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Friday, April 23, 2021

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Stephanie Balvaneda (’14) Stephanie Balvaneda (’14)

Returning to Her Roots

Stephanie Balvaneda (’14) is the first SDSU alumna hired by the Sweetwater Union High School District under the RISE program.
By Tobin Vaughn

“We are so excited, as a teacher preparation program, to be able to put high-quality, well-prepared individuals back into the community where they started.”

After five-and-a-half years of degree requirements, certification courses and student teaching, Stephanie Balvaneda (’14) is returning to her roots in the South Bay area of San Diego County.

Balvaneda recently traded the classroom at San Diego State University for her own classroom at Southwest High School, where she will teach freshmen students in five sections of Integrated Math One.

“I feel like I have struggled and put in so much hard work and gone so many days and months and years of studying, working, staying up super late, and finally to be here and to just be able to enjoy everything that I have worked for, I still feel like it isn’t real,” said Balvaneda.

Return and inspire

The 25-year-old is the first hire from a new program called Return and Inspire to become a Sweetwater Educator (RISE), a collaboration between the Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD) and SDSU’s College of Education.

RISE is designed to build on the university’s groundbreaking Compact for Success. Since 2000, Compact for Success has guaranteed admission to SDSU for Sweetwater students who meet certain benchmarks for college acceptance from middle school throughout their high school careers. RISE goes one step further and guarantees employment in the Sweetwater district for Compact students who want to teach math, science, special education and other subjects in which open teaching positions are often difficult to fill.

With more than 42,000 students in grades seven through 12, SUHSD is California’s largest secondary school district with 32 campuses spread across four South Bay cities, including San Diego, Chula Vista, Imperial Beach and National City. The district has approximately 4,500 employees, some 1,800 of whom are teachers.

Although the district is rich in cultural and economic diversity, a large number of its residents are low-income. Approximately half of its students speak a language other than English at home and a relatively low percentage of them aspire to a college education.

Rising to a challenge

Hiring teachers who reflect the makeup of Sweetwater’s students is difficult. RISE is intended to address that challenge by providing more teachers who mirror the district’s demographics.

“It's important for our (current) students to see our former students come back and become their own teachers,” said SUHSD Superintendent Karen Janney (’10). “It's powerful.”

Janney worked closely with the College of Education to implement RISE and the efforts are paying off. “Because of our relationship with San Diego State and Compact for Success, our college-going rates have increased exponentially in all areas of our district,” said Janney.

Janney helped establish and donates to a scholarship fund for Compact for Success students who want to teach. Balvaneda was among the first to receive a scholarship through the RISE Scholars program.

Struggles and inspiration

Balvaneda grew up in the same neighborhood as the students she will teach and can relate to some of their unique challenges. Growing up in a single-parent, low-income household, she and her family moved from place to place struggling to make ends meet.

“I think a lot of the kids have similar difficulties, maybe in different ways, but they all have struggles that I think other communities don’t deal with,” she said. “If my kids know that I came from the same place they did, I think it will inspire and help them see that if you really put your mind to something, it is possible to do whatever you want to do.”

Lighting a path

Like Balvaneda and her district’s superintendent, SDSU administrators are aware there’s more at stake than freshmen trying to grasp math concepts. There is a role model lighting a path to lead students to professional careers.

“We are so excited, as a teacher preparation program, to be able to put high-quality, well-prepared individuals back into the community where they started,” said Lisa McCully, director of Student Services for the College of Education.

She noted that last year’s original RISE cohort of three students that included Balvaneda has now grown to nearly a dozen.

And a recent event for Compact for Success scholars attracted almost 40 interested in teaching possibilities.

An open door

Growing up, Balvaneda did not have a college-bound mentality but the Compact for Success initiative changed her thinking and presented an opportunity. She now hopes to instill that same mindset in her students at Southwest High School.

“When I was in high school, I had a lot of supportive teachers who were the reason why I was pushed to go to college,” she said. “It’s not something that comes from the family. I know a lot of students are in the same situation where college isn’t something they see that they can reach.”

A newly hired teacher sitting in a classroom in her old high school, she said, “I am excited to tell them, ‘I’m here, I know where you guys are, but if you just try really hard there is opportunity and that door is open if you want to take it.’”

You can make a difference now for aspiring RISE teachers at SDSU with an online donation to the RISE Scholarship Fund through SDSU STRIVE.