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Brenda Perez Mendoza became the closest of any Morton College alumni to participating in Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game.
The Cicero native was one of 90 finalists in the “Target Presents PEOPLE All-Star Teachers.” The 30 winners, one representing each team, were recognized during pre-game ceremonies of the 2014 All-Star Game on FOX. Mendoza was one of three representing the Chicago White Sox. Voting, conducted on-line, ended in June.
“It was just an honor to be nominated,” said the 34-year-old Mendoza, a second-grade bilingual educator and Family Literacy Coordinator at Greenman Elementary School in Aurora’s West Side. “I was floored when I found out I was one of three finalists (from the White Sox).”
It’s not the first time Mendoza has been recognized for teaching excellence. She received a Distinguished Educator of the Year award from the Kane County Regional Office of Education in 2011.
Listen to Mendoza’s passion for education and it’s easy to understand why she’s regarded as an “All-Star Teacher” at a school located in the state’s second-largest city. She’s heading up a pilot program this fall that bridges the transition from Spanish to English for students in kindergarten through second grade in a community with a 41 percent Hispanic population.
“I’ll be responsible for collecting data,” Mendoza said. “If it works, it will be introduced district-wide. We have a very supportive district.”
Mendoza created a web site, www.familyliteracyprogram.org, which focuses on English Language Learning (ELL) students and family literacy. She’s also on Facebook under BEAPAL. In addition, Mendoza is the author of a program at Greenman called PAL (Parents Advocating for Literacy). It’s an after-school program designed to get parents involved in literacy.
It’s been so successful that Mendoza has trained hundreds of teachers and helped implement parental programs on a statewide basis. She has been invited to present at the 2015 National Association for Bilingual Education’s conference in Las Vegas.
Her primary message to the parents in her program is that they need to introduce books and start reading to children at birth.
“By teaching your child new vocabulary and little things like that, it can close gaps,” Mendoza said. “A lot of families as far as the Hispanic community don’t form partnerships with the schools. They see it as two separate entities. But the home is an extension of the classroom. Learning never ends. We teach the parents what needs to happen in the home and how they can make a difference.”
Mendoza’s educational journey has led her to develop a philosophy fostering the needs of each and every student. She tries to understand where each of her students are coming from. It’s important to establish a bridge of language where the Spanish-speaking students becomes empowered by learning English.
“Teaching from the heart – I’m big on that,” Mendoza said. “It’s also important to love all students as individuals. I’ve been real successful and been able to build relationships with students and my peers.”
Along Mendoza’s education journey, she discovered teachers who made her personal “All-Star Team.” She grew up in a household where Spanish was the primary language. While Mendoza understood English, she had difficulty comprehending when she started kindergarten at Cicero’s Burnham School.
“It was really confusing,” Mendoza admitted. “I didn’t know how to communicate to my teachers. I got pulled into special services. What I really needed was an ELL (English Language Learning) teacher.”
Mendoza found that guardian angel in Cynthia Colletta-Schloss, her second-grade teacher.
“That teacher made a big difference and helped me learn the language,” Mendoza said. “By the time I was in the sixth grade, I entered the gifted program. I stayed fluent in both languages, which was really important.”
Coming out of Morton East High School, Mendoza enrolled at Columbia College Chicago with the intent of becoming a journalist. The newspaper landscape was changing, so Mendoza shifted gears and transferred to Morton College with the intent of becoming an art teacher.
Again, Mendoza’s path crossed with another pair of personal “All-Stars” in fine arts instructor Denise Bellezzo and English instructor John Baffa.
“Denise Bellezzo was really strict with me,” Mendoza said. “She saw I had so much potential, but I just needed to get focused. She was like a mentor during that time at Morton College. She took the time to share her experiences with me. After Morton College, we’d still stay in touch by e-mail. She was very student centered.”
The Mendoza book she is writing on family literacy is based on the skills learned in Baffa’s Rhetoric courses.
“He made me rewrite papers over and over,” Mendoza recalled. “He was not just a teacher, but a writer. The book I’m working on family literacy is all based on skills I learned at Morton College.”
While Mendoza was at Morton College, she received her first exposure to working in a bilingual environment as a teacher’s assistant at a Montessori School in Oak Park.
Mendoza went to earn a bachelor of arts in education at Trinity Christian College, then master’s degrees from Aurora University in curriculum with an emphasis on bilingual/ELL and educational leadership.
“I really felt Morton College prepared me for the university level,” Mendoza said. “I tell all my colleagues I started at a community college. The teachers are so dedicated. They showed you real-world experience. I never felt underprepared for anything, but felt over prepared because of Morton College.”