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Founder recalls Little School that made big difference

By By DIANNA WRAY
Nov. 13, 2010 at 5:13 a.m.

Isabel Verver De La Vega talks about her memories and experiences  teaching at the Little School of the 400  during the dedication ceremony Saturday outside of Ganado Elementary School. The school taught Spanish-speaking children the 400 most essential English words so that they could communicate when they went to school.

THE LITTLE SCHOOL OF THE 400The first Little School of the 400 was created by 17-year-old Isabel Verver-De La Vega in 1957.

State-funded programs modeled on the Little School of the 400 sprang up across the state.

Project Head Start, created in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, was modeled on the Little School of the 400 program.

GANADO - A smile flashed across Isabel Verver-De La Vega's face as a historical plaque honoring the Little School of the 400 was unveiled Saturday.

"I'm just overwhelmed by all of this," Verver-De La Vega, 71, said to the applause of the crowd gathered outside of Ganado Elementary School.

She tilted her head back to look up at the historical marker commemorating her accomplishment.

Standing in this spot 53 years ago, in 1957, she never thought her idea would lead to this.

When Verver-De La Vega started elementary school, she didn't know any English.

During the first week of school, she needed to go to the bathroom, but didn't know how to ask.

The teacher didn't know Spanish, and Verver-De La Vega didn't have the words to communicate. She had an accident in the seat, and it was a moment seared into her memory.

"I never forgot the embarrassment of that moment, and it was that moment I made the decision I would learn English, one way or the other," Verver-De La Vega said.

She did, but over the years she watched her fellow non-English speaking classmates struggle and fall behind in school because of the language barrier.

At that time, more than 50 percent of the Hispanic students in Texas failed first grade, and there were high failure rates throughout the school system, Jackson County Historical Society chairman Frank Condron said.

One day, 17-year-old Verver-De La Vega came up with the idea of starting a school for non-English speaking children about to start school.

Meeting in Ganado Elementary School during the summer, they could use the time to teach the students English words, bridging the communication started school in the fall.

She had heard about Felix Tijerina, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a group that lobbied for Hispanic civil rights.

She called him on the phone and told him about her idea to fix a problem right in her hometown.

"I was a snotty-nosed, wet behind the ears little girl, but you know I had guts, still do, and I called," Verver-De La Vega said.

Tijerina agreed to sponsor the program, the school principal agreed to let them use the school, and they found certified teachers to teach the students.

The program was a success. All of the children who went through it passed both first and second grade.

Within a couple of years, the Little School of the 400 program was in place across Texas, Condron said.

When President Lyndon Johnson created Project Head Start as part of his War on Poverty in 1964, the Little School of the 400 was a direct influence for the federal program that still helps students across the country today, Condron said.

Ganado Mayor Clinton Tegeler said he was glad to see the town honoring its history.

"It's important to honor our history. ... It's important to remember and commemorate everything."

Verver-De La Vega said she didn't realize she had done anything important at the time.

It was only later, watching Head Start programs grow across the country, that she started to realize what she had done in starting the Little School of the 400.

Her involvement shaped her life, too, she said.

Now retired and a resident of Las Vegas, Verver-De La Vega, who never attended college, worked at various jobs.

But she knew she had a voice, that she could make a difference, and went on to become involved in politics and the California labor movement.

"Doing this taught me there was nothing I couldn't do, there were no limitations I couldn't get around, over or under," Verver-De La Vega said. "I could do anything."

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