Thelma Boac: The Educator Builds Community

WOMEN IN FOCUS – Work & Life by Lorna L. Dietz

August 23, 2005: Introducing The New Principal

This is the scenario.

You are a brand-new student at Silver Creek High School this week in San Jose, California. You have already made your acquaintance with Thelma Boac, Principal, before the official “first day at school.” Mrs. Boac smiles a lot. Her eyes sparkle with laughter. Her teacher’s voice sounds crisp and clear, soothing and melodic — articulating English, Spanish, Tagalog, and Cebuano words fluidly and appropriately — somehow making the school’s embracing multi-ethnic, inter-cultural environment seem more like a global learning ground. You feel right at home with the fusion of cultures.

“I’m the second Filipina in 24 years to become Principal of the Eastside Union High School District (a.k.a. ESUHSD), the largest union high school district in Northern California. There are 22,000 students in Grades 9 to 12,” Principal Thelma Boac shyly reveals this factoid after close friends leaked the information to ethnic media when she took over the leadership reins on July 1, 2005. Thelma had been appointed by Dr. Esperanza Zendejas, then-superintendent of East Side Union High School District, to replace Principal Art Darin. One of Thelma’s colleagues had suggested to her sometime ago that being a role model for the youth and future educators was worthwhile overcoming embarrassment about having to “toot her own horn.” Her friend exclaimed, “Be proud! You represent the community!”

Evergreen Times, the community newspaper of Evergreen Valley and Silver Creek Valley, reported in its July 1, 2005 edition: “Boac, a long-time ESUHSD educator, has been at Independence High School for 24 years. Since 2001, she has been the villa principal for the ninth grade program at Independence High School, handling the full gamut of administrative responsibilities required to lead a school of 1,200 students. From 1981 to 2001, she taught ESL (English as a Second Language, now known as ELD), Spanish, and world history at Independence and served as a literacy coach, coordinator and department chair for the ELD (English Language Development) program throughout almost two decades of service there. She was also a club advisor for various student organizations. She holds a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University and a master’s degree in education, administration and supervision.”

Thelma Boac is currently the President of the Filipino American Movement of Education in Silicon Valley (FAME). “This organization was started in 1972 by a group of very dedicated educators. They became very influential in the school districts in recruiting teachers from the Philippines to mirror the student population of the district,” she says.

Thelma’s advocacy of nurturing environmental consciousness is reflected in her involvement in the Philippine-based non-profit organization, Human Development International Vanguard Corps, through its United Nations’-endorsed “Call to Save the Mountains of the World” initiative.

Accolades awarded to Thelma include the Martin Luther King Jr.’s Day “Good Neighbor Award for Community Service” in January 2005, “Community Hero Award” from Jacinto Tony Siquig Northside Community Center during its Jose P. Rizal Day celebration, the “Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers” in 1996 by Marquis Publications, and the same publication’s citation of “Outstanding Woman” in the “Who’s Who Among America’s Women” for 2005.

After some cajoling from her friends, Thelma Boac consented to sharing intimate details about her life story. Humility and devotion to service are the qualities Mrs. Boac’s peers, friends, and students like about her. Thelma discloses, “When you’re an educator, you become ‘public.’ You also become an advocate for what you believe in: the best educational opportunities for all children. Education is not only the responsibility of the school but also a partnership with parents and the community.”

A Student of Change

Thelma B. Boac’s story began in the island of Bohol, Philippines, where her parents gave her up for adoption to her mother’s older sister, who had painfully lost two of her children and her first husband during World War II. Just before the first huge wave of Filipino professionals immigrated to the United States in 1965, Thelma left the Philippines as a 10-year old child to live with her “new” parents in Pismo Beach, San Luis Obispo County in California.

Thelma didn’t speak English — but could read English fluently — when she first arrived in the United States. She was very fearful about going to school. “In a year’s time,” Mrs. Boac reminisces, “I was speaking English. It helped me shape who I am today, that is, a job of a teacher is not only to understand and care but also to understand the needs of students.”

