He’s made a career of teaching math.
Yet the real life lesson conferred by Jesus Angarita each day boils down to this: perseverance.
For three years, the Colombia native has buzzed around Mountain View High School. He hustles from classroom to classroom to help non-native English speakers learn to solve algebra and trigonometry and geometry problems.
He gives encouragement in Spanish or English, in hushed but forceful tones. He leans in or kneels not only to assist Latino students, but also English Language Learner students who hail from the Ukraine, Southeast Asia and elsewhere.
Angarita, 37, is officially an ELL assistant. A nonteaching, classified employee, not very high on the school faculty pecking order.
But ask a math instructor, supervisors or dozens of successful students, and you’ll learn he’s been invaluable.
“He does everything. I don’t know what he does, but he does it,” says Barbara Stonewall, a veteran teacher who works with special education students, including math class. “He’s pretty amazing.”
Stonewall’s description resounds across the Evergreen district school campus. Angarita’s colleagues praise his knack to reach students from diverse backgrounds. That includes local students who just need some extra mentoring.
“It amazes me, the connections he can make with every kid,” Stonewall says. “He will always ask if he’s unclear” in explaining a concept, she said. “That’s important, because kids will smile and nod, and you know they don’t understand.”
That moxie, backed by relentless drive, earned Angarita distinction as Classified Employee of the Year for the regional Educational Service District 112 this spring.
Stonewall had once worried her ELL students would lapse into Spanish, working with this Latin American. But as he deftly shifts between tongues, he always stresses the right English description of the lesson at hand, she said.
With his gentle but firm demeanor, Angarita breaks down cultural barriers that can stump Stonewall and others.
“He just really has a good set of life experiences,” she says.
Angarita soaked up math nearly from the time he could walk.
He sat on the stairs of his parents’ home in Bogota, sprawling capital city of 8 million at 8,600 feet elevation, and watched his mother, Lida, and aunt Elva teach private students. Lida’s career would span four decades, and it seemed fitting he would follow suit.
Angarita earned degrees in physics and mathematics from the Libra University of Colombia. He then found his calling teaching middle- and then high-school pupils. He later would add adults on weekends, teaching seven days a week.
By 2000, he was ready for a new challenge: Instructor, and founding director of math tests, for the International Baccalaureate School in Bogota (the same rigorous I.B. program run locally at Columbia River High School).
In just a few years, his students’ scores topped the international average. By 2005, he also won the job of grading I.B. exams from students around the world.
Along the way, he’d courted and married a fellow instructor, Nancy Perez. With her love also came a tantalizing prospect: She had applied for a U.S. visa, hoping to return to where she’d spent one year as a foreign exchange student.
Turns out, she’d spent the 1990-91 school year at Mountain View.
When Nancy’s visa finally was approved after 14 years, Angarita realized he and the couple’s infant daughter, Lida Natalia, also were U.S.-bound.
Aug. 31, 2005: Bright and hot in Portland when the family arrived.
A few short months later, not so much. “It was the hardest time of my life. That winter was very hard for me,” Angarita recalls, shaking his head at the dreary rain.
More culture shock: He and Nancy had sold all possessions in Colombia before their move. “I needed to quit everything in my country, and my career,” he says. “It was the hardest decision I had to take in my life.”
He remembers a Portland stroll with little Natalia, coming across an abandoned but working refrigerator. “Free,” a sign read. And, the mound of excess food at a company picnic. His eyes widen, recounting the tale. Compared to home, where residents scratch and scrape for every little thing, America has … a naked abundance. A glut of disposable goods, fast cars and scenic beauty all around, too.
Angarita felt shut out. He’d given English little thought, and now language was a huge barrier. Nancy secured a short-term ELL stint with the Vancouver school district, then worked for a mortgage firm. For Jesus? The employment office suggested a Walmart greeter job.
Instead, Angarita signed up for night adult education classes at Clark College’s Town Center campus. He would learn something in English and then try it on co-workers at the warehouse firm where he’d landed work assembling small tool kits.
At Nancy’s urging, he tested for a part-time ELL position in the Evergreen district. “The night before, I couldn’t sleep,” he says. Then he stumbled over too many questions and failed, humiliated.
But he stuck with his English lessons. And passed his second Evergreen test.
