By all counts, Fife High School’s first time to host ¡La Chispa! (The Spark) student conference was an all-around success. This one-day bilingual workshop, held on Dec. 1, was founded by the organization La Cima, a program of the Association of Washington School Principals, to help graduate our state’s Latino population by helping students build their self-confidence, strengthen their cultural identity and increase their academic success through positive role models, involvement in school and community service. ¡La Chispa! at Fife offered middle school, junior high and high school students advancement in all of these areas, with Fife High School students acting as mentors to their younger counter-parts.
Gathering in the Fife High gymnasium, Spanish music was playing and both Spanish and English were written and spoken to help make the students feel right at home. “We spoke Spanish and everything was in two languages because we wanted to emphasize for the kids that this is for us to celebrate our culture and identity – to not be ashamed or embarrassed,” said Vanessa Lindgren, academic support specialist at Fife Schools. Her aim was to create a space where students could walk in and right away hear music they’re familiar with, that they listen to at home or at parties. “We made sure that as much as possible everything was in Spanish and English. That was really neat.”
¡La Chispa! welcomed students who attend other area schools as well in Auburn, Federal Way and White River. About 160 students filled the gym for a day of getting to know each other, team building and leadership building activities, discussions around what the younger students need to do to be prepared for high school, goal setting and career exploration.
“It was a full day,” said Lindgren. “All the high school mentors took it very seriously and followed through with all of their responsibilities. I could tell they really enjoyed working with young people. That was really great. I felt really blessed to be a part of it.”
This was the first time that Fife Schools held such a conference for Latino students, and it made a big impact. Of Fife Schools’ student population, at least 20 percent is made up of Latino students. Last year, Lindgren took a small group of Fife High and Columbia Junior High students to the ¡La Chispa! conference at Franklin Pierce High School so the students could get a sense of what it’s all about and witness other students as mentors. “From there, I knew I wanted to plant that seed to get them excited about hosting one ourselves,” she said. And it worked. “Kids started hearing about this conference and they got really excited about it.” In fact, Lindgren had so many students come forward wanting to get involved that she’s now brainstorming ideas to keep the spirit of ¡La Chispa! going in Fife Schools.
“It started really small,” Lindgren said of Fife’s ¡La Chispa! origins. “I asked one person, then another, then kids started coming to me wanting to be a part of it. We have never done anything that’s just for us or we’ve never had anything like this that’s about celebrating culture. I didn’t realize there was such a thirst for it. Kids want to do more of this and they will rise to the occasion. I’m hoping it will become a new tradition for us.
Fife High School senior Julian Tafolla was one of the student mentors. “It was really cool that we had the opportunity to emphasize to them how important it is to be who they are,” he said of mentoring the younger students, especially in these times of suspicion and hostility toward certain groups fleeing to America from hardships at home. “Even though right now there’s a lot of hate going on toward immigrants, we have to stand up for ourselves and tell (the younger students) that it’s okay. Your parents did nothing wrong coming here looking to better your life. A lot of these kids, even my little brother at some points, they feel embarrassed to speak Spanish or they get embarrassed of their parents because they can’t speak English very well. But you know what? They’re learning. It’s so incredibly hard to learn a new language and we have to help them out instead of shunning them.”
Each of the high-schoolers had a small group of younger students they worked with in team building activities. Then the middle-schoolers interviewed the mentors about what high school is like and the mentors got to share their stories of success and what their parents’ educational history means to them.
“I got to hang out with other people and talk about ourselves and our culture and why we’re proud of our parents for bringing us here to get a diploma and a degree,” said Surprise Lake Middle School student Nallely Garcia. During the conference, “I said I was proud of my parents because they brought me here so I can learn and have a good job in the future.”
Garcia said she appreciated the bi-lingual atmosphere at ¡La Chispa! “I mostly speak English and I need to learn more Spanish to understand my parents and my aunties. My parents said if I speak two languages I can get more money in a job.”
Garcia’s classmate Javier Caras said the conference gave him a chance to think more about his future education and career. “I wanted to be a soccer player, but I thought about it and decided there aren’t many chances of that, so I want to be an engineer instead,” he said.
Fife senior Edith Silva, whose parents came here from Mexico, said she was glad to share her story with the younger students. “My dad only got a third-grade education and he’s still learning how to read, and my mom got pregnant at a really young age,” she said. “They migrated here and it was tough because I was young and I had to learn English and Spanish. I’ve always been the translator in the family, so that puts a lot of pressure on me because I’m the first one to graduate out of my whole family. That pushes me to not drop out of school and keep pushing on my education. Them not being able to go to school and further their education pushes me to do what they couldn’t accomplish.” Silva is currently in a Certified Nursing Assistant program and plans to become a Registered Nurse.
For Fife senior Dyanee Heredia, “One of the highlights was us telling the kids our stories and for them not to make the same mistakes as us. To keep moving forward and try their hardest in school.” Heredia talked about her own “failure to success” story in how she made a turnaround in her commitment to her studies once she entered high school. With her older brother having dropped out in his sophomore year and her parents, who came here from Mexico, not graduating either, Heredia wants to make them proud of her efforts to be the first to graduate. “I’ve learned to keep moving forward,” she said. “My parents are always there to support me and my brother is my motivation to keep on going forward. Ms. Lindgren is always here helping me out too.”
The students thanked Fife Superintendent Kevin Alfano and Fife High School Principal Ron Ness for their support of Fife’s Latino students and the ¡La Chispa! conference.
“It was really cool seeing all the mentors because it shows there are people who care about this and especially to Ms. Lindgren, Mr. Alfano and Mr. Ness – that they think it’s important and support us in reaching out to our community,” Tafolla said. With his parents also have moved to the U.S. from Mexico, Tafolla is fully aware of the risks they took and the challenges they faced in a new country just so their children could have what they didn’t have.
“Ever since I was young I knew that I wanted to make them proud. I’m really grateful for my parents and everything they’ve given me. I feel blessed to have the opportunities to not have to worry about what I’m going to eat or if I have clean clothes or a bed to sleep in. They worked hard for me so I’m going to give back to them. I’m going to work hard in school, I’m going to work hard in everything I do – to be the best in every aspect that I can be and control everything that I can control in order to be successful.”