A question we often struggle with as educators and parents is, “What can we do to ensure that our children are motivated to pursue higher education or career training?” As a teacher and principal for many years, I have thought about the many successful students I have taught and wondered what factors in their family or school life prompted their success. One family that I had the pleasure to work with stands out as one whose children have been very successful against many odds.
Pedro and Mercedes Lopez came to Ukiah from a small village in Mexico in 1963. They spoke very little English, and Ukiah at that time had very few Latino families, and certainly no programs in schools to support second language learners. Yet five of their six children have BA degrees or higher. One of the children, Antonio Lopez, is currently the Dean of Counseling and Student Programs at Mendocino College. He worked for Ukiah Unified for many years as a counselor, principal, and director. In 2014, he was mentioned in a speech given by Michelle Obama at a National Counselors Association for his exemplary work in encouraging students to pursue college.
Ana Arroyo and Lucina Lopez, two of the other children, have spent many years teaching for Ukiah Unified at Frank Zeek, Nokomis, and Grace Hudson Elementary schools. Both were very instrumental in the formation of our dual language immersion program at Grace Hudson. Two other brothers Gerardo and Hugo, have spent their careers working for the State of California. Gerardo, a graphic artist, is an administrator in the graphic arts division for the California Employment Development Department. Hugo chose a career in business and finance and recently retired as Director of the California Lottery. Elodia Lopez, who also resides in Ukiah, chose a pathway of career training as a cosmetologist and has owned her own business.
This family achieved the goal of having their children become successful adults. I recently met with Antonio, Ana, and Lucina, and asked what was special about their family. They agreed that education was greatly valued because Pedro and Mercedes wanted their children to have the opportunity of education that they were unable to experience.
Ana, the oldest of the siblings, said that the appreciation for education began earlier with her grandparents and was passed on to her parents. She said that she was encouraged to do well in school by both her parents and grandparents. She described their village in Mexico, where her grandparents were community leaders. Their family values of being respectful, responsible, and caring were continued with their parents. Ana’s grandfather even told her when she was a first-grade student in Mexico that he expected her to become a teacher someday. This atmosphere of high expectations, coupled with encouragement and support, permeated their home.
Their father, Pedro, had a strong work ethic and expected the same of his children. “Do your best” was a theme in their home. School attendance was crucial. Ana and Lucina laughed about the many certificates of perfect attendance they were awarded. Antonio said that another family value passed down from generation to generation was the importance of “giving back” to your community. Their father was a part of several volunteer organizations through the church, Concilio Latino Americano of Mendocino County, and coaching baseball.
All three children agreed that their mother, Mercedes, was a “natural” teacher. She had a great love for working with children and, for many years, had a licensed daycare in their home. When she retired, she volunteered in Ana and Lucina’s classrooms.
Another observation the children had was that although they had few books in their home, their family time was rich in language through family stories, anecdotes, and songs. This also gave them an appreciation for their family heritage.
Antonio, Ana, and Lucina stressed that it wasn’t only their strong family life that provided encouragement, but the many teachers, principals, and coaches who gave them the motivation to be strong students and pursue college. Both Ana and Antonio remember fondly Mrs. Elva Wilson, their first-grade teacher at Frank Zeek, who was kind and helpful in their first year of school as second language learners.
Ana also mentioned a high school Spanish teacher, Mr. Oceguera, who helped her with college and scholarship applications. Lucina remembers Naomi Engstrom, Principal at Hopland and Frank Zeek, who encouraged her to complete college and pursue a teaching credential when she was working as a bilingual instructional aide.
Antonio said that he had many teachers who encouraged him, especially those in the industrial arts program at UHS. Still, involvement in high school sports played a significant role in keeping him and his brothers interested and focused on school.
In today’s complicated and stressful world, we can learn a lot from the Lopez family! Their family lessons are even more valuable today. The critical factors which led to the success of the Lopez children seem to be: A high priority on education and hard work at all levels, with an emphasis on school attendance, and an attitude of respectfulness and caring toward others modeled by their parents. These values continue to be important for our families and schools today.