Toppenish, Wash. - With a population inching above 9,000, it’s the largest city within the 2,200-square-mile Yakama Indian Reservation. Home to a thriving casino, the American Hop Museum and over 70 hand-painted murals depicting its history, Toppenish, the Chamber of Commerce proudly boasts, is “Where the West Still Lives!”
Traveling toward town on U.S. Highway 97 through the fertile Yakima Valley, you can tell what month it is by the roadside signs hailing drivers to pull over for fresh produce. Apples, sweet cherries, apricots, plums, nectarines, grapes, beets, asparagus, peppers, hops. All crops that rely on a labor force to plant, pick and pack on demand — and this is the reason Toppenish is both permanent home and seasonal stopover for a sizable population of immigrant families.
“I am one of them.” This simple statement from third grade teacher Jose Corona says it all. “I come from an immigrant family from Mexico. We were basically raised in the fields.”
Currently in his 21st year of teaching at Kirkwood Elementary in Toppenish, Jose Corona grew up in neighboring Sunnyside, helping his family to harvest vegetables and fruit throughout the valley. He tells of being at work picking apples right up until the day he left for college.
Laboring in the fields as a youth was not uncommon when and where Corona was coming of age. But his decision to ignore his high school counselor’s recommendation to take advantage of his good grades and minority recruitment opportunities in engineering was perhaps more so. Instead, Corona chose to go to college and return to the valley where he grew up, with his teaching certificate in hand, and with a resolve to improve the lives of children growing up like he did.
“I rejected those career choices for what I felt would be a more rewarding life,” he explains.
Last year, the Toppenish School District student count was 4,430. Of those students, approximately 73 percent were of Hispanic/Latino origin and 12 percent were American Indian or Alaskan Native. In addition to the obvious advantages of being a bilingual teacher who is able to communicate with both students and parents in their own language, Corona is also a role model for a strong, educated male and successful community member, regardless of ethnic background. But for impressionable 8- and 9-year-olds, perhaps struggling to find solid ground from which to launch themselves, knowing that their teacher understands the world they come from is essential.
“I get children sometimes already with notions that somehow they don’t know things, can’t do things” says Corona. “Adversity should not be an excuse that impedes growth. It should serve as the catalyst for advancement. “
“That’s one of the things that he tells his students,” adds friend and preschool principal, Anastasia Sanchez. “You just have to stay in school and apply yourself.”
The third grade is a critical transitional year in a child’s education. At this stage, the curriculum begins to focus on learning about the past, present and future. Students are required to problem-solve with more independence versus. simply follow directions. And it’s also a year of moving from learning to read to reading to learn.
According to studies conducted by the National Research Council and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, among others, entering fourth grade with a reading deficit is a key risk indicator for a child’s ability to catch up and to eventually graduate from high school. Lifelong success starts with reading and a failure to help disadvantaged children attain proficiency in reading by the fourth grade cements educational failure and poverty into the next generation, these studies have found.
With gentle patience and a devoted focus, Corona directs his full attention to empowering this age group to achieve academic success, intervening at this juncture when teaching can make a real difference in the educational outcomes for young learners. He’s impacted his students and the school by designing “literacy center” rotations (physical areas or stations within the classroom to boost individual learning). He recognizes the struggle for many underprivileged students to succeed in math and has created math centers for the school, as well as compiled grade-level math homework packets. He constantly mentors other new teachers at the school and offers English classes for the parents of his students.
Corona’s work and dedication has thus had significant impact on the lives of his students and their families. Though dispensing recognition and rewards is a central element of his own teaching philosophy and practice, Corona was the only one who was surprised when he was named the Educational Service District 105 Regional Teacher of the Year and a finalist for Washington’s Teacher of the Year for 2016–2017.
“One of the terms that we have in our Mexican tradition,” says Anastasia Sanchez, “is that we call our children mijo/mija, which is son/daughter, and you hear Jose saying that a lot to his students: ‘Mija, andale a trabajar — let’s get our work done!’ It’s a term of endearment that means ‘I care for you, I love you. ’”
In his more than 20 years of teaching, Jose Corona serves as a reminder of the necessity for and importance of an ethnically and racially diverse teacher base in Washington, as well as an inspiring example of what giving back to one’s community with heart and effort can do to change lives.
Veteran producer Kathy Tuohey has been working in broadcast television for over 25 years. From daily segments to documentaries, her expertise includes arts programming, human interest stories and education specials. She is managing producer of the Golden Apple Awards, produces the Pathways to Excellence education series, and is a contributor to IN Close. This Northwest native’s natural curiosity about the people and places of our region keeps her on the lookout for the next great story.More stories by Kathy Tuohey