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Winter 2010

The Family Way

Pregnant at 15, Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez could easily have dropped out of high school and become another tragic statistic. But she always had her eye on the future. Now an assistant professor at a top urban university with two Harvard degrees under her belt, she has proven that risk factors can be balanced out by other strengths: resilience, hard work, and family members willing to babysit and drive you back and forth to class.

Photographs by Alex Garcia

Jeannette Mancilla photo

It's September 8, the third week of the semester at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a university that 50 years ago was the dream of Mayor Richard Daley and the nightmare of hundreds of working-class Italian, Greek, African American, and Mexican families who ultimately saw their homes leveled and their communities destroyed. If there are ghosts here, they are not friendly.

I'm an interloper in Room 304 of Stevenson Hall, where at 5 p.m., Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez, Ed.M.'04, Ed.D.'09, begins her class, Studies in Literacy Research and Teacher Inquiry. She faces 15 graduate students, all of them teachers who, having put in a full day in their own classrooms, are now confined to another one for three hours, one they had to fight rush hour traffic to get to. Making matters more challenging is the fact that the readings this week are the most demanding on the syllabus.

Throw into the mix the fact that Mancilla-Martinez, her Harvard Graduate School of Education doctoral diploma only three months old, took up residence in Chicago only two weeks ago. She has chosen this job, one of four she was offered last spring, in part because she was impressed with the university's mission to serve the urban poor, particularly the African American and Latino communities. But it's a city she doesn't know; her son, Danny, is in a new school; and Oscar, her husband of six years, is still back in Boston, finishing an MBA. In short, it's a time of considerable upheaval in her life.

A betting man might wager a considerable sum that this group of students will be tired, unresponsive, and perhaps even resentful; that the teacher will succumb to their attitudes and the great stress in her own life; that the class will be a bomb.

Mancilla-Martinez, however, is not someone you should bet against. Clad in a grey suit and white shirt, she commands in a subtle way, with the authority of an old hand and the face of a new recruit. She speaks rapidly with a calm enthusiasm, her hands moving constantly. After working her way through various theories on teacher research, she sums up why teachers often resent it. "The predominant sense is that research imposes procedures and the procedures don't work when they are implemented. When it is forced on you, it doesn't hold much meaning for you. You take it as a chore, not as a desire to implement something." Teachers' resentment, she says, is often born in the feeling that the research isn't applicable to their particular students, that it will lead to poor outcomes, and that those outcomes will be blamed, not on the imposed procedures, but on the teachers stuck with them.

No drama, no fireworks, no bells, whistles, or jokes, but within the first 20 minutes, nine of the students have had something to say, and the remaining six are fully engaged. The professor clearly expects no less of them, no less of herself. Sitting in class, watching this unfold, and knowing a little about the professor, I find myself thinking of the families displaced from this site a half century ago. If there are ghosts here, they must like Mancilla-Martinez. They would do so with good reason.

It is nearly impossible to write about Mancilla-Martinez without starting with her family, and ultimately, that's the point. Her father, Felipe Mancilla, was born in a village in Jalisco, Mexico, in 1954, his actual birth date in dispute (officially February 20, unofficially February 5) because it took more than two weeks for it to be recorded in a larger village some distance away.

Jeannette Mancilla rearview  mirror photoFelipe's father abandoned the family after a second son was born a year later. The boys' mother, Angela Mancilla, worked as a maid, found she couldn't make ends meet, and left for a similar job in Texas in 1957, leaving her two toddlers behind with relatives. Eleven years later, having found better paying work in Los Angeles, she sent for her sons. The two did not have visas and crossed the border in the back seat of a car, pretending to be the sons of the woman in the front seat, a friend of their mother's whom they'd never set eyes on until that morning.

By the time the Mancilla boys established legal residency in 1970, Felipe thought that school was out of the question. "I was already 16 years old. My brother started going to high school. I saw the situation, my mother didn't have money for the rent, so I decided to go to work and help her, and also take my brother on my shoulder. He needed all the stuff for school and clothes. After that I couldn't do anything but work and work."

His mother had given up her job as a maid for betterpaying work at Moldex, a factory that manufactured foam for the bra cups of bathing suits. Felipe landed a job there cutting rolls of cloth.

"I took a second job in a gas station. Got off work at Moldex at 3 p.m., would pump gas until 8 or 9 p.m. and go home," he says. "Then I started throwing the L.A. Times. Got up at 1:30 a.m., throw 450 papers, and report to Moldex at 7 a.m."

