Perhaps it was always inside of her, something intrinsic, a voice pushing her to preserve despite the obstacles. Or maybe it was her mother’s voice that kept her going, reassuring her that education would be her pathway to success. Most would say that Marta Palacios’ journey from monolingual dishwasher and maid to award-winning principal and Doctor of Education is nothing short of extraordinary. But she would probably tell you humbly that her personal story only confirms what she’s always believed: through education, anything is possible.
School was never challenging for young Marta who grew up in a small Salvadoran town. She effortlessly copied and regurgitated her teachers’ notes and lectures. The rote learning that characterized her early education came easily to her. She quickly went through school and soon became a teacher herself, beginning her career in her native El Salvador with no intention of ever leaving her country.
Violence and political unrest, however, changed her plans and brought her to the United States at the age of 19. Much like the fear of violence that prevents some students in Latin America from going to school, Dr. Palacios says that it was fear for her safety that drove her to leave the only home she had ever known. Still a teenager, she was suddenly in a new country, immersed in a foreign language and culture.
Dr. Palacios found work in hotels in Washington, D.C. and began teaching herself English by reading The Washington Post. Driven by her commitment to education, she was determined to return to teaching even if it meant going back to school part-time in the evenings after work. Although she had always been a good student, Palacios realized that she had more than a language barrier to overcome in order to get her college degree. “I had never written an essay,” she recalled reflecting on her educational experience in an era when memorization and repetition, as opposed to analysis and critical thought, were common pedagogical practices. It took eight years, but she finished her bachelor’s degree in Education – and she didn’t stop there.
She went on to earn a doctoral degree in Bilingual Special Education and has been nationally recognized for her work as a principal in the public school system in Washington, D.C. Dr. Palacios is creating educational opportunities for her students that she didn’t have in school. They participate in an innovative dual language program in which they take their subjects in both Spanish and English. One of the keys to her success has been forming close relationships with parents, involving them in decision-making and empowering them to take a leadership role in their children’s education.
Dr. Palacios laments that many communities still struggle to improve education quality and school safety, both in El Salvador and the United States. Today only about 40% of Salvadoran students graduate high school. Sadly, high school graduation rates are not much higher in the US capital where Dr. Palacios currently works. In fact, Washington, D.C. has one of the highest dropout rates in the nation. A dedicated educator like Dr. Palacios, however, gives one hope that the situation can change. Not only has she defied the odds to reach the highest levels of professional achievement, but she’s done so while making a difference in the lives of countless others.
Originally published on the Graduate XXI website: http://www.graduatexxi.org/en/la-historia-de-marta-palacios/