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San Diego State University


Caroline Manzo

Photo: Liliana Gonzalez Caroline Manzo graduated in 2015 and has been employed for 1 year as a school psychologist in the Valley Center Pauma Unified School District. 


Spring 2016

I work in a small school district, just over 4 thousand students, and about half of them are Latino or Native American. I’m the only bilingual school psychologist in the district. The kids I work with range from preschool all the way through 8th grade. Lilac School, my main work location, over 50% of students are Latino (48%) or Native (7%) American students. At Pauma School, my second site, about 17% of students are Native American and 72% are Latino. Additionally, 82% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

I’ve been on the job now for a year. I think initially, it was a little overwhelming to have an actual caseload. I feel that in terms of everything I did in the grant — the practice in conducting group counseling or individual interventions — those things gave me experience and helped prepare me for my current job. For instance, in the grant I did a lot of parent workshops during summer immersions also at Rosa Parks. Because of the skills I practiced, I’m able to be more visible in the school and build better relationships with both teachers and parents.

Helping families

By establishing a good relationship with parents and being transparent with my work, I gain greater parent buy-in. I want to make sure my communication with parents is always clear and they know what I’m doing and why. So far, this has given me great success in my interactions. I try to explain the whole process and keep them informed. For instance, if a student was referred by a teacher for counseling, and I need to have the parents fill out some paperwork, I don’t just mail them the paperwork cold. I’ll call the parent first, to get their permission to see the child. I build rapport, I talk with them and ask if they’re seeing the same issues at home that the teacher’s seeing. So we’re working as a team, instead of me sending a paper to the home, and the parent has no idea what they’re signing.

Also, I always try to see if parents know about available help and resources. For example, when I work with preschool parents, they might come in because their child isn’t talking yet, or the child’s behavior is very different compared to siblings. So the parent wonders if there’s a developmental problem. But as we talk, there might be other issues that become apparent. Once we start the evaluation process, I always ask if they have contacted any other agencies. I encourage parents to reach out to other service providers, to get whatever help they might need, whether it’s food or whatever. I share ideas for resources in the written report and again in subsequent meetings, to ensure the family can get access to the range of needed services.

Understanding English learners

Before the grant, I was a fluent Spanish speaker; however, my conversational skills were much more informal. Through the grant, I had the opportunity to grow my in my Spanish speaking and writing skills. The summer immersions were essential to my growth in working with teachers and other professionals; I learned a lot of vocabulary and terms to speak more professionally.

Because of my work on the grant, and visiting places like Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Merida, I know that Spanish might be the second language for some Mexicans. And that’s something I ask parents now, whenever I’m working with any English Language Learners. “Where are you from? Is Spanish your first language?” It changes the dynamic. Someone who doesn’t have that perspective might think a child or their parent isn’t comprehending, for the wrong reason. We make these assumptions that we generalize over to the child. This kind of thing has happened more than once. At my school site, we have a dual language immersion program, and most teachers are understanding about such issues.

Spanish builds rapport

Because we are a small school district and not as close to the city, our Bilingual Special Education staff is a bit small. Just being able to speak Spanish helps out a lot. In preschool, sometimes we work with students whose the parents don’t speak English, so I’m able to get a lot of initial background information for the team. We’ll have a meeting with the parents and have them sign the assessment plan right there.

The parents are really happy to have someone speak Spanish with them. They have someone who can understand them and it really helps us build rapport so they feel they can open up and communicate. This kind of experience lets parents know they have someone there at the school, who can be their voice when necessary.

Visibility and smart scheduling

Beyond being a voice for kids and parents, I work hard to make myself visible. Because I’m new, and still in my first year, I want to make sure that people know I’m here, that I am bilingual. I have conducted classroom presentations and collaborative workshops for principals and administrators in the district, and done lots of group and individual counseling. These activities let me interact with others, and let them know how I can help and that I’m here as a resource for everyone. In a regular workweek, I do lots of interactive activities besides assessments and report writing. Thursday is the day I set aside for counseling and any classroom presentations focusing on restorative practices or modeling for teachers how to implement circles and other peer-to-peer conflict resolutions in their classroom.

