By Luis Uribe
LOS ANGELES – A Peruvian teacher who came to this country 10 years ago knowing no English has managed to stand out because of her achievements with special education students and be recognized as teacher of the year in Los Angeles County’s Lancaster School District.
Elsa Balcazar overcame her initial language difficulties, made greater by the fact that she was an adult immigrant, and was recognized for her outstanding work in the education of special needs children.
“It’s a second life, it’s starting over again,” said Elsa of her arrival in the United States. “When I came I spoke barely any English. Therefore, during all of 2000 and half of 2001 the only thing I did was study English.”
“I knew that it was the only way to get a job and it’s not easy at that age to learn a language,” she told Efe.
“I got up every day at 4 in the morning and practiced at least an hour a day writing in English,” said the 2010 Special Education Teacher of the Year in the Lancaster School District.
Her first job was as a teacher for Home Hospital, a program in which the instructor visits children with special needs and works with them in their homes. She was with that program for two years.
Then, she moved to a program in a middle school to work with special education kids.
One advantage Balcazar had was having come to this country with an education and experience. In Lima, she studied early education and then got a master’s degree in Special Education through a program advised by a U.S. university.
In the United States, she validated her degrees through a firm that specializes in doing that for immigrants and both her Peruvian degrees were recognized.
However, she had to go to the university to complete her courses to obtain credentials to become an educator.
“It’s very hard to work full time and take classes for your certification,” said Elsa, but she added that her own experience enabled her to help others complete their own certification procedures.
Being a woman and an Hispanic never proved to be reasons causing her to be rejected or suffer discrimination.
“I marveled at that about this culture. I never felt discriminated against,” she said. “Despite the fact that I have a very strong accent and at the beginning I wasn’t fluent in English.”
She said that the other teachers “saw that I had knowledge about the students. That the children made progress,” and she also said that “I kept studying to improve my English.”
Meanwhile, being Hispanic and coming from a country with many needs helped her be more creative with her resources.
“The teachers here, it’s not that they’re not creative, they just limit themselves a little when there are no resources,” she commented.
“I, since I come from a culture with fewer resources, I adapt the programs, I look for a way to implement an effective program for one age (group) to students on another level. We Hispanics have advantages: limitations make us more creative.”
That capacity to create and adapt programs to prevailing circumstances and to specific needs led her to be asked to develop a special program for children with severe autism.
“I designed the program that is now functioning in the district,” she said.
In addition to teaching in the classroom, on Saturdays she runs a program for preschool children and her parents, most of them farm workers.
“Here there are opportunities. You have to show (the children) how to take advantage (of them) and to create expectations in them and the pleasure of studying. The families should extend themselves so that the children can be more than the parents,” she said.
Her next goal is “to work on detection with young autistic children, not only in the classroom but in research.”
Elsa’s daughter Elsa Maria, who studied education and is finishing up her exams to get her certification in bilingual education, is continuing the educational tradition of the Balcazar family.
A seed that began with Elsa’s great-grandfather in a small village in Peru is now growing in the United States, not only with her but also with her brother and sister, both of whom are specialists in education. EFE