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Daniel Ramirez

Photo: Daniel Ramirez on immersion in MexicoDaniel Ramirez graduated in 2015 and is currently employed by the Jamul Dulzura School District as a school psychologist.

Spring 2016


On a typical day, I check my schedule, see what’s on my calendar, get to work on my assessments, one by one. I might bring in a parent whose son or daughter has been recommended for evaluation.

When a parent or teacher has concerns, we get together and meet to develop a plan to help the child, who may need academic support -- or maybe a behavioral support plan, to help control outbursts in the classroom. If it’s serious enough, or if we’ve already had a meeting in the past with that child, we’ll recommend an evaluation to see if that child qualifies for special education services.

The majority of my job is working with other educators in conducting comprehensive evaluations. This helps us determine a child’s learning potential and develop appropriate educational placements.

 

Working with parents

The evaluation process falls under special education law. We initiate this by informing parents about their rights and the power they have within this framework. Essentially we want them to understand that they are the ones making decisions made for their child. The district does not act without parent permission. Their concerns are taken into account as to how the evaluation is conducted, the information they want reviewed, and finally the educational placement depending on the results of the evaluation. The process can be very technical and tedious for some parents. Depending on their familiarity with the educational system and their views of disabilities, there is a mix of emotions that parents can experience. It is crucial to be patient with parents and well as validate their concerns. This way they feel comfortable about asking questions and can work collaboratively with the district.

 

Evaluation components

Once we complete an assessment plan detailing the methods of our evaluation, we have 60 days to legally complete it. Those involved could include a variety of professionals, depending on the needs of the child. For example if there’s a student who has speech and language issues, we’d get the speech and language pathologist involved. You’ll have academic and cognitive testing during evaluation. A special education teacher would be in charge of evaluating how the child performs in areas like reading and math. The school psychologist handles cognitive testing, how their brain processes information, which is then cross-examined with other pieces of information gathered throughout the evaluation.

Some of the things we look at short- and long-term memory, fluid reasoning, how a student takes previous information and applies it to a new problem. We take into account the child’s cultural knowledge – information that would be common knowledge in American culture and their understanding of certain meanings of words. Because we are using tests that are based on American culture, it’s a potential issue for some immigrant children.

 

Daily interventions

Evaluations are a huge part of my job, and I’m always working on cases as much as I can to stay within compliance of legal timelines, for instance. But at any time, I might be called to intervene with an issue. Maybe a student is leaving the classroom and refusing to go back in, and I’ll help them to calm them down and give them some coping strategies to get them back into class. I will help them assess if this is a “big or little problem”, a one-time outburst, or part of something more serious. Sometimes, a parent may come in with concerns about their child, a classroom aide may need help implementing a certain technique, or a student has a behavioral plan and it’s not working out, so I need to go in and tweak the plan. These are some of the things that pop up and need to be dealt with.

 

Stress and confidence

It can be very stressful for me. Sometimes I work through my lunches. If I want to do all the little things we’ve been trained in, like counseling and consulting with parents and teachers, I need to be very organized and efficient with my time. It can be really tough. We get trained and are qualified to do so much, but much of our job is evaluating students and writing reports. At first, there’s a big learning curve to be able to handle the different responsibilities you may be in charge of. There’s a high stress level because of the workload, but eventually you feel more confident in being able to handle everything.

 

Dynamics of learning

On the grant, they really do a good job of making sure we’re learning best practices. My expectations were set high. I look back at all the things I was able to do, and that really helped prepare me. There’s a lot of team-based learning, where you’re working in groups. This lets you develop as a team member and as a leader which helps later when you’re on the job at a school, making decisions about whether a student needs an evaluation, and in what area. We gained lots of knowledge about eligibility and special ed law and procedures. So all the work we did in those group projects . . . we mediated conflicts and tensions, and for me, I feel like the area of interpersonal skills and listening and validating concerns, different communication styles, presenting ideas, sharing expertise in the moment – it gave me that practice. It can be very fast-paced, and you’re constantly learning. So it’s not just the content of what we learned on the grant, but also the dynamics of learning with other people that was vital to my own learning.

 

First generation

I’m a Mexican-American, first-generation college student. My parents are farm workers, and my dad still works pruning and picking in the fields, so he valued his children pursuing traditional education over manual labor. He was very serious about us continuing to learn in school, but he didn’t have knowledge to help us navigate through the educational system. Many students from Latino families don’t know how to jump through the hoops. A huge part of the grant is understanding the cultural dynamics that can hold back students from progressing and thriving in the educational system.

The grant really helped me understand my upbringing and place in this culture and take pride in the struggles that Latinos and other minority groups have to go through. By understanding yourself, you’re better equipped to help other people. Learning about the specific struggles of my ethnic group and other Latinos -- now I feel more comfortable being a Mexican-American professional, helping families. There’s definitely that piece to it. Recently, we had a celebration for students who had increased their scores on the California English Development Test (CELDT). This is given to all students who spoke anything other than English as their first language. It was good to celebrate their achievement but I would like to see our system further embrace their unique identities and skills. I was able to share my story with students from different cultural backgrounds and talk about how my bilingual skills have helped me be more effective in both my personal and professional life.

