Central Valley

Atwater High grad left Chicago firm, found Fresno classroom

Michelle Resendes traded a high-powered job as a financial consultant for teaching 10 years ago after she began worrying more about the impoverished kids she was tutoring on her lunch hour than the deadline looming for a multimillion-dollar project at work.

She's a much-loved teacher at Nelson Elementary School in northwest Fresno whose dedication to children -- especially the poor -- extends beyond her classroom duties, said co-workers and school parents. Many teachers are dedicated, but Resendes stands out, they said.

She recently completed the Chancellor's Fellowship Program at California State University, Fresno, receiving her administrative credential and master's degree in education.

Only about 25 educators are selected for the fast-track program each year and must be recommended by their district superintendent. Resendes said that despite training to be an administrator, she wants to remain a classroom teacher for now.

"She's a fabulous, fabulous teacher who just really cares for kids," said Erin Parker, resource teacher at Nelson.

Resendes, 39, has made it a tradition to select several families every year from the school's "giving tree," a way to buy holiday gifts for the needy who attend Nelson. This past Christmas, Resendes also bought for families who struggled but were not poor enough to be selected for the giving tree.

She buys Nelson Roadrunner T-shirts for children who can't afford them so that they won't feel left out on "Spirit Day" and also buys school carnival shirts for kids.

Parent Anita Suntrapak said Resendes gives rides to students and their families to various events: "She's always looking at how to serve our Nelson family outside the classroom."

Resendes graduated from Atwater High School, then moved to Chicago to attend DePaul University. She earned a degree in accounting and went to work for the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen in Chicago.

Resendes began volunteering with the firm's tutoring program, which paired employees with children from a nearby housing project. Not knowing anything about teaching, she researched teaching methods after she discovered the third-grader she was working with had never learned to read.

She eventually gave up a career in financial consulting with a lucrative future and returned to school for her teaching credential. Resendes' colleagues at Arthur Andersen were surprised.

"At first, they were kind of like, 'Are you sure?' " Resendes said.

After teaching for five years in Highland Park near Chicago, she and her husband, equity consultant Rafael Resendes, moved to Fresno to be near family. She is in her fourth year at Nelson in the Clovis Unified School District, this year teaching a fourth/fifth combination class.

Nelson, north of Herndon Avenue and east of Fruit Avenue, draws its students from some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Fresno near the San Joaquin River bluffs, and from the impoverished area of Pinedale. About half of students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 19% are learning English.

Suntrapak, the parent, said Resendes' efforts help bridge the gap between wealthy and poor families at Nelson. The school works hard to be cohesive, Suntrapak said: "There's just a real celebration of all the cultures."

Part of Resendes' inspiration to teach students from poor backgrounds comes from the experiences of her husband's family. His parents, respected professionals in Cuba before the communist revolution, were forced to flee and start over in the United States. Her father-in-law, also Rafael Resendes, went from respected lawyer to dishwasher, she said.

"You realize you can lose everything at any time. We all need each other," Michelle Resendes said. "For me, I was never in that position. I never wanted for anything. So for me to work with students who need basic things really just kind of touched my heart."

In the classroom, Suntrapak said, Resendes has a respectful approach that motivates students to work hard and behave well. Resendes comes up with fun approaches to lessons, she said.

Parker, the resource teacher, said Resendes is flexible in her teaching, recognizing the same approach doesn't work with every student. For example, Parker said, Resendes this year had a student who was struggling and frustrated. She came up with a different way for him to approach assignments, tapping his artistic talents.

"His self-esteem has shot through the roof," Parker said. "She sees the special things in each kid."

One of her fourth-grade students, Michele Cmaylo, said: "She takes the time to explain things you don't understand."

Fifth-grader Valeria Ferrer said: "You can always count on her."

Resendes said the hardest part about teaching is the responsibility she feels for her students' success.

She said: "You're personally connected to a child. You don't want to let them down."