A UT Alumna Is Houston’s Teacher of the Year in Just Her Second Year in the Classroom

People don’t often look back on middle school longingly. But ask Alejandra Ortega, BS ’15, and she’ll tell you those hormonal years provided some of her fondest memories. It’s when she began to shine as a student. Ortega’s middle school teachers are the reason she found herself back at her junior high alma mater, McReynolds Middle School, only six months after graduating from UT.

Ortega, an alumna of the Forty Acres Scholars Program, majored in youth and community studies as part of UT’s applied learning and development program and minored in Spanish, graduated in just two-and-a-half years. Her fast track to success continued this past May when Ortega, in only her second year of teaching, was named Houston ISD’s Secondary Teacher of the Year. There’re a lot of reasons Ortega earned the title, says McReynolds Principal Steven Stapleton, BS ’09, Life Member, but foremost is “her passion and dedication to her students.”

Ortega hasn’t always thrived in the classroom. In elementary school, Ortega was bullied for being a shy, introverted bookworm. She tried to blend in by staying in regular classes instead of moving up to advanced courses. It wasn’t until middle school that her teachers began to notice her potential, and encouraged her to come out of her shell, eventually placing her in Pre-AP math and paving the way for her to take all advanced courses throughout middle and high school.

“That’s what hit me at that young age—imagine if I could do that for somebody else,” Ortega says. “And maybe that one person could do it for a couple more people, and maybe the world—or at least my little Denver Harbor/Fifth Ward community—would become a better place.”

The importance of Ortega’s relationship with her teachers only grew when she reached the Forty Acres. She found her niche when she joined the Bilingual Education Student Organization and studied language acquisition in Guatemala, where she says her tight-knit group of classmates and professors showed her what it means to be a Longhorn.

“That’s really what I took away from my time at UT,” Ortega says. “The relationships that I built while I was on campus with not just friends, but faculty.”

Marilyn White, BA ’59, Life Member, a Forty Acres Scholars Program donor, met Ortega during her freshman year and was immediately drawn to her smile and energy.  White kept in touch with Ortega, who eventually told White she wanted to be a math teacher near the end of her time at UT.

“I thought, you have found your calling,” White says. “I have three reasons: she’s really smart, she really cares about her students and helping them understand what she’s teaching and why, and she’s incredibly loyal to UT.” White says she wasn’t surprised in the slightest that Ortega won the award so soon after graduating.

At just 21, Ortega began her career as an educator. She was determined to be a great teacher by the time she returned to McReynolds, not wanting to put kids at a disadvantage by being a rookie. When an eighth grade math position opened up there, she  only had one rocky semester of teaching under her belt—but she went for it, and the leap of faith paid off.

After her first year, Ortega’s natural leadership abilities and drive led her to take on the roles of department head and running the mentorship program for new teachers. Ortega says her teaching success comes from a core piece of advice that Stapleton gave her.

“As a teacher, there are really only two things that I can control: the work I design for my students and the relationships I build with them,” she says. “If I prioritize those two things and keep those as my anchor in everything I do, everything else is going to fall into place.”

Stapleton says he sees that practice at work in Ortega’s classroom, calling it a model of a student-centered educational space.

“In inner-city schools, most of the time the kids are not used to having a voice in the classroom,” Stapleton says. “But she empowers her kids to take ownership of their learning. When you go in her classroom, you see someone with strong relationships and work that’s designed around the motives that her students have.”

Stapleton says that this setup has helped to produce strong results on state testing, with 90 percent of students passing the standardized eighth grade math test, up from 61 percent the year before Ortega started.

These results don’t come easily. McReynolds is a Title I school, meaning the campus receives federal funding to help students meet state standards, as most of the school’s population comes from low socio-economic backgrounds. Ortega says her biggest struggle comes from the large lack of educational equity among schools in the area. In 2006, the HISD board voted to shut down the school due to three consecutive years of “academically unacceptable” ratings, giving teachers and the community just a year to save the school by achieving higher state testing scores. They did it, but the school has continued to struggle.

“We’re making miracles happen, somehow,” Ortega says. “It’s not that our kids aren’t capable of it, but if we were getting the same resources other campuses are, it would be a lot easier.”

Ortega continues to push herself and her students to be the best they can be. One of the ways she does this is by starting the conversation about higher education. For the past two years, she and McReynolds assistant principal Pablo Resendiz, BS ’14, have brought their students to visit campus during Explore UT in March to show off their alma mater and let them know that going to college is attainable.

“For a lot of our kids, it was the first time they were touring a college campus or they were even outside of Houston,” Ortega says. “For them to know it is an option—that nobody should ever tell you you’re not smart enough, or because of where you’re coming from, or how you look, that you shouldn’t be going somewhere like that.”

Ortega is humble about her teaching award, which she won out of more than 100 secondary schools in the district. She attributes her success to her parents, her former teachers, administrators, and of course, her students.

“All those experiences, advice, and interactions with my students is really what’s molded me into the educator that I am,” she says. “I feel like this is just kind of the icing on the cake.”

Ortega has even loftier goals head of her. She has her sights set on school administration, and is working toward her master’s in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from UT Arlington, which she expects to finish in December. But she’s not ready to leave the classroom quite yet.

“I remember when I was younger saying I wanted to be principal of this campus one day,” she says. “Now that I’m Teacher of the Year for the district, it’s not as far-fetched. It’ll probably happen way down the line.”

If Ortega’s expedient success at McReynolds is any indicator, way down the line might be sooner rather than later.


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