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An Exceptional Teacher in Ontario

We hopefully have all had at least one: a teacher that encouraged us to succeed, a person who fostered hopes, dreams and serious goals for the future.

For many English-as-a second-language students in the Ontario School District, Xochitl Fuhriman-Ebert is one of those teachers.

Fuhriman was awarded "Oregon 2000 Teacher of the Year" accolades and now she is one of 55 teachers highlighted in a new book.

The book, "Teachers: A Tribute to the Enlightened, the Exceptional, the Extraordinary" celebrates the passion and dedication of teachers from across the United States, including New York's director of the Choir Academy of Harlem, an art teacher in Martha's Vineyard, a school for circus performers in San Francisco and Fuhriman-Ebert's English-as-a-second-language class at Ontario Middle School.

"I was just pleasantly surprised, I was fortunate to make the cut," Fuhriman-Ebert said.

In January 2001, photographer Gary Firstenberg spent a day photographing and interviewing Fuhriman-Ebert and her class. Fuhriman-Ebert was just one of many potential teachers interviewed on Firstenberg and writer, John Yow's, four and one-half month, 50,000-mile journey through 40 states to capture the spirit of the nation's best teachers. Firstenberg spent the day at OMS then left and nothing more was said about the book.

Now a year later, Fuhriman-Ebert's story and photograph, taken with former students Gabriela Sanchez and Consuelo Gastelum, reside among the stories of other exceptional teachers and just a page behind a more well- known name - Oprah Winfrey's companion - Stedman Graham, who is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University in Chicago. Fuhriman-Ebert, a baby in the education business, is a Mexican immigrant who came to the U.S. just in time to start first grade and struggled her whole life through school.

"Because school was hard for me, I empathize with these kids," Fuhriman-Ebert said.

The students she is talking about are the children, who like herself, not only struggled to understand English as a second language, but as an academic language.

"The example I give people is when they watch the show 'ER,'" Fuhriman-Ebert said. "They speak in medical terms we don't understand, but they're speaking in English."

Fuhriman-Ebert never believed her goal in life would be to help Hispanic students succeed, she said. That all changed her first year of teaching when she and her fifth-grade class at Lindberg Elementary School raised $4,000 to take a trip to Disney World.

"You tell me I can't do it, and I do it," Fuhriman-Ebert said. "That was the hardest year of my life, harder than labor, but it was my proudest moment."

What her students actually learned that year, she said she can not recall but she knows that to this day some of those children think about that trip.

"They had a dream and they accomplished it, that's what I taught them," Fuhriman-Ebert said.

The next year, Fuhriman-Ebert transferred to OMS as a Spanish teacher but quickly became instrumental in fully implementing the ESL program at the school.

ESL is different from a bilingual approach in that it does not simply teach Spanish-speaking students English, but focuses on understanding the content of the subject.

"These kids were learning English but still flunking because we weren't focusing on the content," Fuhriman-Ebert said.

This year Fuhriman-Ebert is not in the classroom but instead, is busy as the director of the three federal grants she applied for and received, totaling more than $1.5 million.

"Every time I went to someone about a starting a project it was a money issue," Fuhriman-Ebert said.

Her first grant, Program Development and Implementation, is in its final year. The grant funded a three year commitment from teachers interested in receiving the high number of hours worth of training to have the skills necessary to implement ESL in their classroom.

The grant also funds scholarships for eighth-grade ESL students to attend the annual Washington, D.C. trip, an opportunity they might not have other wise.Fuhriman-Ebert's second grant provided the funds for teachers to attend workshops and faculty retreats with three main focuses: ESL instruction, reading and middle school philosophy.

Part of leaving the classroom also includes a five week trip to Central Mexico, where teachers attend college classes, taught in Spanish, on the language and culture of Mexico.

"They come back with a new perspective on their students," Fuhriman-Ebert said. "It's a chance for them to walk a day in their (the students') world."

The third grant is the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Fuhriman-Ebert's baby as she calls it.

The program provides after school activities for students in a safe and drug-free environment as well as activities and parenting classes for adults. Fundamental basics like reading and math sneak into fun classes such as pottery, songwriting and researching a favorite athlete, Fuhriman-Ebert said. The goal of the program is in three years to become self-sufficient through community involvement.

To see how one person can change the world is to listen for only a few minutes to Xochitl Fuhriman-Ebert, who credits her fellow teachers and the Ontario School District for the success of her programs.

"The seed is planted here," Fuhriman-Ebert said.

Not bad for the struggling student turned teacher who was ready to give up after her first year of teaching.

By Kim Nowacki Argus Observer