Life at a strawberry farm was idyllic for the motivated, obedient, and studious immigrant. Thelma’s father had been a World War II veteran who was one of the “Manongs” (the respectful term used for the older Filipinos who first immigrated to the U.S. and became agricultural workers) who was able to own farm property.

Thelma admits that after studying in the rigid atmosphere of a Catholic-run parochial school, the public school system opened her eyes to the wonderful world of education. Her teachers — through their actions — modeled kindness, fairness, and understanding. “They motivated me! I was motivated also. I said, ‘Someday, I want to be just like them.’”

Her parents were also immersed in volunteerism, helping build a vibrant community of Filipinos in Grover Beach. These Filipino farmers manifested their dream to build a community center of their own in 1970, a few years before Thelma married Danny Boac. Thelma’s parents, key players and benefactors in this project, influenced Thelma’s mind-set and passion about community centers managed by community-based organizations (CBO’s).

Divine Direction

Today, Thelma Boac’s genius in “building community” thrives through helping community centers, such as San Jose’s Jacinto Tony Siquig Northside Community Center, in creating programs for ethnic groups interested in ELD (English Language Development).

Mrs. Boac focuses on education’s intrinsic value in “building community.”

“A community center can provide ELD and other services wherein education can be accessed by senior citizens, for instance, who would like to receive them for free. Everyone is welcome!” Thelma adds, “My belief in education is that it is not limited to the school grounds but extends to the community as well.”

Thelma Boac’s experiences in FAME for being instrumental in recruiting teachers from the Philippines for her school district are filled with memories of triumphs and challenges. “During a time when our Filipino teachers had to return to the Philippines to renew their visas after their 3-year contract,” she conveys, “I can proudly say to you that our school district was very supportive. They filled the affected classes with substitute teachers until our Filipino teachers came back. Remember, our Filipino teachers were chosen as the best qualified to teach our classes because of the shortage of American-based educators in Math and Special Education. Our educational system in the Philippines is based on the American system, including our fluency in the English language.”

Creating the Future

When asked about her future role in California’s educational system within five years, Thelma Boac looks thoughtfully at a distance before answering.

“You know,” Thelma reveals, “I had no ambition to be an administrator. The ambition came from the encouragement within the school community that I worked with. Just before I became school principal, I had been accepted in the Doctoral Program in Collaborative Educational Leadership at the University of California-Santa Cruz, in collaboration with the California State University System, which included San Jose State University and Monterey Bay.”

Thelma is only Filipina/Asian American, and one out of twelve successful candidates, to be accepted into the program. She is deferring her studies for a year due to her new responsibilities.

Mrs. Boac makes known her goals. “This doctoral program is more than a ‘think-tank.’ The current findings show that we need to train and prepare educational leaders like myself in implementing change in the educational process within a multi-cultural, multi-diverse school setting in meeting the needs of all students — especially students of color that have been traditionally underserved.

Many students of color are failing in the existing system. This program will deal with the issues of ‘Why?’ and create change. We are all leaders right now. Our job is to find ways to close the gap in terms of student achievement within the existing system.”

This Extraordinary Thing Called Love

Mrs. Thelma Boac has many teary-eyed, overwhelming, and happy experiences that defy description. Some stories are about her former students.

“A former student came to see me one day,” Thelma relates. “He said, ‘Mrs. Boac, do you remember me? I was your student 20 years ago. I just want you to know that I’m O.K. Now, I have a 14-year old son under your care. I hope you’ll do for him what you did for me.’”

Thelma’s life has come full circle when it comes to her family life.

“I had no idea that my life would be repeated. Danny and I adopted the two children of my youngest sister who had passed away. In 1989, we became parents to a 14-year old daughter and a 16-year old son. They are a gift from God,” she reveals.

We need more educators like Thelma Boac.

© August 2005. Lorna Lardizabal Dietz. Published in Manila Bulletin-USA.

Lorna Lardizabal Dietz is the community news anchor of the San Francisco Bay Area radio talk show produced by Cultural ID, “Filipina First & Foremost,” on Saturday mornings, 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m., KVTO 1400 am radio, together with Caroline Ocampo and Jacquie Lingad-Ricci. Her passion as a community publicist is complemented by her profession as a marketing specialist for www.ThinkApril.com.

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