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Young teacher advocates for children inside and outside the classroom

Ana Cornejo Profile

Ana Cornejo teaches fifth grade at Berkshire Elementary School in Bakersfield, but her reach to young people extends far outside the classroom.

Alumni Engagement Specialist

When Ana Cornejo’s fifth-graders ask her how to spell a word, as they often do, she doesn’t give them the answer. She teaches them tricks that will help them figure it out.

There’s Googling what they think is the correct spelling and seeing what suggestions come up. Or taking a second look at the writing prompt they’re working with -- the word often appears there.

“I’m teaching them the skills that I’ve used,” said Cornejo, who teaches at Berkshire Elementary School in Bakersfield’s Panama-Buena Vista Union School District.

In fact, Cornejo can tap a lot of her own experiences while teaching her largely immigrant population of schoolchildren. Because she is one of them.

Cornejo came to the United States at age 9 from the small Mexican town of Aguililla with her sister, stepfather and eventually her mother.

They settled in Bakersfield, the hometown of her stepfather. It was a whole new world for her.

“What was really amazing was going to the supermarket; I had never seen anything like that,” Cornejo remembered. “And seeing the automatic doors, that was also a shock. “

Cornejo was old enough for 4th grade but was enrolled in 3rd at Plantation Elementary in south Bakersfield because she didn’t know any English. She learned the language by hanging out with her older stepbrothers and watching the few TV channels she got at home, meaning a lot of PBS kids programs and  “The Simpsons.”

“I remember one time getting in trouble for saying ‘shut up,’ words that I didn’t know were inappropriate to say at school,” she joked.

Cornejo always loved school. At the end of every school year she’d bring home textbooks that weren’t needed anymore and used them to “teach” her little sister and cousins.

She always got perfect attendance certificates because she never wanted to miss school. She can’t think of a single teacher who wasn’t wonderful to her.

Ana Cornejo in fourth grade

Cornejo in the fourth grade at Plantation Elementary School.

A particularly wonderful one was a Greenfield Middle School teacher who gave her a copy of “The Diary of Anne Frank” that she’d picked up at a yard sale. Cornejo shares a birthday with Frank.

“That copy that she got me I still have today,” Cornejo said.

Cornejo went on to South High, serving in student government and playing tennis, and then Bakersfield College because she couldn’t afford the other schools into which she’d been accepted.

She loved BC and encourages young people to start out there, saying it’s a great place to explore your interests and make the mistakes that help you learn what you want to do in life.

Cornejo transferred to Cal State Northridge and earned her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies. She always knew Bakersfield was the community she wanted to serve and so moved back after graduation.

She earned a teaching credential and master’s degree from CSUB in 2016 and 2017.

Cornejo taught kindergarten for a year at a charter school then moved to Berkshire. She teaches a lot of Punjabi-speaking immigrants who, like her, started out speaking a language other than English. She tells them she can relate to their struggles in the classroom.

Ana Cornejo Kirtan

One of the ways Cornejo builds relationships with her students, many of whom are Punjabi, is by attending their cultural events on the weekends. Here she is celebrating Nagar Kirtan with some of her students.

“She has a deep compassion for the children. Compassion and empathy,” said Berkshire Principal Amy Mensing. “The way that she treats the children, they know that they’re special, they know that they’re loved, they know that she’s willing to do whatever it takes (to help them learn). She doesn’t give up on them.”

And Cornejo constantly seeks out feedback on how to be a better teacher. On her door is a sign she got from Twitter that says, “#ObserveMe.”

‘It’s like she has a thirst for learning and growth,” Mensing said. “She’s reading, she’s researching, she gets very involved with things. She’s very open to ideas if people make suggestions or give feedback.”

Outside the classroom, Cornejo has become a bit of an activist.

In January she spoke at a women’s march in Bakersfield. This year she helped collect signatures to put a one-eighth cent sales tax hike on the November ballot to support Kern County libraries. (The effort did not succeed, but organizers hope to try again for a future election.)

Ana Cornejo at protest

Cornejo was part of a group that collected signatures to put a one-eighth cent sales tax hike on the November ballot to support Kern County libraries. It didn't collect enough in time, but would like to try again in the future.

Libraries have played an important role in her life, said her younger brother, 17-year-old Fabian Mendez.

“When I was a baby and she had just come here, she used the library a lot,” Mendez said. “Reading was a big part of her learning English. She’s always been a big reader.”

Cornejo also mentors DACA kids – young people protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program initiated by President Obama. She, herself, is one.

Cornejo helps DACA-protected young people understand the law (which is tied up in court), fill out the application and deal with the emotional uncertainty that comes with one’s status being up in the air.

And she shares her own story to counter the negative perception some have of undocumented immigrants.

“I just feel we need to shed light on the positives and show we’re not just here to steal jobs or to be criminals,” she said. “We can actually be productive members of society here.”

The five Salters

Cornejo advocates for immigrants’ rights at the Kern Women’s March in Bakersfield in January 2018.

Mendez calls her his “super hero.” He’s seen her collect signatures for the library tax in the sweltering heat and march for women’s empowerment in the pouring rain.

Whatever community she feels needs her support, whether LGBTQ+ groups, DACA kids or underprivileged people who need access to libraries, she’s there, he said.

“She’s always been willing to go above and beyond on everything she believes in,” he said. “She’s just fearless.”