Memorial service honors 5th-grade teacher Rigoberto Ruelas

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Brian Watt/KPCC

Former students of Rigoberto Ruela (from left): Karla Gonzalez, Alicia Hernandez, and Perla Cruz

Friends, relatives, colleagues and students remembered fifth grade teacher Rigoberto Ruelas at a memorial service Thursday night in South Los Angeles.

It was standing room only at the Presentation of Saint Mary Catholic Church. The sanctuary only holds a few hundred people, but it’s walking distance from Miramonte Elementary School, where 39-year-old Rigoberto Ruelas taught students like Karla Gonzalez.

Through tears, Gonzalez told the assembled that Ruelas wasn’t just a teacher –he was like a father to her. She was still crying when the service ended.

"He taught me English and he was always there when people used to make fun of me, because I didn’t speak the language, and he would always be like, ‘You can do it. You can learn English,’" she said.

Rigoberto Ruelas told a lot of people they could do it. His older sister Angelica said she became a teacher, too, because he told her she could do it. Teachers, she said, feel a lot of pressure to improve their students' scores on standardized tests.

"Those numbers that are indicating that you are a good teacher, but it doesn’t show how much hours that you put into teaching," Angelica Ruelas said.

By all accounts, Rigoberto Ruelas put in a lot of hours. He arrived at school early, stayed late. He visited students’ homes to meet their families, bringing groceries if they were in need – even a mattress for a kid he learned had to sleep on the floor.

But little of that showed up in the numbers. Last month, the Los Angeles Times published ratings of L.A. Unified School District teachers. In that online report Ruelas' rating – based on seven years of standardized test scores – indicated that he was less effective than his colleagues. Some people who know Ruelas say the rating troubled him, and they believe it eventually compelled him to jump off a high bridge in the Angeles National Forest.

"It would seem that this publishing of his name, labeling him ineffective without any way for him to clear his name, was like the straw that broke the camel’s back with this young man," said Julie Washington, elementary vice president for United Teachers Los Angeles.

Many members of the union attended the memorial service; they wore small black ribbons. Ruelas’ peers say he taught a lot of students like Karla Gonzales, who had to learn English first. Gonzales is now a student at Roosevelt High School. She plans to go to college.

"I thought that I couldn’t do it because I wasn’t capable of learning English, but now after everything he told me – that I can do it – I’m pretty sure I can do it," she said after the memorial service. "I’m going just to show everyone that he was a great teacher."

A few hours before the memorial service began, the L.A. Unified School District confirmed that Rigoberto Ruelas was a very effective teacher. Deputy Superintendent John Deasy released a statement saying that in his final evaluation with the District, Ruelas had earned a great performance ranking.

"The epitaph of Rigoberto Ruelas should not be 'less-than-effective,'" the statement said.

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