An Abandoned Home Becomes a Shining Star for Teachers and a Small Community in Mexico

Associate Professor Todd Fletcher puts his heart and soul into a life-changing community center that provides the perfect training ground for teachers.
by Gabrielle Fimbres

Todd Fletcher is a man on a mission, devoted to helping teachers improve the school experience for special education English learners.

As part of that mission, a piece of Fletcher’s heart will always be more than a thousand miles south of the University of Arizona, in rural Mexico.

Fletcher, who joined the UA College of Education in 1985, has created an educational community center in Cajones, Mexico, about 10 miles outside of Guanajuato.

For decades, he has led Verano en Mexico, a summer school program for education students. He was inspired to give back to the community that has been so hospitable to UA students and faculty.

“I had an inspiration to do something more concrete to make a difference and to do something for the community,” Fletcher said. “We set up a school where

international faculty can present and can really do something to impact these children and families.”

In 2009, Resplandor International was born.

For the past three summers, faculty and students from around the globe — and many from the UA — have traveled with Fletcher to this lush Mexican community that has limited resources. They have formed close bonds with the children and families of the area, offering everything from early childhood education and earth sciences to cooking, guitar, and Zumba classes.

Resplandor also serves as a rich training ground for teachers and professionals. Arnulfo Velasquez, teacher in residence at the UA College of Education, who also sings with Arizona Opera, has spent two summers with Fletcher at Resplandor, teaching guitar and singing to children and adults, some with special needs.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Velasquez said. “We were able to integrate music and sign language with some of the deaf kids in the community. It was tremendous.”

Velasquez credits Fletcher with having the vision to build a life-changing community center — and making it happen.

A love for Latin America

But how did this kid from Iowa end up putting his heart and soul — and a chunk of his savings — into the abandoned home in the middle of nowhere that would become Resplandor?

Fletcher spoke little Spanish when he enrolled in the University of the Americas, a bilingual school in Puebla, Mexico, where he received his bachelor’s degree in education. He fell in love with Latin America, and ended up teaching in Nicaragua.

When political strife forced him to leave Nicaragua in 1978, he moved to Oregon for more schooling. There, he met psychologist Richard Woodcock, who was looking for help in developing a psychoeducational test in Spanish.

Fletcher traveled to Peru, Costa Rica, Spain, and Mexico to help develop an evaluation tool that would be appropriate for English-learning students in the U.S. I knew nothing about special education back then,” Fletcher recalled.

He conducted his dissertation research in Mexico City, working in public and private schools, comparing two psychological tests — in Spanish — used to measure cognitive abilities and academic achievement.

English learners often misdiagnosed
After receiving his doctorate in educational foundations and special education from Oregon State University, Fletcher joined the UA College of Education in 1985 to develop bilingual special education in response to a growing community need. He coordinates the specialty program in bilingual/multicultural special education in our Department of Disability and Psycho educational Studies (DPS).

“This is kind of where bilingual education started,” Fletcher said of the UA. “I was hired to develop a program to prepare teachers and develop skills in evaluating children who are primarily Spanish speakers.”

Today, it is one of only a handful of bilingual special education programs in the country. “Bilingual special ed really didn’t exist before this,” Fletcher said. He brought in distinguished scholars who were instrumental in helping him develop the course work.

Fletcher said English learners are often misdiagnosed as having special needs because of language and cultural differences. “These kids need to be better understood,” he said. “Teachers are not
well prepared to understand the language and cultural differences. This lack of understanding can be difficult to overcome.”

Fletcher developed a core of four classes and received a federal grant to fund scholarships for students to be trained as bilingual special education teachers. “It enabled students from diverse backgrounds who might otherwise not be able to access the university to come here,” he said.

Over the years, the UA graduated about 10 bilingual special education students each year. A couple of years ago, funding for scholarships was terminated, but Fletcher continues to teach. One of his classes, Cultural and Linguistic Diversity in Exceptional Learners, is required for all DPS graduate students. .
To complement what his students were learning in the classroom, Fletcher developed the five-week program Verano en Mexico in 1986.

Being there
Every summer, Fletcher leads groups of students — from the occasional high school student to doctoral candidates — to Mexico City and Guanajuato. They live with a host family, meet with Mexican education officials, spend time in schools, and learn Spanish.
“They experience the culture firsthand,” he said. “No matter how much you read and study, it’s important to be there. It’s a transforming experience.

“A lot of students come from schools in Mexico, so it is helpful if future teachers can have an understanding of the culture and education system there,” he continued. “The whole goal was to develop cultural competency. These are not simple students to work with, and the reality is that all teachers today have that population that they are working with. It is important that they have assessment and instructional skills they need.”

Jeannie Favela, assistant superintendent at Sunnyside Unified School District, said Verano en Mexico helped prepare her for real-world teaching. She attended the program in the late 1980s.
“I didn’t know much about the education system in Mexico, especially special ed,” Favela said. “That was very helpful.”

Favela, who grew up on the Nogales, Ariz., border, learned about where her students were coming from.
“Dr. Fletcher has mentored me and kept track of me,” Favela said. “We still collaborate. I have great regard and admiration for his program.”

Powerful work
Resplandor grew out of Fletcher’s summers in Mexico and his own travels.
“When I studied in Mexico, I got all of these wonderful experiences,” he said. “I want to give students an opportunity to gain what I gained and to have the opportunity to transform their lives personally and professionally. It’s very powerful to work in the community, to work with families and feel like you are making a difference.”
The UA community has supported the project through fundraisers and through faculty and students who teach there.
The center provides after-school programs as well as summer classes for children ages 4 to 16, as well as adults.
“One of the goals is to provide residents with what they need to stay in their communities,” Fletcher said. “The families and the communities are really happy.”
He adds, “They love participating at Resplandor.” And it provides an excellent training ground for teachers.
“We will use the center to train teachers and professionals, locally, nationally, and internationally,” he said.
Patricia González, bilingual special education teacher at Davis Bilingual Magnet School in Tucson, received her master’s degree from the UA in May 2011. She said Fletcher’s classes, along with her summers at Resplandor, prepared her to teach.
“Dr. Fletcher was my professor, my advisor, and he has been a strong supporter of my studies,” she said. “He’s been a wonderful mentor. As a teacher, I feel I have learned so much and I am more effective because of Dr. Fletcher and his classes.”
At Resplandor, González , who took the photo on the cover of this year’s Imagine, has taught everything from reading to Zumba.
“It’s really an honor more than anything to be part of the program,” she said. “I am so grateful and blessed to be a part of it and to know these children and families.”