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Living 'No Child Left Behind'

New Regent Is Emblematic of the Law

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2004; Page AA06

Adela Acosta's politics are painted in bright colors on the walls of her school.

"CESAR CHAVEZ ELEMENTARY SCHOOL -- A PLACE WHERE NO CHILD IS LEFT BEHIND," read the orange-and-yellow block letters on the blue wall outside her office. Nearby, a "NO EXCUSES" sign hangs next to a half-dozen other mottoes echoing President Bush's calls for education reform.

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Schools Seek to Boost Test Scores Of Special Education Students (The Washington Post, Aug 26, 2004)
Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges (The Washington Post, Aug 26, 2004)
School Calendars Accommodating Demand for Achievement (The Washington Post, Aug 26, 2004)
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Acosta, 54, the principal of the Prince George's County school, is an ardent supporter of Bush and his No Child Left Behind legislation. As a member of the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education, she helped write part of the law. This year her Republican bona fides helped lead Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to name her to the Board of Regents for the state's public universities and colleges.

Down the hallway, a sprawling mural reveals another touchstone of Acosta's political worldview. The multicolored tableau, painted by the school's art teacher at Acosta's request, displays the vibrant cultural diversity at Cesar Chavez, where the student body is half black and half Hispanic.

The bronzed pharaoh represents the African American students. The stylized reds and yellows of a bird flying near the sun symbolize the Hispanics. A star of David is there for a few Jewish teachers, near the Japanese character for education to honor an Asian American staff member. Although only one of the 420 students last year was white -- an immigrant from the Czech Republic named Estefan, who has since graduated -- a giant three-leaf clover is there to remember two Irish American brothers who once attended the school.

"Those Connelly boys were two cutie pies!" Acosta laughs.

Diversity, to Acosta, is a treasured commodity. The mural stands as a reminder that, at Cesar Chavez, differences in race, religion and ethnicity are celebrated.

"The wall symbolizes the multiculturalism of our school and our community," she says. "We want to be inclusive. Do we put handicapped students in the corner? Do we put Spanish-speaking kids in the corner? No! We embrace them."

As Ehrlich's highest-profile Hispanic appointee and the first Hispanic member of the Board of Regents, Acosta is acutely aware of her commitments to the Republican Party and multiculturalism.

But sometimes, such as when Ehrlich made headlines in May by calling multiculturalism "crap" and "bunk," it can be difficult to reconcile those allegiances. His remarks, which came on a conservative talk radio show, took Acosta by surprise.

"I thought to myself, Bobby, hell-o-o? Is anyone there?" she says. "Multiculturalism isn't bunk. Sorry! At least not for me. It's been the root of my ability to embrace America."

Born in Spanish Harlem to Puerto Rican immigrants, Acosta entered first grade at P.S. 122 unable to speak English.

"I remember teachers yelling at me, saying, 'What is your name?' They thought if they screamed louder, then I would be able to understand," she says. "It was like teaching me calculus in Japanese when I know neither, you know?"

When Acosta failed to respond to teachers' questions, the school assumed she was mentally disabled. It was only after her grandmother bragged to a social worker that Acosta was a genius -- "She is in special education!" -- that the family realized what had happened and moved her to a Catholic school.

School there was not much better. "Teachers would say to me: 'Speak English! It's an English-speaking country,' " she remembers. "It destroyed my self-esteem. They were trying to destroy who I was."

Her troubled home life left Acosta little opportunity to study English. No one in her family's tiny three-bedroom apartment, which housed her parents, a grandmother, four uncles and two cousins, spoke the language well. Many hours were spent taking care of her father, who was addicted to heroin.

Despite it all, Acosta managed to study and excel at school. That was enough to earn her a scholarship to the University of Kansas, where she received undergraduate and master's degrees in education. She spent years as an educational consultant in Indiana and then Connecticut, advising would-be educators on how to teach blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans.

After a 12-year stint at the U.S. Department of Justice, where she focused on desegregation and issues of multiculturalism, Acosta became the principal of St. Augustine Roman Catholic School in the District. She was the first Hispanic in that role at the school, a barrier Acosta has broken in nearly every position she has held.

