FCPS Students-Turned-Teachers Awarded Grant for Work in Underserved Communities
All first-year teachers face ups and downs during their first few months in the classroom. But for teachers who started in the fall of 2020, the challenges were beyond comparison. As students returned to in-person learning this spring, first-year teachers had to learn how to manage a classroom full of kids, while maintaining proper social distancing, and also keep virtual students engaged. Two teachers who overcame those challenges are now being recognized for their work at Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS).
Aimee Cabrera and Darling Lievano have been selected to receive a grant of $7,500 each as part of a pilot program through the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE). The ‘Grow Your Own Teacher’ Pilot Program provides grants to low-income high school graduates, who went to college in Virginia, and are now teaching in a high-need public school in the same district they graduated from.
As a graduate of Annandale High School, Cabrera says she enjoyed her time in school, but it wasn’t always easy. She depended on FCPS’s free lunch program over the years. It’s the same program many of her second grade students at Mount Eagle ES also use each day.
“I look at them and I see that they are living the same childhood that I lived.” Cabrera said. “When they tell me stories, I immediately know exactly what they’re talking about. I have flashbacks to when I did that too, or when my family was going through that.”
In order to receive a grant under the ‘Grow Your Own Teacher’ program, teachers must work at a school where at least 50 percent of students qualify for free lunch. At Mount Eagle ES, 78 percent of students were eligible last year. At Beech Tree ES, where Lievano teaches, 66 percent of students were eligible in 2020.
Both schools also have a majority population of Hispanic or Latino students. Cabrera and Lievano both grew up in Spanish-speaking homes, and say they have been able to connect with their students in a special way because of their own upbringing.
“I think children come to school with stress from home that many teachers may not know about,” Lievano said. “So I can relate to them and just try to be kind to them and support them during the day. Just offer them a smile, and make sure they believe that anything is possible as long as they're willing to try.”
Mount Eagle ES Principal Jean Consolla says she’s working to get more Hispanic and Latino teachers into classrooms so students feel represented at school. She highlighted one powerful moment when she observed Cabrera telling her students about leaving for college a few years ago.
“She looks like them, she understands their experiences, and she’s talking about what it’s like to go to college,” Consolla said. “If that’s where kids want to go, there’s that role model for them.”
Beech Tree ES Principal Karim Daugherty also says Lievano’s past experiences allow her to reach students in a remarkable way. The first-year teacher spends most of her day in small-group instruction with special education students, many of whom are English learners. Lievano says she did face challenges in school, but one teacher at Lake Braddock Secondary School inspired her to believe in herself and work hard; now, she hopes to do the same for her own students.
“When I was growing up we didn’t have a lot of Latina teachers, I don't think I ever saw one.” Lievano said. “So I think it's really powerful for students to see a Latina teacher teaching them. It gives them hope and some sort of empowerment.”
Cabrera says she plans to use some of the grant money to buy more books for her classroom. Lievano wants to go back to school or pursue other educational programs to expand her teaching skills.
More information about the ‘Grow Your Own Teacher’ Pilot Program is available on the VDOE website.