Position: Fifth Grade Teacher
School: Ruby Bridges Elementary School
School District: Alameda Unified School District
City, State: Alameda, California
About the Nominee: Heather Figueroa was nominated by her principal, Cheryl Wilson. For the past nine years, Ms. Figueroa has instituted and coordinated fundraising efforts to send every one of her school's fifth grade students to Science Camp for three days and two nights. As of the date her nomination was submitted (11/20/16), nearly 900 students have attended, which means $18,000 to $25,000 has been raised each year for registration, lodging, and transportation. The main reason Ms. Figueroa is a LifeChanger, however, is because she has made a significant impact and difference in the lives of an ethnically diverse group of low income students and their families. At least 67% of students at her school qualify for free or reduced lunch and represent 37 different languages are spoken. As a result, Ms. Figueroa works overtime devoting four to five months toward raising funds. She is the one who sends out donation letters, writes grants, solicits funds via the Internet and, most importantly, organizes a major fundraising event that features a variety of performances.
One of the performances at this event includes the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. As a member of the choir, Ms. Figueroa encourages this group to donate their time each year to performing just to raise funds for Science Camp. In addition, she contacts friends and local organizations to be a part of this event, which also includes the presence of her school's namesake, Ruby Bridges. As the event coordinator, she obtains the location, organizes ticket sales, develops a program, contacts media to advertise, has staff put up posters and serve dinner to the choir, solicits vendors to donate items to raffle, etc. Ms. Figueroa does all this while also teaching every day. She works with her colleagues and students to get them ready for Science Camp, which is roughly three hours away from her school.
So why would a teacher who is also a mother expend all of this time and energy every year? She enjoys "seeing the students' faces light up" as they learn the real-life application of the fifth grade science standards. She also enjoys hearing the comments of appreciation from parents who "let their children out of their sight" for the first time ever.
This learning experience is for her students who have never been outside of their neighborhoods, who have never spent a night away from home, who have never been surrounded by trees or been on a hike, who have never dissected a squid or seen a camp fire and who have never explored the environment in a way that helps them see their connection to living things. The amount of hands-on scientific learning that takes place in three days is far more memorable and significant to most students than what they learn and retain in one year. They come back with a renewed sense of confidence for having endured an endless hike, an appreciation of the bond they created with their classmates and knowledge of the environment that instills an attitude of accountability. When writing their end-of-the-year reflections for the yearbook, students often mention Science Camp as their most memorable experience.
The following are some of the quotes from students' yearbooks:
"Science Camp was fun because I got to learn about nature, go to a camp fire, go rock climbing and be with my friends." "I liked the fun activities at Science Camp, but the best thing I loved was the food they cooked." "My favorite memories were in Science Camp. We woke up early one morning, got dressed really fast, then we went outside and did some push-ups, jumping jacks and other things. Then we played 'Eagle’s Eye.' It was fun until we had to go." "My favorite memories are probably Science Camp. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I will always remember the crazy weird things my friends and I did in our bunk room." "I will always remember Science Camp because the skits were funny. The rock climbing was fun and the chickens we got to hold were interesting." "I will always remember when I went to Science Camp. I was a roommate with my sister. My favorite memory was when I put a banana slug on my nose at Science Camp."
In summary, Ms. Figueroa's commitment to educating students, support of a positive atmosphere in her school, and leadership towards making education a meaningful, collaborative, everlasting experience for students make her a LifeChanger. High moral and ethical standards are embedded in her inclusive and unselfish work in the service of children.