Veteran educator Magali Torres never lets a day go by at Harshman Middle School without letting her eighth-grade students know there’s a certain pride in being Hispanic.
Every day she works in a classroom filled with reminders of her native Puerto Rico. There are Hispanic-themed posters, lights that glow in colors red and pink, and a variety of books from the island.
“It doesn’t matter if you are from Puerto Rico, Guatemala, or El Salvador,’ said Torres, who grew up on the Caribbean Island but moved to Indianapolis after college as a result of visiting relatives. “It’s our heritage. But we should be proud we are now in Indianapolis, a wonderful city that will open doors for all of us.”
Torres is one of the bilingual teachers at Harshman, which has a Hispanic enrollment of about 60 percent. Staff and students across Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) are celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, a time to honor the history, culture and influence of past generations who came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.
Hispanic Heritage Month runs from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15. The observation started in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon Johnson. It was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to cover a 30-day period.
Now in her fourth year at Harshman, Torres points out that building relationships with the Spanish-speaking students is the first step to helping them overcome a language barrier.
“My role as a teacher gets into action shaping students’ language,” Torres said. “That’s the reason why building relationships first is important to understand the student’s language background. Speaking to their parents can help with understanding what the student needs to be successful in school and to build confidence and trust in this new country.
“For Spanish-speaking students, it is overwhelming to be exposed to many new things at the same time, including a new home, new language, new city, new school, and new friends,” she said. “They can encounter many barriers in their environment, and it is not because they don’t know English; it is because of the limited resources, all-English environment, and fast-paced curriculums.”
Each year, new Spanish-speaking students come into Torres’ classroom with a can-do work ethic.
“When the students walk into my class, many are unsure about what is going to happen. But, they get a big smile on their faces when they realize is that I speak Spanish. They realize there is someone that understands what they are saying.
Cathie Fritz, a social studies teacher at Harshman, said Torres sets an example for the rest of the school’s educators.
“She makes phone calls to parents sharing celebrations and concerns. She adds a different life perspective that challenges me to work as hard as she works,” Fritz said.
Jenny Towsend, an instructional coach at Harshman, believes Torres is the definition of a team player.
“She has shifted in her positions at Harshman to best serve our school community and has taken on each new role with a positive mindset,” Towsend said. “She is always willing to bridge the language barrier for non-Spanish speaking colleagues and continues to support her team and Harshman every chance she has.”
Torres admits she teaches because she enjoys watching her students learn, grow, and improve daily.
“It’s extremely rewarding for me to be part of their improvements not only in school, but also with their social skills. One happy face, one new word they say in their second language, and one improvement tells you that they are feeling good, confident, and starting to communicate more easily.”