 

Finding direction

I really like understanding people, and that’s how I got into psychology. When I first went to college, I had no plan for what I wanted to do as a career, or if I would go for a graduate degree.

In my last year as an undergrad in Washington state, I was working with a professor in the graduate school of psychology, and I found out about all these opportunities from him, and what work you could do with a graduate degree. I got online and found out about the CLASS-EL grant, and what experiences you can have. After reading about the trips to Mexico, the support, the classes – I realized I’d be learning about my culture, working with my people. And it would be helping me in my field, my career and my future. So I was sold. I was so excited. That’s where I want to go. It spoke to me, so I came to SDSU for graduate school. I had just gotten married, and I brought my wife with me. She also ended up joining the program. She’s about to graduate in May, and she’ll also be a school psychologist. I couldn’t be happier with how things ended up.

 

Photo: Daniel Ramirez on immersion in Mexico

 

Shadow

I’d advise anyone who is going into school psychology to go out and shadow a few people who work in the field. Otherwise, it’s hard to understand what people actually do in their job, and you can have different ideas in your head compared to what you’ll be really doing out in the field. Be aware of what the job is really about. It’s hard to put into words. We all had that experience where none of us really knew what the job would be like. So talk to people who do it, and check out a real work site and follow real school psychologists on the job, to learn about their issues and time constraints on the job. Depending on the school site or the district, there are realities. And it’s hard to know without shadowing people and seeing the realities.

 

Spanish skills

If you are Latino, the grant is a great way to learn about yourself and your culture, and eventually get to use those skills in the workforce. Students who aren’t Latino, and who are interested, I’d recommend really working on your Spanish. If you go on immersions, it’s really important to have your Spanish skills conversational. You’re working with so many different people: teachers, administrators, students, parents. You’re giving presentations and interacting.

Also, knowing how our demographics are changing in California and around the country, being bilingual in Spanish is a huge asset when you’re applying for different jobs. The grant helps you develop your Spanish skills. so you’re more marketable.

 

Cultural broker

We work with students and look at how their brain processes information. Sometimes, it’s a matter of needing special education, and sometimes, it’s just a matter of needing to develop language skills or appropriate instruction.

There are instances where ethnic minorities who are English language learners that may score lower on assessments because they are not part of mainstream culture and they don’t fully understand the constructs of a particular assessment. I’ve had students get low scores in an area that is crucial to reading development and they’re below grade level because the student isn’t picking up reading efficiently. So when they’re assessed, I take into account their language and try to assess in both languages. If it is a true learning disability, ideally we would see the same processing weaknesses in both languages. We also take into account their background, including personal history. For instance, is the student from a stable learning environment?

One student I had was in a Montessori-style school in Mexico. The mom said her son wasn’t challenged or guided there. I have to take that into account. Also, they were moving, they have limited records, and the child is still learning English. For him, all areas other than reading seemed to be in the average range. So if I give him a similar test, but in Spanish, and the student is average in that area, then I can hypothesize that he really doesn’t need special education. I have to be the cultural broker. I have to look at the things this student has had to go through. That student wasn’t “slow.” We find that students from minority groups are overrepresented in special ed because of social barriers like these. When in reality, these students are special but for the reason that they understand more than one language or they are competent in switching back and forth between cultures.

 

Photo: Daniel Ramirez with students in Mexican school

 

 

Strong bond

The grant is a lot of work. You’re going to be busy all the time because on top of core classes, you’ll be doing additional projects, and signing up for a month during the summer. You also have fun, great experiences, traveling, making good friends. I’ve definitely stayed friends with people from my cohort. CLASS EL creates a strong bond because you’re talking about your life, and assignments completing assignments that relate to your personal life. You talk about your struggles, family dynamics and family history -- with all these people you don’t know. Imagine doing this for 4 years. You’re constantly working with each other. You’re in it together, going on trips together, sharing once-in-a-lifetime moments. Your cohort will be there for you as professionals you can approach if you have issues or questions; you won’t be judged, and they’re very supportive.

 

Full circle

My parents live in a rural part of Washington, in a town located within the Yakama Indian Reservation. They’re very proud of me. I’m planning to return there, and I could potentially be working at 2 elementary schools that I went to. It’s giving back to the community. I’ve always had that idea in mind. I hope to be working with kids and being in the community as a resource, part of a team that’s really invested in supporting students. My mom’s super excited. There’s a lot of excitement, and I feel like it’s coming full circle.

Cultural skills

"I use my language and cultural skills constantly when talking to Latino parents about their concerns. Whether it is helping translate in the front office or delivering my evaluation results in Spanish, it helps tremendously. I sense that parents automatically become more trusting and willing to share because they can truly be understood in their language (Spanish).

"Parents are more animated and can comfortably talk about their struggles in helping their child within a system and language structure they don’t fully understand. I also use my cultural skills to create awareness amongst educators about how factors such as language development and acculturation can impact families. This way they can better respond and be more empathetic to certain situations."