Acosta was relieved to return to education. "I've never wanted to be anything else," she says. "I'm a teacher. That's what I am."

After five years at the parochial school, she moved to the Prince George's County public school district as an eighth-grade English teacher. She later became a high school vice principal and, finally, an elementary school principal.

Before she arrived at Cesar Chavez in 1999, the building for the Hyattsville school she now heads was an office for a Prince George's County department. Acosta oversaw a renovation, which added a wing with six classrooms. She also hired a staff and changed the name of the school, which at that time was Parkway Elementary, when it moved into the building.

"I looked around outside and saw Parkway Liquors, Parkway Cleaners, Parkway Grocery," she recalls. "And I said, we can do better than this."

She proposed naming the school after one of her three heroes: Anne Frank, Helen Keller or Cesar Chavez. The final choice was approved by the school board, and Chavez's visage now adorns the walls of the school next to his rallying cry: "Juntos Podemos," meaning, "Together, we can."

The name seems particularly appropriate for the school, which Acosta says has the county's only Spanish immersion program. Starting in kindergarten, the students are taught part of the day completely in Spanish.

The school seems to have flourished under Acosta. Tests scores for the school's students, 97 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced meals, are low but have risen steadily. Maryland State Assessments scores this year increased in all categories. The aggregate improvement for third-graders was more than 25 percent.

One day in 2001, Acosta received a call from the White House. Then President-elect Bush wanted to meet with her and a dozen other educators his first day in office. Acosta still gets giddy when she talks about it.

"Who am I? I'm just a little old school principal," she says, waving her neatly manicured hands. "I ended up telling the president my life story: I could have been left behind. And he listened to me."

Later that month, first lady Laura Bush visited Cesar Chavez Elementary to announce a reading initiative and then invited Acosta to sit with her during one of President Bush's addresses to Congress. Pictures of both events hang on the walls of Acosta's office, opposite a bundle of tiny U.S. and Puerto Rican flags.

Acosta, a lifelong Democrat, decided then to become a Republican. The switch was not motivated by policy or ideology, she says, but by a desire to acknowledge her gratitude to a party that had given her so much.

"For me, politics is personal," she says. "When someone is being kind to you and honoring you, how can you not respond to that? Clearly, the Republicans have been very good to me."

After Ehrlich met Acosta, he singled her out for praise during last year's State of the State speech.

"Adela? You will never forget her, trust me," he said. "Adela lives No Child Left Behind. No child is left behind at Cesar Chavez."

Shareese N. DeLeaver, the governor's press secretary, said Ehrlich has long admired the principal. "They had a very close relationship during the campaign, and obviously that has continued into his administration," she said. "Her life's work is a commitment to education and overcoming obstacles against all odds."

A year later, Acosta got another phone call. "Hi, Adela, this is Bobby," she remembers a voice saying. "I didn't know who it was. But he says, 'It's Bobby, Bobby Ehrlich.' Oh, silly me! The governor is calling me on the phone and calling himself Bobby. Hell-o-o? I couldn't believe it."

Ehrlich asked her to be a member of the Board of Regents, and she accepted.

Acosta agrees with the governor that the testing standards in No Child Left Behind are important. More money is not the solution, she says. She also believes children of illegal immigrants are not entitled to in-state college tuition rates.

"Que mas?" she asks. "What more? Forgive me, we've given some of these students 18 years of free education."

But for Acosta, diversity is a critical part of education. That is why she was startled when Ehrlich said in May: "I reject the idea of multiculturalism. Once you get into this multicultural crap, this bunk, you run into a problem."

Even so, Acosta's gratitude to Republican leaders and her support of their educational policies keep her tied to the party. Her commitment to Bush's school reforms is a constant presence at Cesar Chavez Elementary, even when she is trying to tell a joke.

"What's the rule at school?" she asks a group of students who stop by her office on a recent summer afternoon

"No Child Left Behind!" yells Ciana Thomas, 10.

Acosta pauses for a moment, then laughs. "Don't you love it?" she says. "No, no, that's not the rule. What's the rule?"

"Don't grow taller than the principal?" guesses Kirwyn Turner, 10.

"That's right!"


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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