Organizer-turned-teacher connects with bilingual communities
Zac Steele has been passionate about education since he was a student at Swarthmore College. There he delved into issues of race and class in urban education, so when he came across a copy of the Notebook during his senior year, it was a welcome resource for topics he was already exploring.
“I was really impressed with the quality of the publication and the amount of information that the Notebook had going back into the ’90s,” Steele said.
Steele, who is 33 and grew up near New York City, graduated from Swarthmore College in 2004 with a degree in anthropology and sociology. Afterward, he moved to Nicaragua for three years, facilitating cultural exchange programs and working in community development. But he returned to Philadelphia in 2007 to obtain his teacher certification from his alma mater.
In 2008, Steele joined the staff of JUNTOS, an immigrant community advocacy group, where he worked with Philadelphia parents, mostly from Mexico and Central America, on issues regarding language access and bilingual education in the District.
Steele, who ultimately became the executive director of JUNTOS, said that the Notebook was a necessary and useful resource in his work with the organization. He used the newspaper in workshops to inform parents about trends and statistics concerning English language learners, the achievement gap in Philadelphia, and education policies. He also referred to back issues of the newspaper for data and statistics on bilingual education that he could share with parents.
He noticed that the Notebook, as the only publication in the city that regularly includes information on public education in both Spanish and English, was often sought out by parents – especially the fall guide to high schools, which also has Spanish translations of some of its content.
Having followed the Notebook since college, Steele decided to become a member in 2009 to further lend his support to the nonprofit.
“The Notebook is fabulous in the sense that I really do think it provides top-notch information,” he said.
“It [has] really created a space to debate some issues, and to make known what parents are doing – in, I think, a very non-biased way.”
Steele left JUNTOS in 2012 to pursue a teaching career, something he said he had always envisioned doing. He taught social studies at Fairhill Elementary School before it closed in 2013.
Last year he joined the staff at Esperanza Academy Charter School so that he could continue working with the Latino community in North Philadelphia. At Esperanza he teaches 9th- and 10th-grade social studies.
“Being in the classroom is a humbling experience,” Steele said.
“Working with community members gave me a perspective that is useful, but having the skills of a classroom teacher is an art and something that I want to learn and get better at.”
Though Steele has moved from advocacy work to teaching, he still follows the Notebook. He said he likes reading the news briefs and feature articles.
“What I most like is hearing about what’s happening in different communities,” he said.
“I think [the Notebook] is an incredible service. One, to provide information but two, to help create a public dialogue.”