By Mike Marsee
Jessica Dueñas is sure her father would have been proud.
Dueñas’ father, Arcadio, died on April 27, less than three weeks before she was named the 2019 Kentucky Teacher of the Year.
“In a joking manner, he always thought his kids were the best,” Dueñas said. “He would say something like, ‘Of course my daughter would have gotten this.’”
Dueñas, a special education teacher at Oldham County Middle School, said the past few weeks have been challenging for her. She dedicated her award to her father.
“I’m keeping him in my heart the whole time,” she said.
Dueñas was chosen from among 24 educators who received a Valvoline Teacher Achievement Award in a program co-sponsored by Valvoline and the Kentucky Department of Education.
She was recognized May 15 in a ceremony at Berry Mansion in Frankfort. NyRee D. Clayton-Taylor, a creative writing teacher at Wheatley Elementary in Jefferson County, was named the 2018 Elementary School Teacher of the Year; and Tiffany Marsh, a vocal music teacher at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Fayette County, was named the 2018 High School Teacher of the Year.
Dueñas is a first-generation American, the daughter of a Cuban-born father and a Costa Rican-born mother who met in the United States.
“They lived in such poverty that they had to quit school to work,” she said. “They were so strict about school because they wanted us to be educated and not end up like they did.”
Dueñas said her favorite teachers were the ones who “understood where I was coming from, the teacher who was culturally competent, who understood why I might have had a hard day,” and she tries to be that kind of teacher. She wants to use her platform as teacher of the year to go to bat for struggling students, something she already does on a daily basis.
“I want to continue a lot of the advocacy work that I do for different populations that are struggling, whether they live in poverty or in a trauma-filled home or a trauma-filled community,” she said. “Those situations create barriers, but they can be removed. I’m a living example that barriers can be removed. If I can do it, so can any child in the state of Kentucky.
“I try to inspire struggling students to come to school and try when they previously wanted to give up.”
One way Dueñas has done that at Oldham County Middle is by helping English learners (ELs) with their classes. Dueñas is not certified to teach ELs, but she is one of only two Spanish-speaking staff members in a school where almost all of the English learners are Spanish speakers.
“It pained me to see these students spend their entire days sitting in subject classes understanding next to nothing because of a language barrier. We have an enrichment hour, and for that time period I created a language arts unit fully in Spanish where we read stories in Spanish written by Latin-American authors,” she said.
With the support of her principal, Alissa Richards, she now gives instruction in Spanish in classes such as reading and writing and mathematics in two-week cycles.
“I will work with any Spanish-speaking family, even if they’re not my students,” Dueñas said. “This reflects my core belief that equity is key for student success. I saw a student need and created a solution that was unique to address that need. It has allowed these students to find in me a safe adult in the building, an advocate and someone who completely gets their experience in what would otherwise be an incredibly isolating situation.”
Richards said Dueñas goes the extra mile for her special education students as well. Dueñas’ classroom reflects “collaboration, respect for all students and advocating for their needs wherever they’re at,” he said.
“The incredible selflessness that she shows to her students with special needs is exemplary in teaching,” Richards said. “Jessica is just a gem. She goes above and beyond consistently for her students and families and community.”
Dueñas’ work often extends to evenings and weekends, when she sometimes visits both her special education and Spanish-speaking students to make sure their needs are being met.
Brent Deaves, an Oldham County assistant superintendent, wrote in a letter of recommendation that Dueñas “is one of the strongest and most gifted educators I have had the opportunity to work with and for.”
“Multiple adults and hundreds of students could write on a daily basis the ways in which Ms. Dueñas has gone beyond the normal expectations of a teacher to help them succeed,” Deaves wrote. “She has a strong belief that students will rise to the occasion and not only meet, but exceed their own expectations given the proper guidance and leadership from adults. She has the ability to see the big picture and has a passion for the student who struggles.”
Dueñas has taken on a number of leadership roles and served on several school- and district-level committees, as well as on Oldham County Middle’s school-based decision making council.
She is a co-teacher, and she and her co-teaching partner are a model team for their school. Other teaching teams from across the district visit them to observe their practices.
Dueñas began her teaching career 10 years ago in New York, in the same Brooklyn neighborhood where she grew up. She said she knew from the time she was in kindergarten that she wanted to be a teacher, but she became a special education teacher because it was the only path for which she qualified after she was accepted into a teaching fellowship program.
“Once I began to work in it, I realized how tight the connections are with special education kids. You have a lot of classes with them and build up close relationships with those families, and I just fell in love with it,” she said.
She came to Kentucky in 2012 and taught in Jefferson County for 2 1/2 years before going to Oldham County in January 2015. She will return to Jefferson County this summer to teach at the W.E.B. DuBois Academy, a new school for boys that will offer an Afrocentric and multicultural curriculum.
“It’s bittersweet because I love Oldham County Middle School. This was literally the only job I went for. But I’ve always wanted to be part of opening a school and I love professional challenges,” Dueñas said. “Seeing a school target one of our most struggling populations, I feel like it will be historic and there will be a lot of eyes on the school, so I want to be a part of helping it have a successful start.”