Ana Hernandez knew teaching was something she wanted to do early in life. As a young child living in a small town in northern Mexico, Hernandez would take pieces of chalk she received from nuns and use them while role-playing as a teacher for her cousins at home.
Hernandez, now the principal at Cristo Rey De La Salle East Bay High School in Oakland, Calif., got to know her educators well during her impressionable childhood years in Mexico and she thrived at her local Catholic school.
But at the age of nine, Hernandez’s life – inside and outside of the classroom – changed dramatically when she immigrated to the United States with her family.
Life as a first-generation learner in Oakland
Hernandez struggled early in her classes in Oakland. There was a new teaching style to adapt to, a new curriculum to digest, and a whole new language to learn.
“I went from being a top student in Mexico to not even knowing what I was doing because I didn’t know the language,” Hernandez said.
But Hernandez’s intelligence would soon cut through the language barrier. Her math teacher took notice of Hernandez’s aptitude for arithmetic and helped change Hernandez’s educational journey for the better.
Math is a universal language and Hernandez’s teacher correctly realized her new student had untapped potential in other areas, too. She would serve as Hernandez’s mentor and pushed her to practice goal-setting and help her understand how much she could accomplish.
The teacher advocated for Hernandez every chance she could and helped get Hernandez into the Upward Bound Program, a federally-funded educational program that helps increase college access for first-generation students.
“My passion was reborn at Upward Bound,” Hernandez said.
Upward Bound’s focus on providing opportunities for students to succeed – and the leadership of then-program director Romeo Garcia – inspired Hernandez to make a similar impact in her Oakland community. She was now thriving as a high school student thanks in large part to the mentoring she received from her teachers and was ready to be a mentor herself.
Hernandez and her sister, Martha, created their own mentoring program back at the same elementary school where Ana once struggled when she first immigrated to the U.S. Hernandez provided tutoring lessons in both English and Spanish, hoping to help someone like herself at that age.
Students deserve representation and celebration
Hernandez’s passion for education continued through college, where she earned a Bachelor’s degree at Occidental College in Los Angeles and a Master’s degree at Mills College in Oakland. She then took the lessons learned from her childhood into her professional career as a teacher and school leader.
Hernandez knew how important it was to help students thrive early and often throughout their educational experiences, especially those who came from underprivileged communities.
“This is what made me be an educator,” Hernandez said. “I learned firsthand that students need educators that bring their true authentic selves and encourage students to do the same. Students need to be seen. They deserve to be celebrated, to be heard, and known.”
After more than a decade as a counselor, teacher, principal, and program director, Hernandez became the founding principal of Cristo Rey De La Salle East Bay High School in July 2017. CRDLS is a Catholic high school that is part of the Cristo Rey Network and located in the heart of the Fruitvale region of Oakland. As the leader of a school that serves students from low-income backgrounds, Hernandez helps ensure that every student has a personalized experience so they are met where they are and with the support they need.
Hernandez and her CRDLS faculty strive to ensure that every student they teach is able to someday thrive in college and has real-world work experience. Instruction at CRDLS is student-centered and students are given mentors that work with them on goal-setting throughout the school year. The school also uses the Summit Learning approach, focusing on building Habits of Success so students can thrive in any environment.
Despite the pandemic, learning must go on
This has been a year of uncertainty in education because of COVID-19, but Hernandez has ensured her students, faculty, and community that they have a safe place to learn and thrive. In the spring, Hernandez’s leadership helped her team support students as they pivoted to remote environments.
Hernandez was impressed with how CRDLS students made the transition to distance learning with ease. The school’s focus on developing lifelong learning habits paid off as students self-directed their learning, set goals, managed their time, and sought feedback from their teachers.
In many ways, Hernandez had been building toward this type of steady leadership opportunity since those early days acting as a teacher to her cousins as a child in Mexico.
“Right now the best way teachers and school leaders can be supporting their community is by creating stability,” Hernandez said. “Teachers should feel empowered to find the inspiration within themselves in ways that work for them to bring joy. We can do it. We can lean on each other as educators and do all we can to support our students.
“Like any other year we need to focus first and foremost on social and emotional learning, and from there enable our students to pursue their goals, whatever they may be.”