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‘The most devoted:’ Monmouth-Roseville educator named Illinois Bilingual Teacher of Year

Sara Mendez, 8th grade English Language Development Teacher at Monmouth-Roseville Junior High School was named the 2024 Bilingual Teacher of the Year by the Illinois State Board of Education.
Jane Carlson
Tri States Public Radio
Sara Mendez, 8th grade English Language Development Teacher at Monmouth-Roseville Junior High School was named the 2024 Bilingual Teacher of the Year by the Illinois State Board of Education.

Just since winter break this year, Monmouth-Roseville District 238 has welcomed new students from Guatemala, Mexico, Guinea, Malaysia, and Yemen, who speak languages including Spanish, French, and Arabic.

As the rural western Illinois school district becomes increasingly diverse, one of its educators has been honored by the Illinois State Board of Education for her expertise and devotion in teaching English language learners.

State Superintendent Tony Sanders surprised Sara Mendez in a Zoom call Feb. 1 with the 2024 Bilingual Teacher of the Year award.

Mendez is now one of 15 teachers across the state who were recognized this year for their extraordinary contributions as part of the 2024 Teacher of the Year Cohort.

Her path to helping students in a new country find their way started with being the daughter of an immigrant.

“My father immigrated from Mexico when he was younger and my mother was born here,” Mendez said. “I was raised, always, around people from other backgrounds. I really noticed how education made a difference for people who were trying to make their lives better.”

Successful across the board

Nearly one in five students in the district is an English language learner. Inside Mendez’s classroom at Monmouth-Roseville Junior High in Roseville, students from all over the world are given the support and guidance they need to learn English.

“This is an 8th-grade language development class. We follow the same curriculum as a regular, all native English speaker English classroom would, but usually at a little slower pace and we go a little more in-depth,” Mendez said.

That means there’s more vocabulary, more writing, and just more practice to help the students learn English.

“Which is really hard to do simultaneously alongside learning 8th-grade math, social studies, and science when you don’t know enough English,” Mendez said. “We need to help you get those skills up to where you can be successful across the board.”

‘Huge, amazing population’

Mendez was raised in West Chicago and Sterling.

She came to western Illinois to study education at Monmouth College and later earned a master’s degree from Western Illinois University.

When she started teaching in Monmouth-Roseville 15 years ago, she was one of just three bilingual educators, and she had fewer than a dozen students. All were Spanish-speakers, and they weren’t what the district calls “newcomers.” They had intermediate English language skills.

That has evolved in Monmouth-Roseville.

“Now we have this huge, amazing population of almost 400 students, 25 languages and 20 birth countries,” Mendez said. “All sorts of different kinds of people and that has really just, wow, contributed so much to our community.”

Mendez said she tries to find ways to help students treasure where they’re from, such as putting on a program every year for students to explore their culture and heritage.

“Some of them know that really well because they’ve just come from the Congo or Mali or Mexico or Puerto Rico,” Mendez said. “Some of them are separated by a generation or two and don’t know as much.”

So Mendez sends the students home with questions to ask their families.

“They come back and they’re full of excitement about the things they learned,” she said.

Welcoming and excited

There’s now a team of 20 teachers in the district working with English learners at all grade levels.

“I feel like our entire district is so welcoming -- and excited,” said Amy Freitag, Director of Multilingual Learners for Monmouth-Roseville. “We get a new language or we get a connection to a new country and everyone is trying to learn as much as they can about that language and that country. There’s just excitement about it, instead of fear or dread.”

Freitag said there’s been an uptick of immigrant and refugee families into the area since the pandemic.

While many are drawn to the area to work at the Smithfield Foods pork-processing plant in Monmouth, others are arriving in Warren County because they have connections to people who have already settled there.

Freitag said the district has a dual-language program for elementary students, and multilingual teachers in junior high and high school are constantly expanding skills and learning new subjects to meet the needs of the population.

“You’re endorsed in a specific content area with your license for teaching but you have to teach yourself all the other subjects in order to help your students,” she said. “It’s really a unique position and it’s not for the faint of heart. You have to be willing to learn new things every single day or else you’re not going to be able to help your students as best you can."

Meeting them where they are

Language is not the only challenge.

“Especially in the last couple of years we have welcomed students who have significant gaps in their education,” Freitag said. “Many of them are starting at the high school level based on age but perhaps have not been in school since, 6th, 7th, or 8th grade.”

It’s teachers like Mendez who are bridging those gaps.

Freitag said Mendez has done extra training to teach foundational English skills to students who arrive at Monmouth-Roseville with those gaps in their education – or who aren’t starting school in the U.S. until junior high.

“Even as an 8th-grade teacher she’s done all of the training similar to what our elementary teachers have done,” Freitag said. “Since she has taught in elementary and junior high, she just has the widest repertoire of skills to be able to meet students exactly where they are, which is exactly what you need in order to teach English learners.”

Freitag also said Mendez is the most devoted teacher she’s ever met.

‘Aha moments’

Mendez considers her job to be kind of like giving students training wheels.

It’s also about getting them out of their comfort zone.

With those newcomers, there’s often what the teachers call a “silent period” as they’re getting acclimated. But with patience, devotion, and guidance, there are breakthroughs, success stories -- and joy in Miss Mendez’s classroom.

“You spend all of this time just talking to them and helping them figure out how things work and where to go and then one day they say, can I please go to the bathroom? And you’re like it’s a full sentence, oh my gosh I’m so proud of you,” she said.

“And that’s like the goal, right? It’s like just keep helping them, keep supporting them, until they have those aha moments and are able to stand on their own.”

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Jane Carlson is TSPR's regional reporter.