MNPS Voices: Sarai Ovalle

MNPS Voices: Sarai Ovalle, English Learners Teacher, Antioch Middle School
Posted on 03/01/2023
Sarai Ovalle

Sarai Ovalle, a member of the first graduating class at MNPS’s Cane Ridge High School in 2011 and now an English Learners teacher at Antioch Middle School, has a fascinating story of resilience as a young immigrant that contributed to her successful career in education. Sarai Ovalle

Born in Mexico, Ovalle arrived in the U.S. with part of her family at age 3 and attended MNPS schools from kindergarten through graduation.

“I grew up in Antioch before it looked like it does now,” she said. “There was not a lot of diversity then.”

Ovalle attended J.E. Moss Elementary from kindergarten through third grade. In kindergarten, she found her experience to be challenging because she could not speak English, among other reasons. But in first grade she had an amazing teacher who tried to learn Spanish, and “I remember her trying very hard to communicate with my parents during parent nights when they would come out,” she said. “It made me just feel at home, happy, and safe there with her. And I started to love going to school when I was in her class and from first grade on, I really loved going to school in general at MNPS.”

When Ovalle went to high school, she started realizing a lot of the barriers undocumented students had to deal with. These hurdles didn't become a reality until her oldest sister, who was the first one in her family graduating from high school, applied for college.

Ovalle’s sister had applied to Middle Tennessee State University, and at that time there just wasn't a lot of information available about educational opportunities for students with irregular immigration status.

“So, when my sister tried to apply at MTSU, she was immediately denied because she was told she was undocumented and they didn’t accept people who don't have a Social Security Number,” Ovalle said.

Ovalle felt devastated, because she was planning to go to college herself. If she wanted to pursue that goal, her only option was paying out-of-state tuition, but that was impossible for her family. She did not qualify for financial assistance of any kind, regardless of her GPA, and her ACT score didn’t help her qualify for any scholarships either.

“When I heard the news that my sister, who was a straight-A student, couldn't even apply for college, I felt like everything my teachers were telling me about college opportunities was pointless; and since I was also undocumented, I just kind of gave up.”

As a result, during Ovalle’s freshman year at Cane Ridge, she didn’t put forth her best academic efforts.

“I failed the class. I had to go to summer school because I just didn’t feel like college was for me, and I think all the emotions were overwhelming as a teenager, because before that I was a great student; and now, I just felt everything was useless, there was no purpose to this,” she said.

Ovalle never believed college was a possibility for her until she joined the after-school club YMCA Latino Achievers. There she met a lady named Carol Cubillo.

“She was the first Latina professional I had ever met, and it wasn’t until she told me that I could go to college that I finally believed it, because she looked like me. She had a very similar story to me,” Ovalle said. “She told me how she went through the immigration process and how she got her green card and was able to get legal status here in America, and how she went to college even before that, and it just put it all into perspective.”

Thanks to Cubillo’s encouragement, Ovalle finally got encouraged to pursue a post-secondary opportunity. Always supportive of her education, her parents worked hard and borrowed from a family member to put her through her first year of college. After that first year, she knew she couldn’t continue to put her family through that financial burden and told her parents she did not want to continue until she could afford to pay for school herself. She worked for two years and took one class at Nashville State Community College because that was all she could afford to pay with the out-of-state tuition charge.

Thankfully for Ovalle, during this time a federal policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which protected hundreds of thousands of young people who entered the United States unlawfully as children from deportation, came into effect. While not a permanent solution, DACA allowed Ovalle and many other students to apply for a driver’s license, Social Security Number, and work permit.

“I was able to get a driver’s license and get a decent job. While I was at work, one of my coworkers asked me why I wasn’t in college, and when I told her my situation, she told me about a man named Dr. Michael Spalding, who was helping undocumented students pay for college through his Equal Chance for Education organization in Nashville,” Ovalle said.

“After meeting Dr. Spalding and telling him my story, I was approved for the scholarship, and he encouraged me to apply for school immediately. So, I did, and in 2017 I graduated from Trevecca Nazarene University, magna cum laude, with a major in elementary education, and was presented the Student Teacher of the Year award and inducted into Phi Delta Lambda Zeta Chapter, the highest academic honor bestowed by Trevecca.”

Ovalle credits her parents as her source of inspiration to pursue a career in education.

“My dad wanted to be a teacher and was studying to become one in Mexico, but unfortunately he was not able to finish his studies because he had to work to help take care of his younger brothers,” she said. “My mother was a second mother to many of my cousins, always welcoming them into our home when in need. They both molded me into the person that I am today and have always inspired me to reach for my biggest dreams.”

Soon after graduating from college, Ovalle was able to accomplish her dream to become a teacher. While she started her teaching career in Rutherford County, she always wanted to work in Metro Schools. In 2018 she started as a third grade teacher at a new school that was just opening called Eagle View Elementary, conveniently located close to her home.

“Under Dr. Shawn Lawrence’s amazing leadership, I worked with him and other staff members over the summer to set up the foundations of our new school,” she said. “I taught third grade for two years, and then I moved up to teach fifth grade for two years with my team.”

Ovalle later applied for and was awarded a scholarship through the Diverse Leadership Network. In 2022 she received her master’s degree from Tennessee State University in educational leadership and her ESL endorsement from Trevecca shortly after.

With her ESL endorsement, Ovalle wanted to begin to expand her career in education, “so for the 2022-23 year I accepted my current position as an eighth grade EL teacher at Antioch Middle School,” she said. During the first few months of teaching EL, Ovalle became aware of many of the inequities her community is facing and applied to the Nashville Public Education Foundation Teacherpreneur program and was accepted to this year’s cohort. This week she won third place in Teacherpreneur, earning a cash prize and seed funding to help pilot her idea for a program to increase access to magnet schools for academically advanced English Learner students. 

“I am currently working to identify and eliminate inequities that our EL students are facing and plan to continue this work throughout my career,” she said.

Ovalle’s philosophy to have an enjoyable, successful career as a teacher is remembering and walking in your purpose.

“There are many inequities that remain to be solved that make our jobs as teachers harder, but hearing my students tell me how grateful they are for me makes it is so encouraging,” she said. “Hearing students say they want to be a teacher like me when they grow up, because they can see themselves in me, makes it all worth it.”

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