Students at one of Utah’s most diverse schools share their stories, dreams, talents with first lady Jill Biden

First lady says the administration is working to boost teacher pay and recruit more staffers of color.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) First lady Jill Biden completes an assignment, writing a statement about herself, at Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 5, 2021.

The students proudly held up their posters and read them to the first lady.

The eighth graders made these when they were new students at Glendale Middle School, and the messages contain their truths. “I am brave. And I am smart.” One girl said she was spontaneous. Another described herself as kind and independent and strong.

Fernanda Garcia’s sign, though, said this: “I dream of graduating. I wish people knew that just because I’m Mexican I am no different than you.”

Jill Biden paused and looked at Garcia. “And you will graduate,” she said. “You are going to realize your dreams.”

During Biden’s short visit Wednesday to Salt Lake City, her first stop was at this west-side middle school, where she started by meeting with some of the kids and hearing their stories. The student body of 800 is one of the most diverse in the state. And many said they were flattered to have Biden visit a strong and vibrant community of color they feel is often ignored.

Saineha Hiehiapo, who teaches digital literacy at Glendale Middle, said students have been so excited that their school was picked. “They’ve been asking me all day, ‘How does Biden even know about us?’”

Hiehiapo added: “They feel so seen.”

The residents came out in support, too, with many Latino families sitting on their porches to welcome the first lady’s motorcade to the school. Small kids waved tiny American flags. The panaderia down the street wrote on the store sign, “Bienvenido, Biden! We welcome you!” A few of the nearby tire shops closed early for the event.

Maria Padilla, who recently retired after working as a bilingual assistant at the elementary school next door, brought her 6-year-old granddaughter, Keilly. As they stood outside together, Padilla repeated to her, “Biden es importante. She cares about us.”

Biden waved as she passed by, driving past only one protester with a “Trump 2024” flag. Inside, she said it has been a tough year for everyone during the pandemic, but especially for educators and students. She thanked teachers for supporting kids and communities in some of the hardest-hit places, including the communities of color in the Glendale neighborhood — where case counts were the highest in the city and greater Salt Lake County.

“Thank you for your optimism,” she said. “Thank you for illuminating our world. We appreciate you. And we will work to show you that with our actions every single day. Thank you educators. Thank you.”

Serenading the first lady

The first lady, who is also an educator and teaches at a community college, spent an hour touring the campus. It was a digital education day, so it was largely empty. But her visit did include a stop by the ukulele club.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) First lady Jill Biden, Abby Cox, and Rep. Chris Stewart visit the Ukelele Club at Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 5, 2021.

In Room 1027, the students were a little intimidated to play for her. Jasmin Vazquez bounced her knees up and down as she waited for Biden to arrive. “It is cool,” she said, “but I’m, like, nervous.”

With the first lady as their audience, the students strummed their chords and sang along to “House of Gold,” by Twenty One Pilots. “I’ll put you on the map,” they hummed. Biden tapped her toes to the beat.

The club, said teacher Dane Hess, was inspired by Lutua Asipeli, who was a student at Glendale 10 years ago. The ukulele is a key instrument in Pacific Islander culture. Asipeli taught Hess how to play, and he now teaches others.

During the pandemic, Hess said, they’ve been meeting outside. But, he added, it’s been important for the students to continue to play.

In Salt Lake City School District, kids just returned to the classroom four days a week this spring after starting the academic year entirely online. It was the only district in the state to do so at the time.

John Arthur, who teaches sixth grade at Meadowlark Elementary and is Utah’s 2021 Teacher of the Year, said being virtual was a challenge. “It was kind of learning how to ballroom-dance while holding a fish tank,” he noted. “But we got through it. Look at us, we’re still standing almost to the end of this year.”

At the end of their ukulele song, Biden clapped and student Eli Kaufusi gave the first lady a purple flower lei, placing it over the first lady’s head. She continued to wear it during her tour, which also included Utah’s first lady, Abby Cox, and a who’s who of education in the state. The superintendent was there, and the governor’s education adviser, so were representatives from the teachers union and state lawmakers.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Eli Kaufusi presents first lady Jill Biden with a traditional lei at Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 5, 2021.

Biden walked down the school hallways, past more of the posters created by students that hang above their tan metal lockers — including signs addressing cultural and racial stereotypes — before meeting with the seven kids who described their statements. The project to create the signs was started by Hess, too, who is also a social worker.

Hess saw it as a way to empower students in an underserved area and build a sense of community.