I’m split between 3 sites, so sometimes it’s hard to balance my responsibilities. At first I thought, “I have so many assessments! Is this really my whole job?” I took some time to reflect, and I realized I don’t want my main focus to be on assessments. When I was in the grant, people knew me for working with groups and with students. What’s effective for me now is scheduling my calendar, to make room for more than just assessments. I have every minute of every hour scheduled, so I can make the most of my time. I even have time to eat, and I used to have no time for that! But if you schedule well, you can find time to do the things you enjoy, as well.

My impression this first year is that yes, it’s very busy, but you have to make time to do things you enjoy doing, or you’ll get consumed by assessments. My area of strength and what I enjoy most is working with children and parents. What I take with me from this first year is to make sure I have the time to do that, and schedule it in. Otherwise, I could be doing assessments all the time, every day of the week, for the entire school year!

Confidence and credibility

I was fluent in Spanish before the grant, but I definitely did learn more when I went on immersions, working with teachers and other professionals. That’s where I learned a lot of vocabulary and terms to speak more professionally about school psychology and education issues. That did help me out a lot. And the experience I gained was important in building my confidence. That’s important in being able to run groups successfully and consult effectively with teachers. In Mexico on immersion, it was constant consultation, and often it centered on behavior issues. For example, the teacher might have concerns about a specific child or about a whole classroom being out of control. My job was to help the teacher, providing better strategies for classroom management or for the behaviors of a particular child.

When you go on immersions you work very closely with teachers, and you might also get the opportunity to teach, yourself. So you walk out with a teacher’s perspective. Now that I’m on the job, I’m able to use these experiences from immersion.



Photo: Caroline Manzo and schoolkids on summer immersion


Some people on the job, when they know you’ve never been a teacher before, may not listen to your ideas for classroom strategies. For example, I had some resistance at first with someone I was working closely with who doubted my recommendations because she thought I had no classroom experience. She thought what I advised was maybe not feasible, because I had never been a teacher. But I’m able to say that I did teach in Mexico, and I did come away with a teacher’s perspective, and I know it’s a very difficult job. I was able to validate her difficulties. I told her about something that really worked out for a teacher in my past experience, and this changed her perspective, and she was more open to listening to me.

Being so close to teachers and classroom issues on the grant, I’ve definitely learned strategies that I can recommend now, and provide ideas that have been helpful for others in the past. The teachers I work with understand that I do have valuable experience, and teaching experience in a different country, too. So that gives me credibility and more “buy-in” from my staff.

Cultural identity

I’m originally from the San Fernando Valley, and both my parents are Spanish-speaking, so Spanish was my first language at home. I think being part of the grant helped me to find myself, my cultural identity, validating my identity and being proud of who I am and where I come from. The years I completed on the grant helped me become empowered. Even if my accent is there, it’s part of me and part of who I am, and it’s not something that makes me “less-than.”

We covered so many bases about language acquisition, and I began to understand the struggles I went through, coming up through this educational system. On one immersion, I had the opportunity to work in a school where students spoke a native language and Spanish was their second language. It brought back my own childhood, seeing the struggles these students went through, and the parents as well. I was in awe, I learned so much.

Throughout my school years, I was a little boat out at sea, and going wherever the current tugged me. But here, I was able to find direction. Once you know where you’re coming from and you have a strong sense of self worth and identity, you’re at home with yourself. I was able to accept myself, and my accent. I had struggled with thinking others might not take me as seriously because of it. I struggled with this even through grad school, but I feel like being part of the grant helped me stand with my feet straight.

Empowering self and others

"I’d encourage anyone who is trying to learn more about a different culture to join the grant, because it’ll help you understand culture and learn from a first hand experience you’ll live and breathe it.

"If you already speak Spanish, it will strengthen your cultural identity and self-worth as well. You’ll be empowered and also learn how to help empower others.

"The program and the grant are great, but you have to go out and share this information and knowledge with others."