BRADENTON -- Oasis Middle School teacher Gabriel Ortiz is heading to South Africa to give students something he never experienced when he was their age -- a connection with a peer on a different continent.
Ortiz is one of only 24 teachers across the country selected to participate in the Toyota International Teacher Program to South Africa. He was selected among 1,000 applicants to journey to South Africa’s Durban, Cape Town and Kruger National Park.
During the past 14 years, 635 teachers have participated in the program. Ortiz’s group will team up with other educators in Cape Town and visit local schools.
Ortiz was the only Florida teacher selected. Other recipients of the all-expense paid trip will come from 17 other states. It’s Ortiz’s hope to interview teachers and students to glean their experiences and serve as a bridge across the miles connecting American and South African students to illustrate what he didn’t get to see as a child -- that they are not alone.
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“This is a blessing in my life,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the experience and connecting.”
It was Ortiz’s heart-felt application coupled with his experience that likely won over the selection committee. Teachers were asked to explain how they would use their travels to teach students if they were selected for the program. The response wasn’t difficult for Ortiz.
He thought back on his life -- born into a life of drugs, alcohol and crime. As a 3-year-old, his father was convicted and sentenced to 17 years in San Quentin State Prison in California for more than 100 armed robberies. His mother became addicted to heroin. His brothers joined gangs “following in his father’s footsteps,” he said.
“My family was stuck,” he said in his application. “I wanted a different path for my life than that of my family.”
He ended up choosing a life in theater, which turned into an artist-in-residence job at Oasis Middle School.
It’s there that Ortiz, 33, showed students how to write out their own theatrical performances and act them out.
It’s worked. He said his eighth-graders have tested second highest in the county for the past few years.
But for him and Oasis Principal Edna Fields-Bailey, teaching to the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test isn’t the best way to teach.
“I’m always trying to see how I can raise the bar for my children,” Ortiz said.
This experience forced Ortiz to ask the question: “How can I get my children to see their experience is not only their experience?”
“While some of my kids have it bad in their lives, I want them to see the interconnectedness,” he said.
Ortiz leaves July 24 and returns Aug. 10. To prepare, he has read former South African President Nelson Mandela’s “A Loving Walk to Freedom.”
The book so resonated with Ortiz that it has forced him to be more committed about his quest for the journey.
“His core belief system is to unite many through their similarities instead of through their differences,” Ortiz said. “So many of my kids could glean from that history.”
Jaelynn Clark, 16, an Oasis Middle School student, believes Ortiz has already shown her how to help others.
Through acting, Jaelynn said, “I felt like I was helping other teens that didn’t have a voice.”
Fields-Bailey explained why students like Jaelynn believe Ortiz is beneficial for the classroom.
“Gabriel to me exemplifies the spirit of what Oasis is all about,” she said.
“A refreshed place in the desert where the child comes and receives what has been missing.”