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Breed Street School Rejoices in Success of One of Its Own

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

He was their stern but caring fifth-grade teacher, the principal who raised school achievement and told students they could be anything.

And Friday morning they heard the news: Ruben Zacarias, the district administrator who grew up on their streets and spoke their language--even attended their school as a young boy--will now lead the nation’s second largest school district.

Zacarias started kindergarten at Breed Street Elementary School more than 60 years ago. He later taught at the Boyle Heights campus and went on to become principal and regional superintendent of the school.

Small radios buzzed in the classrooms Friday as the staff waited to hear the decision. Many were so excited they hadn’t slept the night before.

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“Ay, que bien!” cried longtime parent volunteer Bertha Calleros, breaking down in tears. “This is the greatest happiness possible for our community!”

Like many other parents, Calleros credits Zacarias for turning around her young son 25 years ago and giving him the encouragement to go to college. She and others rejoiced not only in Zacarias’ appointment, but in what it symbolizes for students at Breed Street.

“I think our students will see if he can do it, they also can succeed,” said Sonia Yescas, a parent volunteer at the school for the past 12 years. “I think it’s a triumph not only for Latinos but for all races who live in Los Angeles. This is one of the greatest achievements Breed School could have.”

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Many Latinos around the city celebrated Zacarias’ appointment Friday, but nowhere was the pride more acute than at Breed Street, a simple, two-story concrete building on the Eastside.

For the parents and teachers who have focused so much of their lives around the modest Eastside campus, Zacarias’ appointment was cause for a school-wide celebration of one of their own. Friday’s announcement brought emotion-packed news--a culmination of both the long wait for Latino leadership and the work of an educator they feel transformed their school by putting children first.

Zacarias’ likely appointment as superintendent was the talk of the teachers lunchroom for the last month. On Friday, shouts of “Que bueno!” rang out in the long hallways as the news spread. Young children, some decked out in plaid uniforms, caught the excitement and danced happily in line as they marched out to recess.

For parents and teachers who knew him at Breed, the new superintendent is simply “Ruben,” a tireless, accessible educator whose presence is still felt on this close-knit campus.

Built in 1881, the red-tile roof building is bordered by narrow residential streets. Children play softball on the blacktop under the frame of blooming jacaranda trees and the downtown skyline jutting up behind them. Parents linger on the campus during the day and gather at the front gate early waiting for their children to get out of school. It was here that Zacarias came in 1966, returning to his childhood school for his first teaching job in the district.

On Friday, the staff swapped stories about his tenure at Breed with the pride of parents discussing the accomplishments of a favorite son.

As principal, Zacarias was at the front gate every morning before school, they recalled, ready to greet the children, shake their hands and welcome them to school. Students with dirty faces and untucked shirts were gently admonished and directed to the bathroom to straighten up before entering the classroom.

“You would always see him around the school bending down and picking up litter,” said Marlene Winston, a second-grade teacher who worked with Zacarias when he arrived at Breed. “He didn’t like a dirty school and he set a model for the students. Now I’m just so proud. It’s great that somebody from this school is now head honcho of the whole district.”

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Early in the morning, a handful of parents broke away from the classrooms where they volunteer to gather in a first-floor room. New school uniforms were neatly laid out to be distributed, but they sat untouched as the group sipped hot coffee and watched the news, trying to catch a glimpse of the new superintendent. Some hoped that he would stop by so they could give him a congratulatory hug--but either way, he has agreed to go to dinner with them to celebrate.

Many said Zacarias’ firm leadership helped transform the lives of their children in this gritty area and inspired many to attend college. He mobilized parents, creating a strong core of 50 volunteers who kept returning to Breed long after their children and Zacarias had left.

“He was like a second father for my children,” Calleros said in Spanish. Her eldest son was expelled from Breed for acting out, but Zacarias helped turn him around with attention and respect, she said. Much later, Zacarias helped her children fill out financial aid applications for college and get jobs during the summer.

“We owe him, those of us who had students here,” Calleros said. “We owe him. There’s such a famine in this community . . . so many drugs and gangs. To get a good son out of this community is such an accomplishment, and I will never tire of telling him thank you.”

Katty Iriarte, Breed’s current principal, knows that Zacarias is “a hard act to follow.” Iriarte, who took over as principal a mere five days ago, said, “He’s an institution at this school. Everybody relates everything back to him, as if there never was anybody else.”

Many teachers said they still pattern their classes after Zacarias’ model. Their students busily paint on easels outside, and classroom walls are covered with colorful art projects.

“For him, the children always come first,” said teacher Diana Spagnoli, as her kindergarten students diligently counted jellybeans and charted them on work sheets. “If he can do for this district what he did for this school, we’ll be at the top.”

Twenty years after he left Breed, Zacarias still comes back regularly--not just to visit his old colleagues, but to meet a new generation of Breed students. Now, he is greeted like a hero returning to his hometown. Last month, the school newspaper interviewed him for a profile on the superintendent candidate.

“We were nervous because we’re students, and he’s a very special and important person,” said Marisol Jimenez, who wrote the story with her fourth-grade classmate, April Jimenez. “But he’s a very nice person and he cares about the school. Now I want to be president because he told me I can be whatever I want to be. I really believe it--I can do anything.”

For those who celebrated Friday, Zacarias’ ascension to the highest position in the district only brought him closer to their small school.

“This school is now going to be at the top,” Calleros said happily. “For the Latino community, him being superintendent will mean a lot of chances for education to get better. Mainly, he will understand our people, our hurt and our needs. Because he started at the bottom--he started here.”


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