There can be no greater tribute for a school than its alumni wanting to recreate their elementary school experience with a new generation of students.
Adriana Casas, Mariela Fernandez, Kristina Lugo, and Ana Salinas all grew up in Pilsen, graduating from Ruiz Elementary School between 1992 and 1998. All attended prestigious universities, and three of the four were Golden Apple Scholars. And now, these classmates turned colleagues have returned to their alma mater to try to make Ruiz as impactful a school for future generations as it was for them.
"The best years of my education were not in high school or college, they were here," said Mariela. "My teachers were my parents and role models, and I created the most lasting friendships of my life while at Ruiz."
A Language Arts teacher, Mariela was offered four teaching jobs after graduating college, but instead chose to accept a maternity leave position at Ruiz.
"There's nowhere else I would have wanted to teach," she said. "The administration here supports us like nowhere else, and being here gives me the chance to do what my teachers did for me, which was see something in me I couldn't even see. They told me that I was more than good enough and helped me change the way I saw myself when I looked in the mirror."
For Kristina, a 7th-grade Reading teacher, returning to Ruiz was about inspiring students to expand their reach.
"They're sitting exactly where I was sitting at their age," said Kristina of her students. "Many of them think there's nothing beyond these few streets. I want to show them that their neighborhood will always be part of them, but that they can think bigger and do more."
The key to this mission is academic achievement, which is why Math teacher Ana Salinas has such high expectations for her students.
"I want our curriculum to be rigorous," she said. "I want to push my students the way I was pushed so that they will have their pick of schools and will be able to pursue a career that they excel in and enjoy."
While a student at Ruiz, Ana herself was pushed, particularly by now principal Dana Butler, who could see that she was being underestimated.
"She'd been placed in a 6th-grade reading group even though she was in 7th grade," said Principal Butler. "I knew she could do better, so I pulled her out and put her back in with her peers. I pushed her to excel, and eventually she ended up in AP English."
Butler, who taught all four women over the course of his career, is in awe of their success. He is humbled by their choice to return, and considers it a testament to the power of the Ruiz community.
"I'm here because of them and the students like them," he said. "They were all true leaders who kept me enthusiastic about teaching. It's been a thrill to see them do such great things, and most especially to welcome them back as Ruiz teachers."
According to the alumni, it's a fantastic yet surreal experience to return to your alma mater to teach.
"There are still some teachers here who I had as a student, and I just can't call them by their first names," said Kristina. "And we had no idea until we got here how many hats our teachers wore. Being on this side of the desk makes for a very different perspective."
The women did not know each other well as students, and all admit to having differing personalities and experiences of their school. But they are united in their belief that being a Ruiz student changed the trajectory of their lives, and feel it is their calling to pay that reality forward.
"It doesn't hit you until you're an adult, what this place did for you," said Adriana. "Before I was a student at Ruiz, I didn't know what it was like to feel supported. This is where I found myself and got comfortable with who I am. Simply put, this is home."