“Sept. 1, 2007,” was his first day on the job at Mountain View, he says without pause, smiling.
On a late spring day, Angarita slides quietly around Room 408 at Mountain View. He huddles briefly with teacher Ann Robertson, whose Integrated Math 2 students tackle trigonometry, solving riddles of right triangles, lengths, cosines.
He checks on a Thai girl, and a South Korean native. Then, three Mexican natives. Two thumb their graphing calculators, but crunch different answers. He marks the triangle’s hypotenuse with an orange marker, tells them to try again. “Vamos, Ustedes.” (Let’s go, you.)
Over six periods he jumps from one classroom to another, sometimes two at once, tracking more than 40 ELL students. That includes those slotted in special education. He totes green daily planner notebooks jammed with his copious notes, documenting lessons covered, new issues, which approach has worked, or hasn’t.
Mountain View’s math team closely monitors student progress, and Angarita is a big part of that.
More than that, he’s a go-to resource for students who visit his small, tidy office, tucked in the back corner of the school library. During one such session, he helps one student stuck on Integrated 2, another on Integrated 3. One speaks Spanish, the other English. Angarita seamlessly adjusts, helps the girls work two very different problems.
He stands from the small table, uses a folded sheet of notepaper to pivot his marker pen and quickly draw a perfect circle on the whiteboard for a graphing illustration. A deft move by a savvy teacher.
“He helps me get what I need. I get his one-on-one help,” says Olivia Beals, a senior.
Stonewall, the special education instructor, hadn’t realized there was no good Spanish translation for “slope,” a staple of plotting math calculations. Per Angarita’s advice, she now uses “rate of change” instead.
The small moves add up. Last school year, six of nine ELL students who regularly studied with Angarita before or after school passed the Washington state 10th-grade math assessment — a 67 percent pass rate, far higher than school, district or state scores. His charges also passed reading and writing exams at higher rates.
This didn’t escape Mark Osborne, Mountain View associate principal. He asked more about Angarita’s life and was blown away. For example, he’s continued to score international I.B. exams, all through the ragged early Portland days, toiling overnight after long school days.
“He just burns the soles off his shoes. He’s a gem,” Osborne says, extolling a tireless worker, highly regarded in the Hispanic community, who arrives early and leaves late. His tutoring work has helped score grant dollars to keep momentum building.
“You talk about the taxpayers’ bang for the buck. He probably only makes $25,000,” Osborne adds. “He’s hard to describe, to put a value on him. He deeply affects students. He’s an amazing person, an amazing story.”
For all that, Osborne and others would nominate Angarita for the ESD 112 classified employee award. To no one’s surprise but his own, he captured the honor, earning an Olympia trip to meet other regional winners up for the statewide award.
Angarita shines with pride, and validation, when he describes telling his parents and siblings about the egg-shaped stone and small pedestal that resides in his office. It rests near other treasures: A portrait of Natalia in a fine dress; a world wall map; photos of ELL student group outings; a coffee mug with the red, blue and yellow national colors of Colombia.
Also, a calendar photo of a large American flag. Which gained stature when Angarita slipped quietly from school a few hours in April for a Portland date: Getting sworn in as a U.S. citizen, after acing that exam. “It was a special day, but I was working,” he explains.
The climb continues. He’s knocked off the math portion of testing for Washington teacher certification (297 of 300 points) and remains focused on raising his English skills.
“Jesus, when you get your teaching degree, let us know,” Osborne told him. Meanwhile, no small task or problem is beneath him. “He looks at this (assistant job) as, ‘What an opportunity for me,’” Osborne says.
Angarita already counts himself blessed to have found meaningful work in his chosen field, so difficult for most immigrants.
“I’m so happy here. I know I can help students here,” he says, beaming. “That’s why people can see I am doing my best, every day.” His message to fellow Latinos: “You can do it, if you work. Honestly, we can do everything here we really want.”
He and Nancy (now an ELL assistant at York Elementary School) and Natalia are nicely settled in the Van Mall neighborhood. He reads to his 7-year-old daughter at bedtime, when she corrects his mistakes.
“Here, it’s so quiet. It’s very nice, a perfect place to live,” he says. “Every single day I can see new things. Things that are amazing.”
Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or firstname.lastname@example.org.