• December 4, 2019

Freedom Writers founder speaks at luncheon - Odessa American: Odessa College

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Freedom Writers founder speaks at luncheon

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Posted: Tuesday, November 12, 2019 5:48 pm

She may call herself a simple English teacher, but those who listened to Freedom Writers Foundation Founder at the Odessa College Honors luncheon Tuesday thought she was anything but.

Held at the Odessa Marriott Hotel & Conference Center and emceed by CBS 7 anchor Jay Hendricks, about 400 people attended the event. Erin Gruwell was the keynote speaker of the event that recognized state Rep. Brooks Landgraf as the outstanding individual; Delma Abalos, Ector County ISD board vice and retired OC professor, as the outstanding educator; The Sewell Family of Companies as the outstanding business; and the Odessa Chamber of Commerce as the outstanding nonprofit.

Gruwell was a teacher at Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif., and many of her students were on a path toward drugs, violence, teenage and teen pregnancy. But they became college students, writers and activists.

Her biography on the Premiere Speakers Bureau website said the students called themselves the Freedom Writers, in honor of the civil rights activists the Freedom Riders. They published a book.

She formed the Freedom Writers Foundation and teaches teachers around the nation how to implement her lesson plans in their classrooms, the site said.

Gruwell talked about two of her former students, Carlos and Norma, who have become a success.

“I tell you that because as a simple English teacher, that’s the dream is that somewhere, somehow, some way a kid in some class in any school has that aha moment, that lightbulb goes on and they dare to dream not like Langston Hughes where they defer that dream, but truly dare to dream,” Gruwell said.

“As an ordinary person, I have seen extraordinary strides for young people — to be seen, to be heard, to matter and what Odessa College does is it does just that; not for the fancy prize. Yes, the Aspen Prize is as good as it gets, but every single day a Norma; a Carlos; a beautiful student shows up at that classroom and realizes it might be a do-over,” Gruwell said.

That student could have an opportunity to be noticed for the first time and find out they’re smarter than they thought, she added.

“… That college professor is going to see something in them they may not even see in themselves. They may write what needs to be written, tell what needs to be told, come back to this very community and be a president, a dean a leader. So what you are doing today is giving hope; hope to the hopeless; what you are doing today is giving a voice, a voice to the voiceless; and what you are doing today is allowing someone to dream, to dream big,” Gruwell said.

She noted that the OC2UTPB Teaching in 3 program enables aspiring teachers to get their degree in three years by going to OC for a year and a half and UTPB for a year and a half.

“If I go to Odessa College, in three years I can be a teacher. I can teach at the very school I attended,” Gruwell said.

And they can transfer to many other colleges.

“If they go to Odessa College, they may just change the world. That’s what education is about — changing the world. … That’s the brilliance of this room is that all those fine folks who go to Odessa College will use those wings and then ultimately come home to make it better,” Gruwell said.

In his remarks, Landgraf noted that the state constitution says it’s the duty of the state legislature to establish and “make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system” of free public schools.

Landgraf said the constitution says it doesn’t matter what circumstances you’re born into, what zip code you live in or what community you’re from.

“… Every child in Texas is entitled to educational opportunity and it is incumbent upon us to use the resources of the state to make that happen,” Landgraf said.

He added that those funds have to be continually reinvested.

Landgraf said he thinks he was getting the award because of what the legislature did this past session passing House Bill 3 which added $9 billion to public education and took a substantial bite out of recapture, or Robin Hood.

To keep Odessa a thriving place to live, work and raise a family, “we have to have that educational foundation” and continue to support OC, UTPB and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

He added that he is not the hero.

“The real heroes are the teachers that put it on the line day in and day out, who have done that for generations who continue to do it today,” Landgraf said.

Collin Sewell, president of The Sewell Family of Companies, said the community is only as great as we want it to be “based on the work we’re willing to put in.”

“My family got here in 1929. Believe it or not, Crane was bigger than Odessa at the time and because of some really wise people and strong leadership Odessa is what it is today,” Sewell said.

Odessa Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Renee Earls said the organization was so honored to accept the award. She added that it makes her heart happy that education has again become a priority for Odessa in the last couple of years.

“The chamber had an education committee for many years, but it had somehow gone dormant and we decided it was certainly a priority. It was the committee that spearheaded the program to get more businesses involved with ECISD and to get them into the classroom. We also, along with our staff doing it — we try not to ask people to do something that we’re not willing to do ourselves — so we have staff members who are also mentoring at the junior high,” Earls said.

“We have staff members who are reading at the elementary campuses, as well. And then of course, the junior leadership program that we have that targets juniors in high school and shows them all about the community. We hope that they’ll stick around here when they graduate from high school, but most importantly we just want them to be leaders wherever they choose to go. Then of course, the new teacher breakfast that our operations department hosts every year. We have about 300 teachers who come into the area, some from far away and some from here in Odessa. These are teachers who are responsible for educating the future workforce of Odessa and many of those teachers are students from Odessa College who have taken classes,” she added.

Abalos thanked her family and noted that she went to OC and UTPB.

“I always like to tell people that my financial aid was Richard Abalos (her husband). He actually paid for me to go. Never complained,” Abalos said.

She added that without her family, she never would have been able to make it because they were always there to help her pick up children or take them to school. Together, the Abaloses have three children and two grandchildren.

“You really can’t do it without a village,” Abalos said.

When she started teaching at Odessa College, Abalos said she had never taught before. She prepared for days for her class, but spoke for 30 minutes after which she let her students go. It was a three-hour class.

She got better after that.

“I had the best coaches coaching me along the way. If I ever had a problem, I knew I could go to them. I appreciate that I had such good mentors. I loved having worked at OC. One of the reasons is because when I go out in the community, I see people that remember me. … I get good feedback …,” Abalos added.

With new Superintendent Scott Muri in place at ECISD, Abalos said they are headed in the right direction of making sure that “we provide the best education for our kids, that they go on and be successful at Odessa College, at UTPB, or wherever they choose to go. I’m proud to have worked at OC,” she said.

Gruwell said she was in Odessa because she loves the cause.

“I think that community colleges are so vital, especially for underprivileged and underserved students and I believe in the mission of Odessa College so it seemed like the perfect serendipity of the space that I live in as an educator. And the students that they’re serving remind me of the students I serve every day. I think it’s a humble service when you’re trying to elevate and make a community better. It’s always going to start with education,” Gruwell said.

She now runs the Freedom Writers Foundation where they teach teachers to be more engaged with the students they serve.

“… Our sweet spot is students who struggle; kids who are on the lower socio-economic level. We also work with a lot of kids who at some point got in trouble. Just because you did something bad, doesn’t mean you’re a bad person so it’s all about teaching kids to pivot and there’s no better way to pivot than an education,” Gruwell said.

Her advice to teachers who serve students in this bracket is that no one size fits all.

“… Every kid is an individual. It’s overwhelming when you have a large class, or a large slate of students. But when kids are taught to dream and believe in themselves, they will rise to the occasion. I have kids who were told they were dumb and stupid and they believed it, so I wanted to change that and say you’re brilliant you can go anywhere, you can do anything. So I really advise teachers to watch the words they use, not to label, not to stereotype, not to discard kids. Our educational system does that, so we’ve got to work really hard to create inclusive classrooms, really hard to make students feel wanted and heard. I think that when students feel wanted, they will always surprise us,” Gruwell said.

Also announced were the Wells Fargo Scholarship recipients: Emily Husten, Victoria Pando and Madison Scott.

OC President Gregory Williams said $100,000 had been raised for scholarships this year.

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