Sept. 19, 2016
by Renee Peggs
Thirty students from Stockton, California, are having a life-changing experience.
Allison Silva’s fourth-graders from Taylor Leadership Academy are on campus at the University of Notre Dame this weekend and attending the football game today against Duke in an excursion that is more than just a four-day, three-night cross country field trip. It’s paving the way for the children to achieve their dreams.
Taylor is a certified AVID school (advancement via individual determination) which targets low income areas and students who would be the first in their families to go to college. The AVID platform places a heavy emphasis on college readiness and preparedness, even in the earliest elementary grades.
Dr. Connor Sloan, principal at Taylor, explains, “We strive to create a college-bound school culture (through) a rigorous learning environment that (fosters) lifelong learners who embrace the growth mindset in all of their endeavors.”
Toward that end, Sloan invites each classroom at Taylor to adopt a college identity for inspiration throughout the school year.
Four years ago, Silva was teaching second grade when she presented her students with several colleges from among which they could choose their classroom identity.
“I had a few that I had ties to, either from my own experience or my family members’,” she shares.
Silva earned her bachelor’s degree from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, her master’s degree from the University of San Diego and doctorate at the University of the Pacific. Her brother Kevin graduated from Notre Dame in 2007.
The kids unanimously chose Notre Dame as the school whose identity they wanted to adopt, and since then Silva’s classrooms have always followed suit.
Each Friday, Taylor holds a pep rally for the classrooms to sound off as their college or university is named, and the kids are allowed to dress in spirit wear from their respective institutions. Educationally, the classes take turns making presentations to each other based on what they have learned from researching the school with which they are identified.
“In my classroom we also research whatever school Notre Dame is playing in football that week: its location, what it offers, etc., to give us additional (opportunities for research and learning),” Silva says.
Nine-year-old Alazarria Linthasack explains a presentation she gave to her classmates on Irish coach Brian Kelly: “He tries to make all his players get better and keep working hard and practicing. We had to dress like the person we presented. I didn’t have any clothes like him so I just wore my Notre Dame clothes. My dad found a picture of him online and made a drawing of it for me and now it’s hanging in our classroom next to our Notre Dame flag.”
What does it mean to Silva’s students to identify with a university more than halfway across the country?
For starters, “We imitate Notre Dame by slapping our Study Like a Champion Today sign before we take a test,” says 8-year-old Leonardo Flores. The walls of their classroom likely rival a die-hard fan’s man cave but the Like a Champion Today sign is among the kids’ favorites.
“It makes me feel like I’m going to do a really good job (on my test) because it’s Notre Dame,” says Amorae Montgomery, also 8. Anyone who has ever smacked his or her palm against that sign, whether in the tunnel or on the way downstairs to the basement in his or her own home, knows the power and the hope contained in that nearly sacramental gesture.
Montgomery continues, “Our class motto is from Father Ted (Hesburgh, former Notre Dame president): ‘Whatever you value, be committed to it and let nothing distract you from this goal.'”
What stands out about Montgomery and his classmates is that their values, their commitment and their goal all stem from and drive toward someday graduating from Notre Dame.
“2029!” the students all shout in unison.
“They are so genuinely in love with Notre Dame and the idea of going,” says Silva with obvious pride. “I could not have created this–they have internalized it for themselves. They love the ideals of Notre Dame and they come up with their own innovative ways to continue the connection. It makes me so proud to be their teacher.”
Last year, as third-graders, they vicariously shared Silva’s exhilaration as she was featured in Fighting Irish Media’s First Time Fans video documentary series and had the opportunity–for the first time–to visit campus and attend a home football game.
This year, thanks to the wonders of social media and some extraordinarily generous members of the Notre Dame family, those same 30 students are experiencing their own dreams come true. Together with their teacher and principal, the school counselor, the other third-grade teacher from last year and Kevin Silva, the class of 2029 hopefuls have journeyed from California all the way to Indiana. Delta Airlines provided complimentary flights, while Royal Excursion transported them to and from Chicago at below cost.
“We get together as a class every Saturday so we can watch the Notre Dame football games,” says Silva. “We have pizza and cheer on the Irish. Whether they win or lose, the players are their heroes. The kids are just happy to be together and watch the game every week. You can imagine their reaction at hearing they were actually going to get to visit campus.”
Through a Twitter account, Silva’s students have been able to “talk” to their heroes. It was this interaction that drew the attention of campus personnel and media and ultimately led to the financial arrangements that made possible this trip for the whole class to see the University of Notre Dame for themselves.
Welcomed and assisted by members of the San Joaquin alumni chapter, the entourage is making its way around campus to find all the people and places that make Notre Dame so special.
“One of the things that will likely make the biggest impression on them is the large grassy areas (on campus),” Silva predicts. “These kids have probably never seen anything like that, a special area that’s grassy and just for students to just hang out and play.”
Linthasack has been looking forward to seeing the Golden Dome “because it has beautiful murals inside it and Saint Mary on top made out of real gold.”
Jordin Thomas (age 9) can’t wait to “see the football stadium and meet the players and all the people who work at Notre Dame.” His favorite player is Will Fuller (now a wide receiver for the Houston Texans) “because he is fast and he scores touchdowns.”
Similarly, Montgomery is excited to see the stadium and the original Play Like a Champion Today sign. He names Jaylon Smith (who was drafted from Notre Dame to the Dallas Cowboys) as his favorite player “because he cares about all of us in our classroom and is a good defensive player.” Smith has corresponded with Silva’s students through social media.
The grotto is a key destination for Leonardo Flores (age 8) “so I can light a candle for my brother who is in the Navy.”
Silva has explained to her students about college majors and that, as college students, they will be able to choose a course of study in which to focus their education. Linthasack, Thomas and Flores all want to study math and science. Montgomery is interested in film and television as well as math. Nine-year-old Krysta Rodriguez hopes to complete her undergraduate studies at Notre Dame before earning a medical degree from Stanford.
For students whose family members have never attended college, it’s equally as important to have these goals as to feel like they are attainable. Silva’s students now accept it as a given that they will continue their education beyond high school.
“Ms. Silva inspires us to go to college and I never thought I would get to do that,” says Linthasack.
Montgomery adds, “She has inspired us to love Notre Dame for the rest of our lives.”
When asked how they would feel about earning a degree from an institution other than Notre Dame, each of the students says he or she would feel very proud no matter what.
“But Notre Dame can teach you more and you can learn more there,” insists Flores.
“My students believe in their dreams with their entire heart and that is such a huge testament to the impact Notre Dame has had on their lives,” says Silva. “They truly feel like the college of their dreams loves them and cares about their future as much as they do. That is a priceless gift to a class full of students who will be the first in their families to attend college, and I will be forever grateful to Notre Dame and their community for all they have done for these students I love so much.”
Love is clearly a hallmark at Taylor Leadership Academy. Jealousy might be expected from siblings or other schoolmates in response to such an incredible opportunity made available to Silva’s students, who have also been the recipients of Notre Dame swag: people all over the country have sent them Fighting Irish gloves, hats, sweatshirts. “Someone even hand-knitted scarves for each person in the class, in Notre Dame colors,” Silva says.
She adds that while negative reaction had been one of her fears, that was not actually the case.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how proud their community is of them. Jealousy hasn’t been a problem. Everyone is just genuinely so excited for them,” she reports.
“They have transformed so much in the past year. They are so confident and proud of who they are and what their future holds. Thank you for that! And go Irish!”
There’s a magic in the sound of her name, and Silva’s kids believe in it with all their hearts.