By Sara Winegardner
Washington, DC – For Sabrina Hernandez, the classroom has been a second home to her since before she can remember.
“When I was growing up — my mom’s a teacher — so I would do a lot of student teaching and after-school programming, as well as summer programming alongside her, primarily with ESL — English as a Second Language — students,” she said.
Hernandez, a third-year political science major in the American University School of Public Affairs, found a love for children and education through these early experiences that continued even after leaving her Boston home for college in Washington, DC.
Upon her arrival at American University, Hernandez looked to continue her work in education while pursuing her own degree. She joined two volunteer organizations, dedicating the first half of her college career to assisting young children in DC schools.
“I was at the [DC Reads] Reading Partners site, which is in Columbia Heights, and I tutored second graders who were also English as a Second Language students,” Hernandez explained.
“And then, I did Jumpstart — first semester in Anacostia and second semester in Mount Pleasant,” she continued. “My students in Mount Pleasant were at a bilingual preschool.” Jumpstart, a national early education organization, provides programming for children in impoverished communities, promoting premium early learning for all.
Hernandez’s fluency in English and Spanish provided her with an additional tool to bond with her students and their families.
“My parents are Colombian immigrants, and my first language was Spanish,” said Hernandez. “My parents spoke English as well, so I think I had a different experience than some of the communities I work with.”
Hernandez has broken down the language barrier at her schools, allowing non-English-speaking parents to feel respected and heard countless times. On one of these occasions, a mother came to pick up her daughter from school with no knowledge that the school was having a special event: an after-school reading day.
“One of my students was really upset because the flyer wasn’t in Spanish, so her mom didn’t know this was happening,” said Hernandez.
She explained to the mother, in Spanish, what the event was and that it was a positive event rather than a punishment. Hernandez successfully diffused the situation, allowing the child to showcase her reading at the event. The child was thrilled that her mother’s misunderstanding was not going to prevent her from participating.
“That was something that really stuck with me,” Hernandez recalled. “I just realized that access is so important.”
The experience paralleled that of her times in the bilingual school, Mount Pleasant’s Rosemount Center, where fliers and bulletin boards were written in both English and Spanish.
“The access for those kinds of families and students in the bilingual school was huge,” noted Hernandez.
With many of the families coming from an immigrant background or not speaking English, Hernandez noticed that the ability of at least some of the staff to communicate in Spanish created a more comfortable environment for parents.
“You knew that whoever was answering the phone would be able to speak to you in your native language, and I feel that’s really huge when it comes to connecting families to the schools and, therefore, investing themselves in their children’s education,” Hernandez said.
“When you’re building a school around a community rather than a community around a school, I think that you’re able to be more intentional and grow those relationships through years and years,” Hernandez continued.
Although she is no longer working with DC Reads or Jumpstart, Hernandez says that she is still “involved a lot in volunteering at schools.”
“My activism is just staying involved and engaged with these communities, and just keeping an eye on everything as much as I can,” said Hernandez.
However, seeing the problems regarding access to education in these immigrant communities has sparked an interest in public policy reform, leading her to shift her focus for the time being.
“This semester, I’m working at Latin American Working Group,” Hernandez explained. “They do research on different Latin American issues and bringing it to Congress and Congressmen.” Latin American Working Group collaborates with the Latin America Working Group Education Fund and over 50 religious, humanitarian and labor organizations to sway policy makers in Washington, D.C.
While she is now working towards creating widespread policy change, a part of her still dreams of having her own classroom. Ultimately, Hernandez’s goal is to give back to these underserved communities in whatever way that she can.
“Just doing things for the communities and to advocate for them would be the most important thing,” Hernandez said. “So whatever role that is, keeping in line with education, access and opportunity for all, specifically in line with this community.”