Belmont Patch's feature, "Meet Your Neighbors," is just that – discovering more about fellow residents or people who work in town and make the community a nice place to live.
Who? Dr. Eleonora Villegas-Reimers
What? Winner of the Latino Excellence in Education award, Wheelock College professor, board member of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care.
Ever since she was young, Eleonora Villegas-Reimers wanted to be a teacher.
“I knew I wanted to work with children and believed if I wanted to help them, I needed to reach them early in their lives,” she told Belmont Patch.
Originally from Venezuela, she earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the Universidad Catolica Andres Bello and then taught sociology and citizen education at the high-school level.
In 1983, Villegas-Reimers moved to the US to study at Harvard University where she earned a Master of Education and Doctor of Education degree from the Graduate School of Education.
Eventually, she said she realized she could help students more if she could influence teachers and began working in higher educational settings.
And she is taking her academic background to discover the reasons why the fastest growing group of students in Massachusetts is also the one with the largest achievement problem.
Of all the ethnic groups in the state, the number of Latino students in the public school systems is growing the most. And that may have something to do with why it is the group that currently has the most problems with academic achievement, she said.
“Few people realize that while Massachusetts is number one in terms of academic measurements such as MCAS test results, it also holds the top position in the gap between high- and low-achievement for students,” said the recipient of the Latino Excellence in Education Award who received the honor on Oct. 6 during a ceremony at the State House celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month.
Ordinarily, Villegas-Reimers pointed out, people think it’s children from low-income households who have trouble with learning but it’s actually those who are English Language Learners (ELLs).
“When you look at the numbers, Latinos graduate from high school less than any other ethnic group,” she said.
Why Latinos more than other ELL learners?
With children coming to the state – and the nation – from so many parts of the world, it begs the question as to why those from Latino countries have so much trouble learning English and, therefore, being able to get through high school and beyond.
After all, English is extremely difficult for many to learn and particularly for those who use a different alphabet in their first language.
“We are trying to figure that out,” said Villegas-Reimers, a Belmont resident since 1997 who is a board member of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care (DEEC) that supports children and families on the state level.
She is an associate professor at Wheelock College, a member of the Advisory Board to Families First, a Council Member of the National Parenting Education Network (NPEN), and a member of the Directory of the Chilean Educational Foundation “Crecer con Todos.”
Possibly there is more reporting on the achievement of Latinos than other ELL groups and also Latino are the largest group of students of color in the State, Villegas-Reimers said.
“It takes, on average, four or five years to become proficient enough in English to learn in the classroom (as opposed to merely understanding other children on the playground),” Villegas-Reimers said.
“But if you’re spending so much time learning the language, there’s less time to study content.”
In fact, she pointed out, a study conducted in 2009 by a task force created by State Secretary of Education Paul Reville examined the situation of English language learners in Massachusetts.
The findings were that proficiency in English took five years but once in high school, a large number of those ELL students withdrew.
“They understood English but now were behind in their knowledge of subjects in high school,” Villegas-Reimers explained.
What needs to be done going forward
“We are seeing that if educators want to help improve state achievement, they must help all children, including Latinos,” Villegas-Reimers said.
To that end, the DEEC just submitted a grant to the federal government for early childhood education’s Race to the Top.
Should the grant be awarded, Villegas-Reimers said Massachusetts would have $50 million for four years to implement programs for children five years and younger including those who attend family daycare centers and public and private preschools.
What helps immensely, she said, is helping children and their families find access to quality education and training teachers who work with the young students.
Currently, Villegas-Reimers said the state is strengthening a mixed-delivery system for early childhood education which pays special attention to all that educators know and which is coordinated to meet the needs of the children and their families.
In her job as an Associate Professor at Wheelock College, Villegas-Reimers works on all issues relating to education, teacher preparation and development and multiculturalism.
She has also received the 1990 Wheelock College Cynthia Longfellow Teaching Recognition Award and the 2006 Edward H. Ladd Award for Academic Excellence and Service.
Loves diversity in Belmont
She and her husband, Fernando Reimers who is a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, lived in Cambridge for a while and then Washington, D.C.
When they returned, they knew they wanted to live in a community with an excellent school system and picked Belmont for that very reason.
Their sons, now 15 and 17, have been in the Belmont school system their entire lives and are students at the high school.
Villegas-Reimers said she loves the diversity in the town – both in country of origin and ethnic groups -- and watching it grow over the years.
“All are welcomed here,” she said. “It’s a very positive thing when you live in a community, a small town such as this, where the people are respectful and interested in learning about other cultures and countries.”
Certainly, Villegas-Reimers said there are areas of the town that are more diverse than others, pointing to the Butler School where the student population is quite diverse.
But the mix of cultures come together in every-day life, she pointed out.
“Belmont is fabulous in its number of youth programs – through the town, schools and private organizations – that bring all the different cultures together.”