SAN JOSE -- At a bilingual charter school in Southeast San Jose, teacher Victoria Ramirez is working to better the odds for her first-graders -- to set them not only on the path to college, but also toward her alma mater, UC Berkeley and, among her first-generation American students, to light the fire of interest in math and science, specifically space technology.
To help do that, the second-year teacher has invited retired NASA astronaut José Hernandez to speak next month. She talked Hernandez into lowering his speaking fee from $15,000 to $2,500 and to visit on a Saturday so families could attend.
The energetic Ramirez, 24, set about fundraising at the online crowd funding site Indiegogo.
Her school, Voices College-Bound Language Academy, has no funds for field trips or speakers, and three-quarters of its students live in poverty, so parents have limited ability to contribute toward extras. So Ramirez via Facebook also offered fellow teachers in her Teach For America internship program a deal: Donate $20 and get the chance to attend the talk with two of their students.
She's still short of her goal but is not giving up.
"This is something special," said Ramirez. Hernandez has a unique ability to inspire kids. The son of migrant farm workers, who grew up in the Central Valley, Hernandez studied engineering and later worked at Lawrence Livermore Lab helping develop technology to detect breast cancer. He applied 12 times before NASA accepted him for astronaut training, and in 2009 he orbited the Earth 217 times aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.
Last fall, he ran unsuccessfully to represent San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties in Congress.
Now the retired astronaut "is showing that not only it can be done, but that it has been done," Ramirez said.
Ramirez herself is laying the groundwork to foster budding astronauts.
Although science topics are integrated into the Voices curriculum, it is not a separate class. This is the first school year when students have had access to laptops, shared among classes.
Ramirez decided to make up for the lack of science by making NASA and space her class theme. She created a "Science Friday" curriculum, inspired by the National Public Radio weekly program, and is focusing on what kind of education and preparation are needed to become an astronaut.
Following the dual-language immersion model of Voices, she teachers her classes in Spanish.
"We're really proud of Victoria doing this on her own," Voices Principal Frances Teso said about the planned astronaut event, set for April 13. "For kids to be able to see someone who looks like them and who speaks Spanish is really exciting."
Ramirez is hoping Hernandez' story of success through perseverance will resonate and stay with students, and show them the truth in the saying "querer es poder" -- if there's a will, there's a way.
A native of the Peninsula and a first-generation college graduate, Ramirez majored in political economy at Cal, and noticed the dearth of Latinos in math and science.
"This," she said, "is my way of filling that hole."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.
To contribute to the astronaut speaker fund: go to http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/bring-jose-hernandez-to-1st-grade