Once a student in ‘survival’ mode, Turlock High alum now works on district’s equity efforts

·4 min read

When Angélica Cárdenas Ayala moved to Turlock in eighth grade, she didn’t care for school. She grew up “in a constant state of survival” in a community where resources were scarce.

Ayala credits Turlock High School teachers for transforming her perspective on the value of an education, enabling her to become the first person in her family to attend college.

“If they hadn’t intervened in my life,” she said, “who knows where I would have been?”

After earning two degrees and spending seven years working in education, Ayala returned to Turlock Unified School District early this month as coordinator of equity initiatives. Trustees unanimously approved her position Nov. 2.

“Angélica will contribute significantly in her new role that supports our vision to increase access and equity for our TUSD students and community,” Superintendent Dana Trevethan said during the board meeting.

Modesto City Schools brought alumna Fallon Ferris into a similar position in August.

Ayala, 26, graduated from Turlock High in 2013. She plans to use her platform to elevate marginalized voices, advocate for students’ needs and build a culture that celebrates diversity. She’ll expand on the work of the district’s Equity Task Force.

Turlock teacher made a difference

Her passion for educational access stems from her upbringing.

Ayala was born and raised in East San Jose, where she said she was surrounded by gang violence and struggled to secure food and clothing. Growing up in a primarily Spanish-speaking household, she still was learning English in high school. She already had tattoos, which she reflects on to this day.

Turlock High speech and debate teacher Michele VanNieuwenhuyzen approached Ayala after noticing she wasn’t attending classes or tournaments — a requirement to pass. In what both recalled was a pivotal conversation, Ayala explained all she dealt with outside of the classroom, and VanNieuwenhuyzen urged her to use education to rise above her situation.

VanNieuwenhuyzen “pushed me to at least give myself a chance,” Ayala said.

Bit by bit, Ayala gave school more effort. She joined her school’s Hispanic Youth Leadership Council and enrolled in AP English. Meanwhile, she reviewed concepts from elementary school and did credit recovery for the many classes she failed.

At the end of her sophomore year, Ayala made it to a state speech and debate competition at San Diego State University. VanNieuwenhuyzen helped her fundraise.

That was her first time on a college campus, Ayala said. She heard students speaking Spanish and saw students with tattoos. She felt validated.

Ayala went on to attend the University of California, Santa Cruz, and later earned her master’s in education and a school counseling credential from California State University, Stanislaus.

Her experience as an educator spans elementary schools, high schools, continuation schools and the California Department of Education.

Throughout, she has fought for better access for students of color, students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, students with disabilities, English learners, immigrants, undocumented students and LGBTQ+ youth.

She describes herself as a strong advocate for students who are often pushed into the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a trend in which public schools funnel children into criminal justice systems.

“I’ve always tried to ring the alarm whenever I know something is perpetuating a problem,” Ayala said.

Addressing city’s growing diversity

Since starting her position, Ayala has sought to build connections with school leaders and plans to create space for staff, families and students to address issues. She has visited eight schools and scheduled visits to the rest.

A quarter of Turlock Unified’s students are identified as English Learners, and nearly 60% are Latino, according to 2019-20 figures from the state education department.

As Turlock grows more diverse, Ayala aims to educate community members on the importance of equitable practices. When people express resistance, she approaches with love and empathy, not shame and guilt, she said.

The district’s Equity Task Force has initiatives to implement an ethnic studies module in high school English classes, support foster youth and students experiencing homelessness, expand career and technical education programs, develop equitable grading practices and update criteria for Gifted And Talented Education to increase the diversity of students enrolled, according to a Nov. 16 presentation to the school board.

VanNieuwenhuyzen said Ayala will be able to educate teachers on the struggles many students experience, helping educators offer better support.

“I think that’s the strength for her in this position: knowing what those struggles are and knowing that you can overcome things,” VanNieuwenhuyzen said.

Emily Isaacman is the equity reporter for The Bee's community-funded Economic Mobility Lab, which features a team of reporters covering economic development, education and equity.

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Angélica Cárdenas Ayala stands outside Turlock Unified School District’s office building on Nov. 22. Ayala, a Turlock High School alumna, was recently hired as Coordinator of Equity Initiatives.
Angélica Cárdenas Ayala stands outside Turlock Unified School District’s office building on Nov. 22. Ayala, a Turlock High School alumna, was recently hired as Coordinator of Equity Initiatives.
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