The Visionary: How Maria Tukeva helps immigrants succeed in D.C. schools
By V. Dion HaynesSunday,
April 11, 2010; W30
To the nervous high school senior presenting her research project in the school library, this feels like an "American Idol" moment, and Principal Maria Tukeva is the judge she most wants to impress.
The student, Lizbeth Macias, 17, rattles off data about the slave roots of Georgetown's Mount Zion Cemetery and laments all the ways it has fallen into disrepair. She tells the judges she even volunteered as a tour guide at the historic site and shared her knowledge with visitors for the class project. But not even a quarter into her talk, Macias loses her composure.
"I'm sure I'm blushing. I'm a really, really shy person," she says, fiddling with her note cards. She pauses, sucks in a deep breath and regains control. There's good reason for her angst: She must get a passing grade on her portfolio presentation to graduate. When Macias is done, the other judge -
"One suggestion is to get more familiar with the court case. I think you were confused about who was whom," Tukeva says calmly before sending Macias off to review the case further and present again another day.
This is the Tukeva the students at Columbia Heights Educational Campus, formerly Bell Multicultural High School, know well: tough but fair. She has high expectations for them, they say, but she makes sure they have the resources they need to succeed. The portfolio project is just one of the programs Tukeva has implemented over the years to shape the school into a cross-
In its near-
In some ways, Tukeva has been able to fly below the radar. She enjoys the background, preferring not to draw attention to herself. She works alongside parents and teachers, rather than using a top-
"Good organizations that survive do not just depend on a leader that's out in front," she says. "It's not healthy for an organization to develop that way."
In a show of confidence, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee in August 2008 added Lincoln Middle School -
Tukeva was not long out of graduate school, working as an administrative assistant at a Hispanic mental health agency in Northwest Washington -
"They were being mislabeled," says Ricardo Galbis, the center's director at the time. The school system "lacked the cultural competence to see what was normal and abnormal."
The complaints resonated with Tukeva, who grew up in Pennsylvania with a father of Finnish descent and a mother from Spain. Tukeva was in sixth grade when her dreams were dashed by a teacher who wouldn't believe she was capable of writing a poem she'd authored.
"So I was in the lunchroom, and she was telling all the teachers at the lunch table: 'She copied this poem. She could never write it herself. She doesn't have the ability to do that,'" Tukeva recalls, fingering her thin-
After earning a degree in Spanish literature and journalism at Pennsylvania State University, Tukeva received a master's degree in linguistics and bilingual education at Georgetown University. She then landed the job at Centro Hispano de Salud. When she moved on to work as an educational specialist developing curricula for dropout prevention programs targeting Hispanics nationwide, she kept the complaints she'd heard from the immigrant parents in the back of her mind. Eventually, she started thinking about starting her own alternative high school.
Tukeva worked with a team of educators and used as the model a successful alternative school that mainly served black students in Philadelphia. The Department of Labor funded the experiment, and in 1981 Tukeva launched the Multicultural Career Intern Program. She obtained permission from the school system to use space at the Marie Reed Learning Center in Northwest Washington and to recruit Hispanics who had either dropped out or were on the verge of dropping out, essentially the students the schools didn't want. Forty students enrolled, and Tukeva served in every role: executive director, principal, teacher, curriculum developer and fundraiser.
About the same time, the population in Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant and Adams-
Some of the teens Tukeva enrolled had fled poverty and civil wars with their families and had tragic stories. To this day, Rosalba Bonilla-
He survived, but when their father died two years later, the three children moved to Washington to join their mother, who had been living here since 1978. Bonilla-
When rioting broke out in the Mount Pleasant area after police shot an unarmed Latino man in 1991, the city's black leaders found themselves targets of the kinds of human rights complaints black residents had lodged against the white establishment during the civil rights movement. Tukeva joined the Latino Civil Rights Task Force and demanded more bilingual programs citywide. When a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights included such programs among its recommendations to improve conditions for the city's immigrants, Tukeva was enlisted to help. But during a budget crisis just two years later, the school board moved to close Bell and relocate students to nearby Cardozo Senior High.
"I got some building experts to tour the building with me. The consensus was it was not worth trying to upgrade the 100-
"There was a lot of disappointment," says Olivia Cadaval, curator of the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. A new field, sitting behind a wrought-
These days, Tukeva spends much of her time at the middle school, which has a long history of dysfunction and underachievement. Shortly after moving onto the new campus, the middle school students damaged the property, kicking in lockers, scrawling graffiti on computer terminals and destroying bathroom sinks.
Tukeva made dramatic changes right away, splitting boys and girls into separate classes and introducing the school system's Capital Gains program, which pays students for good grades and behavior. Already, Tukeva said, she has noticed a significant drop in the number of students referred to the office for discipline problems. Now, every day at lunchtime, she assigns herself to cafeteria duty to get to know her middle school students.
She also is working with her administrators to develop a middle school version of the high school portfolio. "This will give them a sense they are making a big transition to ninth grade," Tukeva said. "And they will see what will be expected of them."
V. Dion Haynes, a Washington Post economics writer, covered the D.C. public schools from 2005 to 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org