When Rafael Galarza started kindergarten at Walsh Elementary School in Pilsen, he was a timid child who barely spoke English.
This month, he ends his career at the school as 8th grade valedictorian. Next, he’s off to Walter Payton College Prep, one of the city and state’s top public high schools. While Rafael is celebrating his accomplishments, he also said being the son of an immigrant mother and growing up in a changing community has taught him some hard lessons.
First and foremost, Rafael credits his mother for his success. She’s a single mother who works mornings as a waitress so she can be home with Rafael and his little brother in the afternoon.
“Even when I was just pre-K, she would make me sit down and just do math equations or reading,” he said. “I always had to practice a lot in my early years.”
Rafael said she’s tough and determined. But he understands why.
“I think she wants us to have maybe a better life than she did,” he said. “She lived for a long time in Mexico, where she did not have much, and when she got here, she also didn’t have a lot. She had small jobs that didn’t pay too much. So she probably just wants us to have a better life.”
Rafael said he was also helped by teachers who took time to understand his needs and challenge him. In sixth grade, his math teacher noticed he was breezing through work. She suggested he move to math class with the seventh-graders.
Teacher Brenda Fonseca said when Rafael came to her seventh grade classroom he was so shy he chose a desk alone and not in group with other students. But she devised ways for him to come out of his shell, including tutoring older students and working with students with disabilities.
“He’s that student who’s constantly like trying to challenge himself and [trying] to find different ways to make meaning, not just in math, but in reading and through all his different content areas,” Fonseca said. “And we were just looking at, what else does Rafael need? And one of the things we saw that he needed was to become more social to become more aware beyond himself.”
And over time, the strategy worked.
Rafael acknowledges he was shy until middle school, but he’s since grown more comfortable socially. And now he’s sad leaving Walsh, which has become like a second home to him.
In Chicago Public Schools, the transition Rafael is about to make from elementary school to high school is a big deal. There are few middle schools or junior highs, so traditionally students stay with each other from kindergarten through eighth grade. Then in high school, they often scatter to high schools across the city.
But for Rafael, some of that loss has already occurred. Pilsen has gentrified over the past decade, and many of the students he started kindergarten with have moved away.
“It does make me sad sometimes knowing that they were kind of forced out. They just couldn’t afford living here,” he said. “I just hope for the best for them and that they were able to succeed in whatever they wanted to do.”
As for Rafael, he said he is nervous about starting high school. Yet, this valedictorian said he is also excited about the prospect of exploring a whole new world.