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Star teacher chose her path early

Reynolds School District alum Maranda Alcalá is one of 51 American Stars of Teaching
by: Carole Archer, Maranda Alcalá, center, was honored by her colleagues Thursday at Salish Ponds Elementary School.  She is joined by her uncle Tom Caldwell, left, and her mother, Brenda Caldwell.

Salish Ponds Elementary School teacher Maranda Alcalá decided her future at the wise old age of 7.

She remembers it well.

'I realized I wanted to be a teacher when I was halfway through first grade,' Alcalá says, smiling and showing off deep dimples.

All Alcalá knew then was that teachers got to read books all day, had the summers off and that they had a special teachers' room, where they undoubtedly stashed all the good cookies.

'It wasn't until much later that I realized teachers work from sunup to sundown and that most of them work all summer,' Alcalá, 27, says. 'I also realized there wasn't anything special in that room!'

It must have been a big disappointment, but Alcalá didn't let it dissuade her career choice.

Besides, by then, she was already well into her role.

Alcalá's first-grade teacher, Tracy Lunceford, used to let Alcalá help out in the classroom, cutting yarn and sharpening pencils.

The teacher-student relationship was one that stuck.

Lunceford mentored Alcalá through the girl's formative years at Reynolds Middle and Reynolds High, and even through college. When Alcalá became a student teacher, it was in Lunceford's second-grade classroom at Troutdale Elementary.

On Thursday, Sept. 14, after a federal official for the Department of Education named Alcalá one of 51 'American Stars of Teaching,' Lunceford - now a colleague and friend to her former student - stood in front of a crowd and praised Alcalá's dedication to a sometimes thankless profession.

'I can't say enough of (Alcalá's) work ethic, of her graciousness,' Lunceford said. 'The kids she's teaching, no matter how low they're feeling, when they come to Maranda's room, she makes them feel like they've come to a safe place, to a happy place.'

The surprise ceremony, which took place in the Salish Ponds media center Thursday, honored Alcalá as one of the nation's best teachers.

'One of the greatest privileges of my job is to honor the teachers, the superintendents and the principals who are on the ground, making a difference in the lives of these kids,' said Cindi Williams, a deputy assistant secretary with the Department of Education.

Williams praised Salish Ponds Elementary School for meeting the requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind law and said the school has exceeded federal expectations.

She then revealed that, out of 4,000 applications submitted to the Department of Education for its annual 'American Star of Teaching' award, which honors one teacher in each state plus the District of Columbia, a teacher at Salish Ponds had made the cut.

At this point, Alcalá still didn't have a clue that Williams was talking about her.

Then Salish Ponds Principal Jonni Lewis stood up.

As soon as Lewis mentioned that the award winner was a teacher who had come to her three years ago with an idea - to blend the school's first-, second- and third-grade English language learners together for very specific, concentrated lessons - Alcalá started to cry.

'Tracy said I jumped about 6 inches out of my seat,' Alcalá said later of her mentor and friend, who was sitting beside the young teacher and had managed, like the rest of the district, to keep the ceremony secret. 'I was so surprised … I wish I could go back and say that, if I'm considered a great teacher, it's only because I'm surrounded by extremely caring and talented people.'

After her name was announced, Alcalá went to the front of the room to accept her award.

And what was this teacher thinking?

'I was just thinking that my mom was going to be so disappointed that she missed this,' Alcalá says. 'Then I turned around, and I saw her there, with my family … that was really a surprise.'

Alcalá mother, Brenda Caldwell, was overflowing with pride Thursday, as she took center stage to talk about her daughter.

'I just want to tell you how proud we are of you and how we knew you could be anything you wanted to be,' Caldwell told her adult daughter. 'Thanks for proving us right.'

Principal Jonni Lewis spoke at the end of the ceremony and had a few words for her young 'star' teacher:

'Maranda I hope you never stop dreaming and that you never lose the passion you have - it's a gift to all the children whose lives you touch,' Lewis said.

More on Maranda Alcalá

Name: Maranda Alcalá.

Age: Will be 28 in October.

Family: Grew up as an only child with her mother, Brenda Caldwell.

Occupation: Teaches first-, second- and third-grade blend of English language learners at Salish Ponds Elementary School in the Reynolds School District.

Education: Attended Fairview and Troutdale elementary schools, Reynolds Middle School and Reynolds High School. Received her undergraduate degree from Concordia University and master's degree from the University of Portland. Learned to speak Spanish after working in Mexican schools for three summers during college.

On being named an 'American Star of Teaching': 'During my short career, people have constantly pushed me to do well and to think outside the box. If I'm an American Star of Teaching, it's only because I'm surrounded by amazing people … and because Salish Ponds is such an outstanding school.'

On the children she teaches: 'These children need someone to say to them, 'I know this is hard for you, but you can do it.' They need compassion, they need empathy, yes, but more than that, they need people to tell them they will do it, they will learn to speak and read English.'

In her 'off' time: Alcalá teaches Spanish-speaking migrant workers during the summer; works weekend nights at a Fairview auction house; and volunteers for various district positions, including serving as an officer for the Reynolds teachers' union. When she's not working, Alcalá spends time at her church, St. Anne's Catholic Church, and enjoys reading, biking around her southeast Portland home, and 'doing all the things Oregonians like to do.'