Written by Kristine Zaballos | Submitted photo
As a child immigrant from El Salvador who grew up in public schools, Sarahí Monterrey recognized early on the pivotal role teachers play in students’ lives.
Growing up in New York, Illinois and Wisconsin, Monterrey graduated from Badger High School in Lake Geneva and came to UW-Whitewater to study education. After earning a bachelor's degree in education in 2002 and a master’s degree in 2003, she has served as an English learner/Bilingual teacher for more than 16 years, now at Waukesha South High School.
In 2018-19 she was named Wisconsin's High School Teacher of the Year and selected as Wisconsin’s 2019 representative to the National Teacher of the Year Program, the first Latina in the state to earn this honor. In 2020, the UW-Whitewater Office of Alumni Relations selected Monterrey as the university's Distinguished Alumna for Professional Achievement in recognition of her extensive career developing bilingual curricula and advocating for dual-language programs.
And on Saturday, May 15, Monterrey will return to UW-Whitewater to serve as speaker at the 2021 spring commencement.
For the aspiring educator, UW-Whitewater was a natural fit when she first attended a college visit.
“I liked the campus,” she said. “And I knew I wanted to be a teacher. Something kept telling me, if they have such a great education program, why not UW-Whitewater?”
“For me it was a great-sized campus — I only had one or two lectures,” she added. “I loved being able to know my professors and know that they knew me by name. I loved the textbook rental, too — that you don’t have to buy books — and all of the other supports.”
Those supports included the Multicultural Resource Center and the Minority Teacher Program, now a part of the Future Teacher Program.
“There were just so many support systems for students of color. It made my college experience so powerful,” said Monterrey.
“I’ll never forget Freda Briscoe, who ran the Minority Teacher Program,” said Monterrey. “Freshman year I set up a meeting and sat down with her. She asked what my goals were, and I told her I wanted to graduate ASAP so I could get out there and teach. She went and wrote out a roadmap to all of my classes and gave it to me. I took summer classes, followed that plan, and graduated in four years, including doing my student teaching,” she said.
Monterrey was deeply involved on campus.
“I worked as a campus assistant, giving tours for the Office of Admissions, including Spanish tours if needed. I worked in the work-study office. I went to Miami on a travel-study trip during spring break one year to look at the learning and better understand the community. I was involved in Latinos Unidos on campus and worked with Admissions to visit regional high schools with Spanish-speaking students.”
And early on she laid the groundwork for what became a key opportunity in one of the local schools.
“I went to Whitewater High School when I was a freshman in college and introduced myself, asking if I could be of service,” she said. “So by sophomore year I was already able to start working there, helping students with homework, and getting to know the staff. I worked bilingually — even though there was no formal bilingual program at the time.”
She later completed her student teaching at the school. When Monterrey graduated, with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and a minor in bilingual education, the high school’s principal, Vance Dalzin, an alumnus who earned a BSE in 1987, called with the opportunity to work as half-time as a Spanish teacher and half-time developing the school’s bilingual program.
“I wanted to focus on my master’s degree,” said Monterrey. “Then I thought, I have this great opportunity, why not take it and just take one fewer class every year? I got hired, I taught there for five years, and I helped build their bilingual program. Vance Dalzin became a big mentor to me.”
While working at the school Monterrey earned her master’s degree and remained closely connected to campus, working with Upward Bound and eventually becoming assistant director of the university’s Pre-college Programs for the summer of 2004. She also worked with Susan Huss-Lederman, professor of languages and literatures, on Project SWEETT, a program meant to help address a shortage of bilingual teachers in southeastern Wisconsin that led to a collection of resources.
In 2008 she met and married her husband, Mario, and moved to Waukesha.
When she arrived at Waukesha North High School, the school had a single bilingual study skills class for English learners. The next year, under her leadership, the school began offering an English as a Second Language course and redesigned the study skills curriculum to focus more on enrichment. Through the examination of student achievement data, Monterrey and her colleagues identified classes where English language, or EL, students were not successful. Through the co-teaching model she introduced, content and specialty teachers worked together to make classes comprehensible to all students. She is now teaching in the English Learner Department at Waukesha South High School and helping to strengthen the program there.
“My approach to teaching embodies my genuine belief that every student has the ability to learn and grow, and that every educator has an obligation to tear down the barriers that stand in their way,” said Monterrey.
Monterrey has helped develop the schools she has worked at into thriving, integrated learning communities that offer three levels of English as a Second Language, with staff who co-teach English, math, and science classes. She fostered a school culture in which EL students take Advanced Placement coursework, helping them gain college readiness skills. And Waukesha North High School became the first in the state to offer the Wisconsin Seal of Biliteracy awards, to recognize students who have demonstrated advanced achievement in bilingualism, biliteracy and sociocultural competence.
As an active and committed advocate, Monterrey offers sessions on immigration policies and the impact those policies have on students. She leads professional development sessions to staff and parents throughout her role, focusing on serving EL students, on equity and on culturally responsive practices. She is the creator of Girl Talk, a club with a mission to inspire and empower students.
Throughout her career, she has kept her close ties to UW-Whitewater and has been able to share the positive experience she had on campus. She’s even brought her daughters Samari and Marisa Monterrey to visit.
“In my role as an educator, I get to take students on campus visits and help them through the college admissions process,” said Monterrey. “Many of my former students have gone on to attend.”
“When I tell students about UW-Whitewater, I always tell them it has to be the right fit. For me, the support system was phenomenal.”