SAN ANTONIO — As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, this week takes us to a school district where one teacher says she’s proud of her Mexican heritage and even more so of how she’s able to use her upbringing to inspire diversity in her classrooms. Our KENS 5 EXCEL Award winner this week hails from Northside Independent School District.
“I'm like, 'Is this real life? Is this a dream?'” she said.
Shocked and emotional, Cindy Nieto-Ruiz couldn’t believe she was receiving this award. And there’s a bit of irony here because usually Nieto-Ruiz is advocating for others. But this year, her colleagues flipped the page and did some advocating for her.
"Congratulations on winning the KENS 5 EXCEL Award for Northside ISD," said KENS 5 Anchor Sarah Forgany presenting her with the award including a $1,000 check from Credit Human.
Among those celebrating Nieto-Ruiz was Dr. Janis Jordan, the Deputy Superintendent at Northside ISD: “I would like to say on behalf of Northside, Cindy, you represent the best of the best of what we're about.”
The word "advocate" is something Nieto-Ruiz lives by and to her, age doesn’t matter.
"I think a lot of people underestimate kids," Nieto-Ruiz said.
At Scarborough Elementary School, she’s already teaching her first-grade students how to speak up and stand up – not only for others – but for themselves, too.
“At the beginning of the year, probably one of the most popular books in elementary school is called 'Chrysanthemum' – and it's about a little mouse. And so everybody makes fun of her because her name is Chrysanthemum and it's so long. And so I just have a simple conversation with kids and I say, 'Oh, wait, why didn't anybody stand up for her? Where was everybody at?' Like, everybody kind of just left her to be made fun of and they just kind of like say, 'Well, if that was me, I would say that's not very nice.'”
Nieto-Ruiz’s passion to teach started young, not because it runs in her family – but because she was taught to value education. Her mom and dad never had the chance to make it to high school.
"So my dad actually told me he went to eighth-grade twice because he loved school so much he wanted to go again. And he said that they didn’t have different classrooms. It was just all in one classroom, all the grade levels in one classroom, because it was just a small little village in Mexico.”
Nieto-Ruiz recalls having many conversations with her father adding, “You realize not everybody gets the gift of education."
Her lessons reflect her upbringing and her classes inspire diversity.
“Like I tell my kids, 'My parents are from Mexico, I'm not from here.' And so I'll take out a map and I'll show them where Mexico is. And even just from that one little conversation, they'll tell me, like, 'Oh, my parents are actually or my grandparents are from China' or 'My grandparents are from Iraq' or 'My parents are from so-and-so.' And San Antonio is like a military city. So a lot of them aren't really even originally from here."
Nieto-Ruiz said she believes it’s crucial to emphasize the importance of equitable education.
“The importance of teaching kids beyond academics... I know little social emotional learning is a big – I guess – buzzword this year, but I think it's important to teach kids their identity themselves, loving themselves and not ignoring who it is they are.”
Nieto-Ruiz is also on the culture committee at her school. She graduated from the University of the Incarnate Word with a bachelor's degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. She also received a master's degree in Bilingual/Bicultural Studies from the University of Texas at San Antonio.
The KENS 5 EXCEL Awards honor 19 teachers from different area school districts.
To read more about other winners, go to KENS5.com/excel.