“My big goal,” he said, “is just to cover any blank space in the school with positive things that are relevant to our students’ lives.” Other walls included quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and the saying “Hate has no home here” written out in several languages. Flags from the students’ and staff’s nationalities hung from the ceiling.

At Glendale Middle, 91% are students of color. And of those, 65% are Hispanic.

Allison Ximena Rodriguez was among the kids to whom Biden talked. Her poster says, in part, “I am gonna do things ‘like a girl’ and girls are powerful.”

Biden asked her what was the last thing she did “like a girl,” and Rodriguez responded that she participated in an event with “Girls on the Run,” which encourages young girls to take up running. Biden smiled, saying she has worked with that group as well.

The first lady also grabbed a marker and wrote her own statement onto the whiteboard. It said: “I am a mother. I am a nana. I am a teacher who believes all students can SOAR!”

Before leaving the classroom, she took a few questions from students, including one from Rodriguez. “Is your new life stressful?” the girl asked.

Biden said, “You know, some days are a little stressful and some days are just so beautiful that you can’t believe. Like, every day I open my eyes and wake up in the White House, and it is so beautiful and you have to pinch yourself that you are there. But I’ve been given this great platform, and I realize that I won’t waste it.”

She promised them that she would work hard for education.

‘My heart is with all of you’

The first lady delivered teachers the same message when she spoke to a group of 50 who had gathered — socially distanced and many in American flag face masks — to greet Biden in the school’s common area.

“What’s it like being an educator this year?” the first lady asked. “Well, it’s been hard, hasn’t it? There’s no denying that. There have been losses that we’ll never get back. Loss of time with each other. Loss in learning. And the loss of so many that we love.”

Biden specifically mentioned Eddye Valenzuela, a paraprofessional in Salt Lake City School District who died from COVID-19. He was known to his students at “Mr. V.”

“My heart,” Biden said, “is with all of you that miss him every day.”

Her address came in the middle of National Teacher Appreciation Week, which has been both a celebration and a commemoration this year — honoring those, like Valenzuela, who died, and trying to hold onto the power and impact that teaching can have on students’ lives.

Biden said she believes that brighter days are to come.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Arthur Utah's teacher of the year introduces first lady Jill Biden at Glendale Middle School, on Wednesday, May 5, 2021.

President Joe Biden, she joked, has lived with her for 44 years and is used to being around a teacher. Now, she said, she’s pushing him to prioritize those in the field, which she argues is the best way to thank educators after the tumultuous year. Jill Biden said they’re working on getting teachers across the country competitive salaries and recruiting more educators of color.

That last part was met by claps, cheers and whistles from the crowd.

Chelsie Acosta, a Latina teacher at Glendale Middle, said it was her favorite piece from the speech. “It’s so powerful to hear her acknowledge that,” she said. “It’s important for our students of color to see themselves in us, too.”

The first lady has been touring schools across the nation — in Virginia and New Mexico, New Jersey and Connecticut — focusing on the impacts of COVID-19 and how to support education moving forward with an eye on the most vulnerable kids. As part of the American Rescue Act signed by the president, Utah will get $1.6 million to help students recover from learning losses during the pandemic.

Much of that will be directed to more diverse schools and those defined as Title I, which means they’re in areas where the concentration of poverty is the highest. All of the schools Biden has visited have that federal designation, including Glendale Middle.

Grades have started to improve for students at Glendale since they started returning for face-to-face learning. In the fall, 14% had failed all of their classes. This spring, that decreased to 9%. But teachers say they’ll need more support.

Acosta said students here have been learning while babysitting their younger siblings, who often appeared on the camera during class. Their parents also make up a large portion of essential workers. And many live in multifamily households, where there has been concern of spreading the virus to abuelos (grandparents).

“COVID has brought many challenges to my community,” said Rosa Sanchez Garcia, an eighth grader who introduced the first lady. “But we have come together to support each other during the pandemic. As a result, we are much stronger than we ever were before.”

Garcia wore a long blue skirt, known as a traditional folklórico costume, to honor her Mexican heritage and the dances that she participated in before the pandemic.

She doesn’t have a poster up yet in the hallway, but she’s thinking now about what it will say when she makes one. She wants it to include a note about her culture, Glendale, the pandemic and also graduating.

She thinks, too, that she might want to mention becoming a first lady or the president someday. She said: “I am capable.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) First lady Jill Biden, right, applauds student Rosa Sanchez Garcia, at Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 5, 2021.