Marcela Estevez Ancira: Transforming Wimauma through education

To read this story in Spanish, please follow this link.
When Marcela Esteves Ancira launched her career as a Mexican diplomat, she never imagined she’d end up as a local educator in Wimauma FL nor that her role would prove essential to the development and success of the Redland Christian Migrant Association’s (RCMA) charter schools, which provide education and care for the children of migrant farm workers and low-income families.
Estevez, Director of Student Affairs at RCMA in Wimauma, has gone far beyond academic counseling in Wimauma by also focusing her efforts on parent involvement. She believes parent involvement proves vital to children’s academic success. Since she began working for RCMA in 2002, RCMA Academy has obtained an “A” on the FCAT at least six times. And this year, only one school on the West Coast of Florida received a better FCAT score in third-grade math than RCMA Academy -- Pine View Academy for Gifted Students in Osprey in southern Sarasota County. 

“I work with approximately 180 parents and all of them have gotten involved (in their children’s education),” Estevez says.
This “one-on-one” work that Estevez has initiated in Wimauma has not only contributed to changes in the academic structure of RCMA elementary and middle charter schools, but also generated a change in parent behavior. Instead of continuing the nomadic lifestyle demanded of migrant workers, many opt to make Wimauma their permanent home for the sake of their children’s education.
“It is the best thing that could happen to us,” Estevez says. “For parents to settle their families here, so their children may receive continuity in their education. We have many examples of families who have chosen to make this sacrifice.”
Her choice to work to educate parents in the community about their children’s education as well as her contribution to the structural changes at the charter schools have resulted in higher student registration, which has gone from 80 students in 2002 to 300 students today. Charter schools are independently run and granted greater flexibility in their operations, in return for accountability for performance. 

RCMA Wimauma Academy is a K-5th grade public charter school in Hillsborough County. Next door is RCMA Leadership Academy (6th-8th grades). 

The charter schools were birthed when RCMA discovered that the children attending their day care centers didn’t speak English and were therefore at a disadvantage in the public school system, where many of them were incorrectly labeled as possessing learning disabilities. 

“These kids were gifted, yet they lacked the proper foundation, so then Barbara Mainster, RCMA Executive Director, decided to open an elementary school where the unique needs of those children would be met,’’ Estevez says. “She invited me to become part of the project.” 

Estevez has always been inclined toward social work. From the moment she began her career as a diplomat in Nogales AZ and saw first-hand the hardships endured by many immigrants, she made it her life’s mission to work directly with the people and with communities. 

Estevez shared that one of her most fulfilling experiences as a diplomat occurred when she went to work for a Mexican mission in New York, which placed her at the United Nations.
“Working at the forefront of the United Nations was a dream come true, a thing divine,” Estevez says. “I was quite fortunate.”
Since the ’90s, Estevez played a key role as a Mexican diplomat, serving in posts such as at the Mexican Consulate in Georgia, where she worked side-by-side with Consul Teodoro Maus to organize a cultural olympics that showed the world Mexico’s greatest beauties, including exhibits from the Mexican museum of anthropology, traditional music, folkloric dances, and more.
Her path toward Wimauma began when she was transferred to the Mexican Consulate in Orlando in 1996, where she worked more closely with the Mexican communities abroad. It was there Estevez connected with RCMA while she was in charge of educational programs at the consulate.
“We had exchange programs for teachers and also ran sport and cultural programs,” Estevez says. “As time passed, I became more familiar with RCMA and I fell in love with the organization.”
“The offer Barbara Mainster made me came at a most opportune moment in my life, as I was seeking stability,” Estevez says. “When I first began my career as a diplomat, I was wanting to travel the world, but by that time I had two children and was looking to settle down somewhere and (Wimauma) seemed perfect.”
RCMA charter schools provide their education in English and follow the same academic calendar as The Department of Education. 

When Estevez began working for RCMA in Wimauma, she practically lived at the school, she says. She and her husband, Daniel Oceguera, arrived at the school vey early on weekdays and often stayed until midnight.
“We even spent weekends at the school, but it was worth it because we were working to raise up the school,” Estevez says. Oceguera served as principal of the school for almost eight years.
Hard work pays off 

When Estevez started at RCMA, the school didn’t offer a transportation service for its students, therefore, Estevez and her husband pushed hard for funding to be authorized to purchase school buses to bring children to and from the school and increase registration.
“It is a choice school, therefore if no transportation is offered, parents wouldn’t send their kids here since it is far from many of their homes, too far for the kids to walk.” Estevez says. “We were losing kids, therefore the buses were a necessity.” 

