Margarita Reyes was a high-school dropout.
She also was a single teenage mother of two daughters when she arrived in Buffalo from her native Puerto Rico in 1973 at age 17. And at the time she didn’t speak a word of English.
Despite such obstacles, Reyes — the current president of the New York State Association for Bilingual Education — said that she never let them get in the way of realizing her dream of earning a college degree, no matter how long it took her to get there. And in 1995, Reyes received her bachelor’s degree in bilingual special education from the State University of New York at Buffalo, alongside her youngest daughter, Carmen Robles.
"It was not easy," Reyes said during a Dec. 16 interview. "Sometimes, you feel like you can’t do it. But if you try, you can do it. Sometimes, I feel bad for the girls, the young women, the young mothers. And it’s not easy, but they can do it. And that’s my thing."
Reyes went on to earn her master’s degree in bilingual education and administration from SUNY Brockport and is currently the bilingual special-education specialist for Monroe No. 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
She previously worked for 10 years as a bilingual special-education teacher and administrator for the Rochester City School District. Prior to that, she worked various jobs before moving to Chicago in 1981 where she worked at night in a restaurant while a roommate baby-sat her children. She moved to Buffalo in 1989 and began working as a paraprofessional at a city high school. It was then, she said, that she realized education was her true career path.
Diana Hernández, currently on sabbatical from the Rochester City School District’s bilingual department, supervised Reyes during a portion of her time with the district. She said that Reyes is wholeheartedly dedicated to helping students — particularly English-language learners — succeed.
"She believes in what she is doing," Hernández said. "And there’s a spirit of harmony within her."
Reyes’ explained that her desire to advocate for children whose first language is not English stemmed from an experience with her youngest daughter, Carmen, when the child was in second grade. Carmen ended up with the same teacher that her oldest daughter, Samalix, had in second grade. The girls were opposites — Carmen was shy and Samalix was outgoing, Reyes noted.
The teacher asked to evaluate Carmen for special-education services. Reyes said that she was adamantly opposed even though at the time she was not remotely familiar with special education. She asked the teacher to wait six months and just try asking her daughter direct questions.
"Carmen started coming out of her shell," Reyes remarked. "And she was the valedictorian of her high school class. … That’s why I tell parents, ‘You know your child.’"
It’s a message she often reiterates to families that she works with today, especially Hispanic families who culturally hold the belief that their children’s teachers knows best and follow advice without question, she added.
"Because the mentality is still that if you don’t speak the English well, if you speak English with an accent, there is something wrong with you," Reyes said. "You will be surprised at how many districts are still classifying kids for speech just because they don’t speak the English language. … I’m not saying they do it on purpose. It’s just they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know any better."
Reyes is working to change all that through her new position at BOCES that she started this past fall. She works with 71 school districts and provides technical assistance to larger ones, including Rochester. For smaller districts, Reyes said that she goes in and sets up procedures for intervention and referral of English-language learners, particularly those with special needs, to make sure students are not misclassified.
"Believe me, that’s my passion," she said. "If I see something is not right, it’s not going to be in the best benefit for the student. Nobody is going to make me stay quiet and just let it go by."
That passion, she added, is what drove her to accept the state bilingual association’s leadership position. She began her post this past fall and is the first person from Rochester to hold the position. She had previously served as a delegate and first vice president for the 1,400-member association.
"The hundreds of hours that I put into the organization of SABE, it’s because of the children," she remarked. "We advocate for quality and equitable services for Latino students but ELLs (English-language learners) as a whole, not just Latino students."
Reyes has a special talent for bringing together a student’s culture and language when seeking to improve a child’s academic progress, said Alexis Thompson, who oversees the state education department’s bilingual special-education program. Thompson first met Reyes in the early 1990s when Reyes was a student teacher in a preschool classroom in Buffalo.
"The children just loved her and the staff just loved her," Thompson said. "She’s also good at communicating with families."
Her compassion also is what makes Reyes such an exceptional advocate for bilingual education as the president of NYSABE, said Lourdes Roa, education coordinator for the Eugenio María de Hostas Charter School in Rochester. Roa also worked with Reyes in the city school district’s bilingual education department.
"She is able to look beyond her own needs to help others," Roa added. "She takes on challenges and does what needs to be done. … She doesn’t back down because something is difficult. She is an awesome leader."
Reyes also serves as a role model by balancing her work with family life. She and her husband, Natali, have been married 25 years, and in addition to their own children have helped raise their grandchildren, nieces and nephews, Reyes said.
Her selfless attitude and willingness to help others also provide a great example to girls who participate in the annual Puerto Rican Festival, Roa noted. Reyes has served on the Puerto Rican Festival’s board of directors for the past seven years and is currently its treasurer, said Orlando Ortiz, the board president.
"Margarita has been a great asset to the board and the festival," he said. "Her ability to remain calm, personable and accommodating during the stressful festival weekend … proved to be of benefit."