Zoila Gallegos ’90 ’92, ’96 MS knows the power of reading to change a child’s life, because it first changed hers.
“Growing up, I was an English learner and struggling reader,” says Gallegos. “I didn’t realize how far behind I was until I came to the Mount. I’m thankful that the professors pushed me and held me accountable. Most importantly the Mount had a support system in place for at-promise students.”
The term “at-promise” replaced “at-risk” at the start of 2020 in all California educational and penal codes because the new term suggests opportunity while the old term is negative and implies that there’s a problem.
Not only did Gallegos overcome her many early challenges, she went on to earn an associate degree, a bachelor’s in liberal studies and master’s in counseling psychology from Mount Saint Mary’s. “I had to confront many challenges along the way,” she says. “But the Sisters of St. Joseph inspired me to pursue my education because it was the one thing that no one could take away from me.” Upon graduation, teaching became her mission and her ministry.
Not only is Gallegos a passionate educator, she has consistently chosen to teach the most at-promise and neediest students. She began her career as a kindergarten teacher in Los Angeles, but she soon grew bored with the traditional school setting. She transitioned to Los Angeles County Office of Education where she worked with students on house arrest, expelled students, homeless and foster youth, pregnant minors and/or students in danger of dropping out of school.
She later moved to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, one of her most challenging assignments, where she taught students facing a variety of serious charges like attempted murder, sex crimes, prostitution, drug sales and/or extortion.
Many of the students she first encountered read below a fifth-grade level. “The students with the most disruptive behavior often times had the lowest reading levels,” she says. “They only attended school when they were locked up. Their inability to read brought them great shame. They didn’t have the words to express themselves fully.” She knew that improving their reading skills was key to stopping the cycle of incarceration and poverty.
“I noticed that students began taking the books from my classroom library. I attributed it to the kids’ new-found love of reading,” she says with a laugh. “In 2012, I wrote a letter to the County Board of Supervisors for funding for a classroom library.”
The Board of Supervisors responded to her letter by donating $1,000,000 to fund the first L.A. County library branch in juvenile hall. “It was such an amazing gift,” she says. “The library raised these student’s spirits and helped them emotionally.”
Gallegos worked at Los Padrinos for 10 years before going into school administration a few years ago. Now she is assistant principal at Brookhurst Junior High School in the Anaheim Union High School District.
“Being an educator is my social justice mission,” Gallegos says. “Education is transformative. Education has the power to completely change the trajectory of a child’s life. I’m very lucky that every day I get to perform Acts of Mercy.”
Note: In 2013, Gallegos earned a second master’s degree, this one in education-reading from Cal State Fullerton. Read more about her journey from CSF’s website.