RCMA charter schools in Wimauma now uses six school buses to transport students.
Estevez believes that the schools’ successes can also be attributed to their structure as charter schools. Although, they receive public funds and follow the programs and system of the public schools, they also have the flexibility to implement special programs designed for the families they serve, such as bilingual communications assistance.
Of the 180 parents Estevez works with, 98 percent are Hispanic and most are of Mexican origin.
“This school is different because we are on top of every child, providing assistance to each as needed,” Estevez says. “We talk with each one when they start failing. We examine the root cause of behavioral problems and we are in constant communication with the parents. Here, school doesn’t end when the children go home. We follow-up with the parents to ensure the children’s development at home as well.”
At RCMA, parents are required to participate in their children’s education through mandatory meetings and other classes and programs, such as Committed Parents and Opening Doors, which focuses on becoming familiar with parents’ needs and finding ways to support them, so they can in turn support their kids’ academics.
“We don’t want parents to feel inferior because they don’t speak English and don’t have that advantage,” Estevez says. “On the contrary, we want them to transmit to their children the importance of maintaining their Spanish speaking skills, so they don’t lose their native tongue and are later unable to communicate amongst each other.”
What happens when a parent only speaks Spanish, but the child dedicates himself to only speaking English? 

“A tragedy that breaks down the communication in a family,” Estevez says.

Implementing best practices
Lourdes Villanueva, director of farmworker advocacy at RCMA, says she highly admires Estevez’s work. “Marcela’s work has been decisive to the progress of charter schools in Wimauma. From trying new academic structural models to involving parents and volunteers.”
The work of people like Esteves has revolutionized the advancement of RCMA schools, Villanueva adds. The concept of charter schools was at first unfamiliar in that area of Hillsborough County, but now the RCMA schools in Wimauma are renowned for their programs and students.
From their inception, the RCMA charter schools have been in a constant state of evolution as they seek to implement the best models. At first, they only offered K-3rd grade education, but now they offer up to an 8th grade education.
“Now we also have school year-round -- including summer school -- where the kids read, practice math and participate in other programs,” Estevez says. “The school has become known for the quality of its programs.”
Estevez, who is proud of her work, lists a series of programs that make RCMA charter schools unique. 

“We have a program for middle school girls called Girl Stories sponsored by Power Stories,’’ Estevez says. “It is a leadership program in which the girls can share their story, work as a team, write and present their own life stories.” 

“It is a very good program to develop high self-esteem,” Estevez continues. “We also have a program with the Mexican folkloric David Peñaflor to promote the children’s cultural roots and reinforce their native tongue. And we also provide educational forums about human trafficking and a related art project.”
“Some children are on scholarship with Old Fire House Cultural Center and every week about 10 kids attend art classes, not to mention that we also have a reading program through United Way.” 

Estevez, who once worked for the 1982 Nobel Prize winner Alfonso Garcia Robles, says she now finds pride and fulfillment in working directly with parents, children and others in the community.
“I don’t care about what I may get out of this position personally,” she says. “I find my reward in seeing even one of these children get ahead in life, that is more than enough for me because there are many kids, who if they hadn’t been here, would have been lost.” 

Maria Vargas, 42, says her four children may have been among those lost ones, had it not been for Estevez and RCMA. The pride she takes in her children’s successes was evident as she showed a picture of her son Ignacio Vazquez, who recently graduated as an engineer from the University of South Florida.
Vargas works in management and also drives one of the school buses for RCMA. 

“Having this school in Wimauma truly is a blessing,” Vargas says.

To read more stories from the 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project, follow these links for English and for Spanish.

The 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project is supported by Allegany Franciscan Ministries.

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Read more articles by Imelda Dutton.

Imelda Dutton, a native of the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, is a bilingual journalist with extensive expertise in Spanish communications. For more than two decades, she reported on Latin American issues for Mexican and American media, including El Universal de Mexico. She has also written for and edited Spanish and English publications, including Visión Latina, formerly a weekly publication of The Ledger and The New York Times, and Ágora, a bilingual quarterly military magazine published by U.S. Northern Command. For the past decade she has been a strategic communications consultant for international companies, such as Booz Allen Hamilton and Jacobs Technology; and in 2014, she founded CrossoverComm Inc., her own content development and communications agency. Dutton is currently the Tampa Bay area correspondent for El Sentinel newspaper and enjoys looking for ways to promote diversity and cultural awareness among Americans.  
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