June 2022 Newsletter: Yakima students highlight the power of teachers

Angela Jones's family

Director’s Note

I am writing this note with a heavy heart after last week’s senseless shooting in Uvalde, Texas. As both a mother and former teacher, my heart aches for the families and community that lost too many precious souls too soon. On top of everything else teachers are doing to close out the school year, they continue to be faced with the crushing burden of trying to keep their students safe.

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we work to improve education and workforce systems. I recognize that these systems are truly only as good as the humans that power them. So, in the midst of the challenges we are facing, I want to offer a bit of joy and recognize the various people out there working tirelessly to make a difference, changing not just lives, but impacting generations. Let’s take a pause and recognize our state’s teachers for all they do. In this issue, you will read about a Yakima teacher who is empowering students. However, we know there are many educators out there doing incredible work. I started my career in the classroom and recognize the tough work you’re doing with life continuing to throw so much at you. We see you. We need you. We appreciate you.

In the spirit of teaching, I also want to take some time to recognize that May was officially Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month (ANHPI) in Washington state. In 1977, federal legislation was passed to recognize the achievements of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The initial legislation designated 10 days and was extended later that year to the entire month of May. In 2000, the Washington Legislature passed legislation recognizing May as Asian Pacific Heritage Month. This past April 2022, Governor Inslee signed a proclamation in alignment with the Presidential Proclamation to declare May as ANHPI month.

I’m very proud of my Filipina heritage and want to share a glimpse into my family’s history with this snippet we shared last year for the Wing Luke Museum’s Our Stories are Your Stories series. 

Angela Jones's family
Our Stories are Your Stories

I’m also grateful to our grantees – like the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition and Washington STEM – who are working to understand and address the diverse set of experiences that ANHPI students face. Both organizations are leading an equity-driven coalition that will build political will, support, and funding for comprehensive and sustainable data reforms in Washington. The coalition will center racial equity, including disaggregating data for ANHPI students to better understand how their needs and experiences may differ. This new coalition will be informed by input from community-based organizations related to the demand, access, and utility of data – from pre-K to college and the workforce.

While we recognize teachers this month and the contributions of our Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities, may we not just do so in May, but throughout the entire year.

In Partnership,
Angela Jones

Teacher Spotlight: Mrs. Ruth Veselka

Ruth Veselka, drama teacher for the West Valley School District in Yakima

You spoke, we listened! In the April newsletter edition, we asked for names of teachers we could spotlight in honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week in May. A big thanks to Dr. Peter Finch, superintendent of the West Valley School District, who recommended we feature Ruth Veselka, drama teacher for the West Valley School District in Yakima.

“I have known Mrs. Veselka since 5th grade when I first had her for drama class. She has always done an amazing job relating to her students and treating them like human beings,” said sophomore Armour Johnson. “She has done so much for so many people.”

Dr. Finch agrees. “Ms. Veselka creates a welcoming, inclusive environment for students who are accepted as they are. She encourages students to take ownership of the program and, as result, there have been plays that have been 100% written and directed by students.”

This year, thanks to Mrs. Veselka, students produced their own adapted version of “Little Women,” which was performed earlier in May in front of hundreds of students, parents, and community members. Over the course of two years, Veselka worked hand-in-hand with now-seniors Addie Demill, Lauren Gurney, Tanager Ryan, and Cora Gilbert to adapt the script. She even contacted Wylie Basho Gorn with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Seattle Shakespeare Company, who gave the students some great advice as they created a uniquely West Valley version of “Little Women.” These students are taking away so many valuable lessons thanks to their work with the drama teacher.

“She cares so deeply about each one of her students and loves them so much that she will push them out of their comfort zone to help them achieve new growth,” Ryan said. “She knows what it really means to teach students, not just hand students information, but really show them how to take that knowledge and grow from it.”

Demill echoed her co-writer’s sentiments. “That’s at the core of what she believes: Inside every person, there is limitless potential to be good and do good. And that is what makes her magnificent.”

As her students all highlight, Mrs. Veselka believes that theatre can help them make sense of who they are and who they can be.

“Theatre is as it has been for the past 2,000 years a mirror and/or window on our world, as theatre gives us a way to see ourselves as we are, as could be, and who we hope to be,” Mrs. Veselka shared. “The reality is that our world is never an easy place to live. Theatre not only gives us an escape from a moment in our lives but also gives us an opportunity to remember that we are the protagonist in our own stories, and those stories are important too.”

Not only is Mrs. Veselka giving students a way to understand this complex world, she’s creating a welcoming learning environment that allows students to feel comfortable, empowered, and supported.

“Mrs. Veselka has been one of the most influential people in my life. She introduced me to theatre and I can’t thank her enough for that. I’ve known her since I was a shy kid who could’ve never imagined being where I’d be today. Mrs. Veselka saw the potential in me and has taught me to be the best person I can be,” said sophomore Desi Quenzer.

Mrs. Veselka is a powerful example of the many Washington state teachers out there who tap into their students’ potential each and every day. Thank you, Dr. Finch, for your nomination and for giving us a chance to spotlight Mrs. Veselka!

Ruth Veselka, drama teacher for the West Valley School District in Yakima

When we asked for a few quotes from students about Mrs. Veselka’s influence, we expected one or two comments. Instead, we were flooded with love for this special drama teacher. So we thought it only made sense to share every student quote we received. Here are a few more from West Valley’s impressive students.

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