Imelda Marroquin: After 10+ Years, Fifth Grade Parent Honors School Principal

June 2019

When Teaching for Change began partnering with Thomson Elementary (DCPS) in the 2011-2012 school year, the community was fighting to recover its reputation after a scandal, parents were fed-up with inadequate family engagement, test scores were lagging, and soon after school started the new assistant principal, Carmen Shepherd, became the interim leader.

Parent of two Imelda Marroquin was there for it all. As Teaching for Change began to implement its family engagement program at the school, she quickly emerged as a parent leader who stepped up to support Thomson families through the transition and beyond. In June 2019, Imelda took to the stage during the fifth-grade promotion ceremony as her family closed out nearly a decade at Thomson. She approached Teaching for Change parent-organizer Talia Brock with a plan to honor Principal Shepherd during the fifth-grade ceremony. Imelda felt that Principal Shepherd’s leadership and support for parent voice had helped to transform the school, and she wanted to pay homage at the graduation. Talia helped her coordinate with the teachers to add a secret presentation to the agenda. Imelda and Talia worked together to make a beautiful certificate with a message written in both Spanish and English, to thank Ms. Shepherd “for lifting up Thomson Elementary and opening the doors for all parents.” They also discussed what Imelda would say when she presented the award.

On the evening of the graduation, Imelda sat with her husband in the front row. Just as Principal Shepherd was about to close the ceremony and invite families to eat, fifth-grade teacher Ms. Braxton interrupted her with an announcement that there was one final presentation and invited Imelda to come to the front. The audience watched as a wave of emotions came over Principal Shepherd’s face. Imelda spoke directly to Principal Shepherd in Spanish, thanking her for all that she had done to support parents and improve the school over the last eight years. Principal Shepherd was visibly moved, even before she heard the English interpretation. It was a beautiful moment that even made some of the graduating students tear up with emotion. Imelda, who had described herself as someone that was once fearful of speaking up when her children first started school, now spoke confidently before a sea of parents and educators. It was truly a testament to Imelda’s growth as a leader, and how much Principal Shepherd’s efforts meant to her and other families.

Imelda spoke with Teaching for Change documentarian Jazelle Hunt to reflect on the rise and impact of parent power at the only elementary school her two sons have attended. Imelda’s first language is an indigenous Mayan language, her second language is Spanish, and she has been learning English for several years now. This interview was translated from Spanish and has been edited for brevity.


On Building Meaningful Family Engagement

“Before Teaching for Change got here — before I even got here — parents weren’t able to ever be in the school. We had to just stay outside. But Teaching for Change and parent organizer América Calderón came, and then with Principal Shepherd here, the doors opened for us. I started to know more.”

“Principal Shepherd came in with a plan, and I felt more relaxed because I knew what was going on. She put our school’s goals up on the walls where we all could see. And there wasn’t a parent center before, either. But after she started, the moms came together to clear the boxes out and it became a space for us.”

“Communication with parents improved. Before, we had to file a complaint and it wasn’t an easy thing to do. Teaching for Change and Principal Shepherd made it easy to come in and talk directly.”

“In the past, whenever parents were informed of something like, ‘your child is on red,’ some parents wouldn’t worry much because they didn’t know what that meant. Now we’re more informed, and when we hear that we know to get on top of it.”

“Before, I didn’t speak much at all. Now, if I notice my son’s grades going down I can talk to his teacher or talk to Principal Shepherd and find out how I can support him.”

“Sometimes parents are looking for ‘what is the best school,’ but then that might seem like a school where there’s no parent involvement at all. I have the ability now to see that parent involvement is important.”


On Parent Voice and Parent Power

“Parents come with ideas, and we do a lot to help Principal Shepherd get things done. Because we’re the parents, we’re able to see a lot of issues that the students are going through.”

“There are many things I’m proud of. We see leadership with classroom parents organizing events, reading to the kids. When I have an idea, I talk to Principal Shepherd — we work well together — and I feel more secure because my voice is listened to.”

“We as parents have the power to support teachers and the principal in ways they can’t because they work for the school. What I’ve heard is the system is set up in such a way that administrators listen more to parents than they will to teachers and staff in certain situations, because the teachers are employees of that system. It can be easier for us to do things because parents will be heard, and the school needs us for that.”

“For some people, not speaking English is a barrier. But there are ways around that. People should keep speaking out and using their voice.”


On Her Growth as a Parent Leader

“I try to stop by the Thomson parent center once or twice a week because there’s information, and there’s always something to help out with.”

“In my country, I only went up to fourth grade, so I had a lot of fear about school. But all of the support Teaching for Change has given me and the school…I understand the school system now. I don’t have that fear anymore.”

“My son is about to leave fifth grade and the other is in tenth grade, and I feel prepared for them to go all the way to twelfth grade and for my other son to go to middle school. It’s all easy for me now; I know what’s going on in D.C. and a lot of that is due to Teaching for Change. Right now, we are preparing my son for which tests he has to take and what he has to do to go to college.”

“Because of my experience with my first son in elementary, it’s easy for me now that he is in high school. I go to workshops every Wednesday and the topics are more advanced. It’s a completely different space but I left here with wings. The preparation of being able to deal with high school came from here, at Thomson.”

“I always say parents should talk to each other, and they also should get involved with their child’s academics. A lot of parents are going to struggle with the schoolwork, and a lot of kids are going to struggle with it, too. But at this time of their life, children need their parents.”


On Teaching for Change

“Teaching for Change changed my life. Without them, I would’ve kept my mouth closed. Now I always talk with my sons’ teachers, and counselors, all their assistants.”

“I thank Teaching for Change for coming here and supporting us in opening the parent center. Without you, we wouldn’t have many of the things we do.”

“I feel really happy. I don’t have the words to express what Teaching for Change has done for me. You took me up a straight path. As an immigrant, we can have a lot of fear about speaking up, but I don’t have that fear anymore. Please keep supporting parents, there are lots of us out there who need support like I did.”