Jessica Ortega-Mendez

Jessica Ortega-Mendez, Family and Consumer Science Teacher at Bellingham High School

Jessica Ortega-Mendez“I changed my major three times. I started in public health/pre-nursing. Then, my sophomore year I had a weeklong summer job where I worked with students. There’s a program called CAMP at CWU, the College Assistance Migrant Program, that I was part of as a freshman. It’s for migrant students and first-generation college kids from all over Washington who need extra support. The main thing is that we want them to go to college. I ended up falling in love with working with high schoolers. I was not happy with the nursing program, but I really liked health, so I changed my major to P.E. and health, but I was not a big fan of P.E., I just liked health. Then my coworker told me about Family and Consumer Science (FCS), so that’s how I ended up here.

A lot of people have no idea what FCS is–They say, “what is that?” and I’ll say ‘Home Ec.’ People don’t know it’s a college major. Central, WSU and SPU have it, and it’s grown a lot. It’s so important; we are teaching kids skills they will use for the rest of their lives, hopefully–knowing how to cook, to sew, not just throwing something away because it has a hole in it. We have a Family and Careers Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) chapter. It’s like FBLA or DECA, but FCS-related. Some students want to teach kids how to cook, some are knitting hats for people in the community, and one student wants to decrease the use of plastic at BHS.

I didn’t know much about Bellingham High at all. My first day of school I was so scared. But the kids have been really nice and sweet, and it’s been really, really good so far. I didn’t really think I would want to stay here forever; I thought, ‘I will try it for a year or two,’ and I’ve ended up falling in love with it at BHS; I don’t think I ever want to leave.

I’ve had some parents tell me, ‘My kid helped me with cooking and they’ve never done that before, they started chopping everything,’ or I’ve had kids say ‘Look what I made, I made what you taught us.’ When kids tell me they cooked for their family and their family liked it, it’s like oh, good!”

Lara Stark, Third Grade Teacher at Carl Cozier Elementary School

Lara Stark“I’m from southeast Alaska. I grew up there and wanted to leave really badly. I went to college at Western. I student taught at Geneva and I wanted to stay in Bellingham but I had an Alaska teacher scholarship loan, so if I went back and taught in rural Alaska for five years then all that money was forgiven. I went back to Alaska to teach and I ended up staying for nine years. I was in a good place and everything was going well.

My first job was teaching fourth grade in a little village called Kwigillingok, which is tiny. It is about 300 people. I had 14 students. All of them spoke Yup’ik as their first language. That is the native language there. English was their second language and I was their first English-speaking teacher. That was a very unique experience. It was great and challenging all at the same time. There was no running water, no flush toilets, no roads, no cars. Just lots of snow and snow machines. I drove a snow machine to school.

I was there three years and then I went to Dutch Harbor which is in the Aleutian chain and it’s a little more developed with about 5,000 people. It’s got a really established fishing industry. Most years I had 7 or 8 languages spoken in my classroom. It was a very interesting and fun place to teach, so that’s why I ended up staying there longer. Then I came back here.

I taught at Geneva for 13 years and this is my first year at Carl Cozier. I asked to move to a Title 1 school. I was ready for a change. Geneva was great. I loved the kids, the families, the staff. It was just 13 years in one place is a long time. I felt like I wasn’t growing anymore and I wanted to try something different. I really wanted to come to a school with different kinds of needs. It’s been really different than Geneva, but I love it. The staff here is awesome. The kids are great. But it’s just a whole different world.

Geneva is the biggest elementary school in Bellingham and Carl Cozier seems so tiny. I remember the first day we had a Friday assembly, I walked in and I was like where is everybody? And someone said – this is it, this is the whole school. And I said, wow it’s so small! It’s great. I love that its small.

It seems like all the other staff members know all the kids names, but I don’t know them all yet.That’s the legend around here anyway. That the teachers know all the kids names and that’s pretty cool really. The staff here is amazing, they love kids. They work really hard and stay positive and the kids really love them. I feel like the kids here feel loved by their teachers. I’m really glad I’m here.

It’s been a big change, but its good. I feel like I’m growing and I’m learning a whole new set of skills. Right now where I am being in my first year here, I feel like I’m extremely far behind, but I wanted to be pushed and feel like I’m learning something new and stretching myself. I keep thinking, next year it is going to be so easy! Maybe not easy, but familiar.”

Kirstin Copeland, Library Media Specialist and HCL Liaison at Columbia Elementary School

Kirstin Copeland“Stories are the heart and soul of humans. It inspires kids to learn. It’s the most fun part of the learning day. Everything comes back to stories and books, I think, whether science or math or social studies — it’s the core and the heart.

I was at a children’s literacy conference at Western and Kate DiCamillo was there, an author, and she was talking about her friend, who, when she was a kid, kept reading Charlotte’s Web over and over again, and would cry every time and it was so sad. And she said, ‘Why do you keep reading that book? It’s so sad,’ and the kid said, ‘because every time I read it I know that I can get through things. Every time I read it, it’s easier.’ You get strength from reading stories.

Everybody finds themselves in books whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. There’s a place for everybody in the library.

Finding time is always the hardest part. But it’s also the best part because I get to have kids every year. I’m not confined to one year of having them in my classroom. If they are here in kindergarten through fifth grade maybe I’ve gotten to know them for six years. I have a long time to do my best to help them do their best.

I can’t really talk about myself in this position without talking about Marcie Thran. She is my right hand, actually my left hand (and my right brain and left brain). We’ve been together at Columbia the whole time — we’re a team. And this whole school, I’ve been working with these folks for awhile and we’ve gone through lots of changes and different things going on. Right now we’re working on our IB focus and it’s been really great. It’s been something I’ve been hoping for Columbia for awhile so I’m glad we’re doing it.”




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