Thelma Melendez Talks About When She Was an English-Learner

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 29, 2010 2 min read
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Thelma Melendez, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education for the U.S. Department of Education, had teachers who understood her academic potential and others who underestimated her knowledge and ability, she told educators attending a conference of the National Title I Association last week.

Melendez added her personal story about starting school as an English-language learner during a presentation about reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, which didn’t focus on ELLs and stuck to the Education Department script on priorities for a revamped law. (My colleague Michele McNeil has already written about how Melendez tends to adhere to the Education Department’s script).

She showed a photo of her kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Silverman, and said that “she never made me feel any less important than any other child.” But Melendez said she had a bad experience in 1st grade, when her teacher put her in the lowest reading group, and she was forced to review the alphabet all year long. Her parents were concerned about the placement and told the principal that Melendez could already read in Spanish, but the principal said she belonged in the lowest-level group. Her parents transferred her to another school where the educators recognized her ability and put her in the second-highest reading group, she said.

As a high school student, Melendez had a dream of attending the University of California, Los Angeles, and she asked a high school guidance counselor if she could succeed there. Melendez recalls that the counselor sized her up and said “absolutely not.”

Melendez attended California State University, Los Angeles, but she didn’t give up on her dream of going to UCLA. At Cal State, she asked her political science professor, “Do you think I could make it at UCLA?” The response, she got, Melendez says, was “absolutely.”

Melendez transferred to UCLA and graduated with a degree in sociology.

At the conference session, she didn’t say much to interpret her story to the educators in the audience, except to say, “I graduated from UCLA cum laude and almost didn’t get to go,” implying that they have a job to do in encouraging students to reach their educational dreams, not discourage them.

Melendez was superintendent of California’s Pomona Unified School District before being tapped by the Education Department for her post.

The Education Department sent Supreet Anand, who oversees grants from Title III, the section of the No Child Left Behind Act authorizing funds for English-acquisition programs, to the conference to talk about use of federal funds for ELLs. The Obama administration has not yet appointed anyone to head up the office of English-language acquisition in the department, which traditionally has been the person devoted to federal policy issues concerning ELLs and the public voice on matters affecting such students.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.