After working at various schools, including Latson Road Elementary School in Howell as a paraprofessional while her daughters attended, she retired. But after less than a year, she became bored and missed working with kids.
Then, she saw an ad for a new school opening – Canton Charter Academy. She’s been at the school since it opened in 2000, a fortuitous partnership for her and the many staff and students she has encountered.
The dynamic between her and the students has kept her going strong to this day as an instructional paraprofessional at 80 years old.
“Our teachers connect with the kids in a special way that I’ve never seen in any of the other schools I ever worked for,” she said. “They reach out to them and it just draws the kids in. When you walk down a hall two or three kids want to come up and hug you or thank you for something you’ve done for them, or they want to be in your group, they want to sit at your table. It just makes you feel like you’re doing something that will help in the future.”
Colunga turned 80 on Dec. 26. On the last day before Canton’s winter break, the students helped her celebrate by singing “Happy Birthday” during the opening ceremony and she went to dinner with her friends from the intervention team.
In all her time in education – first as a teacher’s aide and later going to school at night to get her teaching degree while her children were in school – she has felt most at home at Canton, which has outperformed the local district for 13 years.
“The staff and students are very important to me,” Colunga said. “I like that I’m allowed to make an impact on kids’ lives and helping them to learn to be constructive and be helpful to others as they grow through their years of school. I love the interaction with the kids. Sometimes when I go in a room, they all come running. They want to set up my table and talk with me.”
One constant in Colunga’s time at Canton has been her penchant for encouraging students to challenge themselves. She uses former Canton Charter Academy student Allison Schmitt, a four-time Olympic swimmer and 10-time medalist, as an example of students’ untapped potential.
In order to build and form a bond, Colunga tries to find out students’ interests and builds on that to get them to listen. Her approach has impacted students long after they move on from Canton.
“(Schmitt) came back to see me one evening and had her gold medal when I was teaching another student after school. She put her medal around his neck and he just about cried,” Colunga said. “He was so excited because he met a famous person. Another student came by one time, he was driving down the highway. And he said, ‘I just stopped to see if you were still here.’”
As she continues at Canton at 80, Colunga has reflected on the number of students she has worked with, likely in the thousands. It was surreal for her to think about the growth she has helped students achieve in her extended post-retirement stretch at Canton.
“I don’t think I would work at another school after working here because of the friendships I’ve made and the contact with the kids and the parents and other teachers I’ve had,” Colunga said. “It blows my mind because I look out there and I see so many kids, they’re going the wrong way, and we teach our kids the right way. We teach them to be constructive and to work hard and they will get where they want to go if they push themselves. Teachers will do everything, but the child has to know within their own heart that they want to achieve something. That’s what we do here.”
Keep up the excellent work, Ms. Colunga!
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Canton Charter Academy is a tuition-free, public charter school in Canton, Michigan, serving students in kindergarten through eighth grade. It is part of the National Heritage Academies network, which includes 99 tuition-free, public charter schools serving more than 65,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade across nine states. For more information, visit nhaschools.com.
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