He gave up the newspaper route after a friend hired him as a gardener, and not long after he built up his own landscaping business. He'd get up at 6:30 a.m., work until 1:30 p.m., then report to Moldex at 2:30 p.m. for the second shift. Though he only had a seventh-grade education, he picked up English gradually, informally, everyone he met his teacher. Thirty-nine years after he started at Moldex, he now supervises 76 employees on the factory's second shift and, at 55, still works his landscaping route of 60 homes.

In 1974, Felipe married Jovita Garcia, an immigrant from a village in Sinaloa, whom he'd met on the factory floor. She too had only seven years of schooling, but unlike her husband, she'd never taken to English, and it remains a foreign tongue even today. (Spanish was, and is, the language spoken in the Mancilla household.) The two settled in Inglewood, an affordable if not always safe community. Jeannette, the second of their three daughters, was born in 1978.

And thus the future Harvard doctorate had a most unlikely start. She says she never considered the family poor and never had a sense that they were "doing without," an attitude she realizes only in retrospect was the byproduct of her father's hard labor. Her mother, she recalls, was intimately involved in their lives at home and helped at school whenever she could, limited by her poor command of English.

In Mancilla-Martinez's sophomore year of high school, the family story took a sharp turn south.

"I was a really strong student throughout my elementary school years. I was in honors classes in junior high and high school," she says. "So when this news was told to my family, it was devastating for everyone. They just couldn't believe this had occurred."

A few weeks after turning 15, Mancilla-Martinez had come home pregnant.

Jeannette Mancilla and boyfriend"I had always had a good relationship with my parents. Particularly close with my father," she says. "That to me was the most difficult part, being unable to look him in the eye." The hardworking Felipe, the son of a teenage mother, saw history repeat itself. Mancilla-Martinez's boyfriend, the father of the child, eventually pulled the same vanishing act that Felipe's father had.

"It was a devastating time in our lives," Felipe recalls. "My wife was so upset -- and then all the comments. Even relatives did not make very good comments. 'Look what happened. She is taking the kids to school every day and now this.' We got some ugly comments from teachers at school. 'This is going to be bad; she will not be able to keep going to school.' I sat up with Jeannette and we talked about the situation. She told me she wanted to keep the baby. I said, 'We are raised to be responsible for our doings. We just have to face it and go forward.'"

At the time, Mancilla-Martinez was working as a paid tutor in an afterschool program at Beulah Payne Elementary School, the grammar school she'd attended, situated across the street from the Mancilla home. About three months into the pregnancy, before her pregnancy was visible or widely known, she was called into the school office. The principal and assistant principal had somehow found out she was pregnant.

"I was 15, I was totally unprepared for any of this, and I was told I had to resign as a tutor, which quite frankly, I did understand," she says, "but it was really hard to swallow at that age -- to hear two adults telling you that you are not a good role model for the children."

She decided not to tell her parents she had been fired. "I just said I wouldn't be doing it anymore, because I was too ashamed to say what they'd told me," she says. "I think my parents were still so shocked by the news that I was pregnant that not tutoring at the elementary school was the least of their concerns."

She recalls that throughout her pregnancy, her parents were "completely supportive. ...They just wanted me to stay in school, make sure I was cared for, and provide whatever they could so I could move forward." At about the same time, riots between African American and Latino students were breaking out at Inglewood High School. Her parents pulled her out and arranged for her to attend a public school for pregnant students. In the end, she missed no school at all. Her son, Daniel, was born in August, and when school began in September, Mancilla-Martinez was behind a desk, a transfer student at Santa Monica High School, eligible to attend because of her stellar academic record.

Her father recalls the baby's arrival as a blessing, an event that "turned our lives around." Jovita watched Danny while Mancilla-Martinez attended school.

"It was very difficult and odd to have a newborn starting my junior year. But because of the family support I had I could really focus on my schoolwork," Mancilla-Martinez says. "My mom was driving me to and from school. I know in retrospect that I wasn't the one providing for him." She attributes her deep-seated motivation to succeed to her parents, "who had worked so hard to provide for us without even speaking the language." The cutting words of the principal who'd fired her from her tutoring job, she says, also "fueled my desire to make something of myself."

She graduated with honors from Santa Monica and became the first in her family to attend college, choosing nearby Mount Saint Mary's. Jovita drove her to classes the first two years. She graduated in 2000, summa cum laude.

After graduation, she taught grades K through 4 at two different schools (including the elementary school where she had tutored). Though she had given some thought to attending graduate school, it was a small group of fourth-graders who sparked her application. Although they were fluent readers, they couldn't understand the meaning of the words. "They made me realize I was not as equipped as I wanted to be," she says.

