpected, we never really had a lot of conversations like that.
One of the things we do with our students is we host a College Days event. We get all the teachers to wear their college sweatshirts. We started organizing it to help make kids aware of what is out there. We tell them that they can go to college, and they roll their eyes a little.
Then they ask...
"Did you always want to be a teacher?" And I say "No! I thought I was going to be a hairdresser". Then they ask "Were you smart in school?" and I tell them, "No. I was average". It really opens their eyes. They think you have to be really smart and that college, for them, is something that is out of reach.
So then I went to college and it was the best four years of my life. I remember coming home after freshman year – and I told my parents that everyone needs to experience this. I met so many people and, being from a small town, I was shocked. I just loved meeting different people from different backgrounds and ways of thinking.
When I am with the students I always talk about that.
2. Can you share more about how you talk about college with your students?
Spotsylvania has a big push on career and college readiness. So we hosted a career day and the kids absolutely loved it. We made it a STEM and STEAM career day (I am a big believer in the arts and so I had to make sure we put the "A" back in there).
We had a bunch of "Geeks" that we brought in here and man the kids just loved it. We initially thought the kids would not be interested, that they would want to see policemen and firefighters, we were really surprised - they were so engaged.
The we built onto it with something we call "Red Ribbon Week". One day we did a "We're Too Smart for Drugs" campaign and we asked everyone to wear their college sweatshirts. At first the faculty really gave us a lot of Flak for that. They said, "why are we doing this...these kids are not going to college". But we kept at it, and we followed up with it again for March Madness. Suddenly we started seeing kids asking their parents to buy them college shirts.
Suddenly we had this new expectation - we had to put it there - we had to plant that seed. These kids don't know if they can or can't go to college. They needed to see that you don't have to be the richest and the smartest.
But getting the faculty on board was one of the biggest challenges, way harder than the kids. We needed everyone to know that even if the faculty are the only ones wearing it (college gear) the kids were seeing it.
3. What is the biggest obstacle these kids face in pursuing college?
Money. And an ignorance of what is out there for them.
I think a lot of our parents used to see a better future for their children - for their kids to have a better life than they did. But now a lot of our parents seem resigned to think that a better life is impossible. That it is out of reach. We have a lot of families who live out of hotels, and they tends to keep their kids at the same level. They are just so overwhelmed with the daily struggle to get by. Many of these kids don't express any kind of college goal.
4. What do you think is the biggest opportunity?
That if they can have the right mindset, they can be successful. There is so much emphasis on the SOL. If you can pass the test - if you can get that *magical 400! If they miss, they simply believe they cannot succeed.
I need them to look past that end of year SOL score
We had one year with a group of students who faced a lot of challenges who performed really poorly on the SOL. We worked harder with these kids than any other group and they made huge growth and strides. But we don’t look at that. Despite all that success with these kids, the teacher actually resigned at the end of that year. It was too hard, getting that low SOL score, and that being how you are evaluated.
*Student performance on the Virginia SOL is graded on a scale of 0-600 with 400 representing the minimum level of acceptable proficiency and 500 representing advanced proficiency.
5. If you could change one thing...that could change everything...what would it be?
Make college available for kids who can’t afford it – Truly. It gets them out of their surroundings and opens their eyes to what is around them.
Everything boils down to money – if you dig hard enough – it’s always at the bottom. But there is also the mindset – and the fact that sometimes the biggest obstacle is the mindset of the teachers.
“Expect nothing and that is what you are going to get”