Life lessons

Local teacher Marc Cutillo formed a Latino outreach group to help Spanish-speaking parents feel part of the school community

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Here for them: William Tennent’s Marc Cutillo was one of 11 recipients of the National Liberty Museum’s 12th annual “Teacher As Hero” Award, which honors educators from across the region who go the extra mile for students, schools and communities. Source: National Liberty Museum

When Marc Cutillo first stepped foot in William Tennent five years ago, he was simply known as the high school’s new English Literature teacher. Today, he’s something of a hero.

Last month, Philadelphia’s National Liberty Museum announced the 11 winners of its 12th annual “Teacher As Hero” Award, which honors educators from across the region who go the extra mile for students, schools and communities. Cutillo was among the recipients, and it’s easy to see why.

Only a few semesters at Tennent under his belt, Cutillo was asked to co-teach a biology class for English as a Second Language students. Though Cutillo’s entire life was spent between Bucks County and New Jersey, his mother hailed from Puerto Rico. He knew the basics of the language and had close ties to the culture, so he accepted the challenge.

As he began working with the students, who came to America only one or two years prior from countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and Russia, Cutillo noticed massive educational gaps. Many had either been out of school for some time or attended a poor school system. Cutillo made it his mission to help them adapt to not only the American school system, but their new home.

“The main goal was for them to learn biology in a way that helps them express English better,” he said.

Still, this was easier said than done. Most of his students had never laid eyes on a computer. When they were asked to “sign on” using “control, alt, delete,” the request was met with a number of deer-in-headlights expressions. So, Cutillo tweaked the class, dedicating three months to teaching introductory research and Internet skills.

“It’s basic things we take for granted,” he said.

But Cutillo’s work didn’t stop in the biology classroom. According to him, 15 percent of the Centennial School District’s population is Latino, which means a number of students’ parents do not speak English. Cutillo explained the nitty gritty details of high school are hard to grasp for any parent, whether it’s grueling financial aid paperwork or graduation requirements. But when a parent is unable to communicate with faculty or read important documents due to a language barrier, things become much harder.

Cutillo wanted these parents to feel part of the school community, and help them be aware of opportunities available to them and their children. Two years ago, he formed the Latino outreach group “Aqui Para Ti,” which translates to “Here For You.” Though his Spanish wasn’t perfect, Cutillo visited numerous apartment complexes, knocking on the doors of parents to introduce himself and invite them to be a part of his newly formed group.

Reflecting on those initial meetings, Cutillo said the parents’ faces lit up when they discovered their child’s teacher could speak their language. Finally, someone was advocating for them.

“They want what everyone wants for their kids. For them to be successful,” he said.

Today, “Aqui Para Ti” boasts more than 60 parents, all of whom stay connected through a group text since many don’t have email. Through text as well as regular outdoor gatherings, Cutillo listens to their concerns, sends updates regarding school clubs and activities, and translates vital documents distributed by the school.

“They want to be involved. They just don’t always know how,” he said.

Since joining the group, Cutillo said the parents feel more empowered to reach out to their child’s teachers if they have questions. They’re no longer silent. Ultimately, Cutillo’s hope is that this inclusive community he continues to build will prevent immigrated students from dropping out. Rather than feel overwhelmed by new rules and technology, he wants them to thrive. To help achieve this, Cutillo is reaching out to the district’s middle school principals to include the parents of younger students in “Aqui Para Ti.”

“By high school, they’ll know the American school system,” he said.

After witnessing the impact Cutillo had on the Latino community, assistant principal Haley Butler nominated him for the “Teacher As Hero” Award, which he humbly accepted during a special ceremony at the National Liberty Museum, 321 Chestnut St. in Philadelphia, last month.

Each of the 11 winners was nominated by students, parents and peers to recognize them as educators who serve as role models in their respective communities. Their stories will become part of a dedicated Museum exhibit in the “Live Like a Hero” Gallery for approximately one year.

“At the National Liberty Museum, we teach every visitor the vital role liberty plays in the fabric of our daily lives,” said Gwen Borowsky, CEO of the Museum. “We proudly honor these teachers for the work they do to inspire students and strengthen their communities beyond their important work in the classroom. We recognize these teachers as heroes for helping shape our nation’s next generation of leaders.”

For a full list of recipients, visit libertymuseum.org/awards/teacher-as-hero-awards/2018-teacher-hero-honorees/. For more on Marc Cutillo and his work, visit marccutillo.com. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com