A mentor at Mount Saint Mary's encouraged her to apply to the Ed School. She was accepted in 2002, and two months before starting classes in 2003, she married Oscar Martinez, a descendent of migrant farm workers whom she'd known in an honors math class in junior high in 1992, lost touch with, and then bumped into at a party in 2000. In August, Jeannette, Oscar, and 10-year-old Danny moved from Inglewood to Cambridge.

Mancilla-Martinez's interests were in language and literacy development and, not long into her five years at Harvard, she unexpectedly fell in love with research. She has since worked as project coordinator with Professor Catherine Snow on a word-generation pilot study, with Associate Professor Nonie Lesaux on predicting Spanish-speakers' growth in reading, and with former Lecturer Barbara Pan on developing methods for tracking the language development of bilingual children. She is the author or coauthor of three soon-to-be-published articles on minority learners and three articles now under review, and has addressed conferences in Prague, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Vancouver, Cambridge, Asheville, N.C., Los Angeles, and Egmond aan Zee in the Netherlands.

In gathering data for the Lesaux project, Mancilla-Martinez worked closely with current doctoral student Almudena Abeyta, Ed.M.'04, Ed.M.'09, then-principal at the Donald McKay K-8 School, described by Abeyta as "90 percent Hispanic, 90 percent free and reduced lunch, 50 percent second-language learners." Abeyta recalls Mancilla-Martinez as a different breed, a partner in education, concerned about the students, who repeatedly met with the school faculty to explain what the research was indicating.

"It gave us another way to diagnose what our students were lacking," Abeyta says, "and what we needed to be teaching them." The benefits of having someone with Mancilla-Martinez's background doing such research can't be underestimated, according to Pan.

"Because of her language background, she is able to communicate with the parents in our study directly," she says. "She can speak with credibility about the challenges and the potential of kids from language-minority and low-income backgrounds. No one is going to accuse her of being an ivory tower academic who comes in from outside to point out what is wrong and what needs to be fixed."

Jeannette Mancilla at dinner tableAccording to Pan, Mancilla-Martinez seems to be completely unable "to waste time being discouraged in the face of criticism or difficulties of any kind. She immediately moves on to, 'This is what we have, so what are we going to do about it?' rather than get mired down in a blue funk for a few days engaging in 'Well, if we'd done this instead of that,'" she says. "That approach to learning and to her work is one of her extraordinary strengths. I think her work ethic and her sense that high achievement is possible are probably things that she got from her parents and her family."

Current doctoral student Armida Lizaraga, Ed.M.'08, met Mancilla-Martinez when the latter served as a teacher's assistant in a class on reading, and then went on to work with her on Lesaux's research project. She remembers, "Jeannette always said, 'People tell me, "You work so hard, you come in so early." I am not working hard. I come in, I drink coffee, it's comfortable, it's a nice office. My dad, he works hard. This is not hard.'"

Michael Kieffer, Ed.D.'09, now assistant professor of language and education at Columbia University, recalls looking for Mancilla-Martinez at the end of their graduation ceremony last June. He found her surrounded by Oscar, Danny, Felipe, Jovita, and Angela -- Felipe's mother, who'd traveled from Mexico for the occasion -- her maternal grandmother, her two sisters, and seven other relatives. "Her dad was hugging her so hard, for four or five minutes," he says. "He had tears running down his face."

I asked Felipe to describe that day. "I guess it was just the best part of our life," he says. "It was everything we have dreamed of. It was like going to heaven smiling."

So what are the odds here? The odds that a child of non-English-speaking immigrants with seventh-grade educations, a child raised by factory workers in a low-income community, a child who was pregnant at 15, would now have a doctorate from Harvard?

Kieffer suggests that a surface analysis might indicate the odds would be a million to one, but anyone who meets the child in question would find that wildly inaccurate. Lizaraga says the story is completely unlikely, until you meet the child's parents. Christopher Howard, an Afghanistan veteran who met Mancilla-Martinez when his son played with her son on a soccer team in Cambridge, says, "I don't care what the odds are. I am going to bet on her every time."

Pan answers by pointing out the lesson in this. "All of those factors you just listed are statistically speaking risk factors, and the cumulative effects of multiple risk factors is considerable," she says. "Generally individuals who have more than one of those risk factors are at a higher risk for academic difficulties."

But development is a very complex thing, she says, and she and Mancilla-Martinez have demonstrated in their research that there is immense variability among children from lowincome backgrounds, that risk factors can be balanced out by other strengths, and teachers should always be aware that low-income children are not destined to fail academically. Mancilla-Martinez did have some early challenges, Pan says, but she also has a strong, close-knit family and personality characteristics that are sources of resilience. "We want to keep the resilience side of 'risk and resilience' in the picture."

-- John Conroy is a freelance writer from Chicago. This is his first piece in Ed.