Dora Contreras is an advocate for the underdog.
Her crusades, as she calls them, started at the age of 17, when she acted as a mouthpiece for low income American Indian and Latino housing in Arizona. And throughout her 26 years in Tracy Unified School District — 15 as South/West Park School principal — Contreras has taken on issues such as student poverty, immigration status and unsafe home environments.
Her efforts in education were honored two weeks ago when she was inducted into the Mexican-American Hall of Fame, which honors four people a year for their contributions to the Latino community in San Joaquin County.
Contreras said she is proud to lead a team of 26 bilingual teachers at one of the only schools in the county to primarily teach in Spanish.
She believes that effective educators address the whole child.
“That means the child needs to feel comfortable,” she said. “They won’t learn if they don’t know the language or if they’re concerned about things at home.”
Contreras considers the proudest moment of her career in education when, in 1998, more than 300 parents rallied around her to waive Proposition 227 for South/West Park. The proposition requires schools to teach in primarily in English unless 20 parents per grade level sign a waiver.
“I think bilingual education is the most effective way for children to learn English and achieve academically,” Contreras said. “It was very humbling to know I wasn’t the only one out there.”
South/West Park offers several support services, including counseling, tutoring and bilingual parent classes. “Language is a barrier,” Contreras said. “And my goal is to make sure parents and students feel they belong.”
School staff, parents and friends nominated Contreras for the Hall of Fame. Principal Secretary Luz Gallegos said she’s watched Contreras inspire the most unmotivated students. “She goes above and beyond and does whatever she needs to to help students succeed — that’s her thing.”
Contreras plans to retire after this year, but that doesn’t mean she’ll take a break from advocacy. She hopes to introduce more support services for developmentally disabled students.
Her 14-year-old grandson, Sergio, who is developmentally disabled, is her inspiration for her next crusade.