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Mundelein educator honored for helping Latino community

James Ongtengco is MundeleHigh School's assistant principal he was recently given diversity award from Village Mundelefor his work with Latino

James Ongtengco is Mundelein High School's assistant principal and he was recently given a diversity award from the Village of Mundelein for his work with Latino families. | Rick Kambic/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 11, 2014 6:09AM

The streets of Chicago’s Kenwood neighborhood were rough when James Ongtengco was growing up as a Filipino immigrant in the 1970s.

Intense racism between blacks and whites at the time led to he and other friends getting attacked as “scapegoats,” Ongtengco said. On top of that, he also began delivering newspapers at age 10 to supplement his parents’ $3.75 per hour minimum-wage jobs.

“Immigration has changed since the 1970s,” Ongtengco said. “Back then, immigrants could only start their new lives in very specific parts of Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Miami. Now, immigrants can start fresh in Iowa, Idaho and even Mundelein, Illinois.”

Ongtengco, 44, is one of Mundelein’s 2014 Diversity Award recipients for his work in continuing to make that transition easier as Mundelein High School’s assistant principal.

The village’s Human Relations Commission presented him the award this winter and School District 120’s Board of Education celebrated the achievement last week.

Approximately 52 percent of students at Mundelein High School are minorities, while 42 percent of the student body is Latino and 38 percent of students are on free or reduced lunch, according to the district’s 2013 report card.

Six years ago when Ongtengco was hired, he began the Universidad de Padres program to help parents understand the school system and general Lake County area.

Ongtengco, along with seven teachers and one community member, host six informative sessions every year, spanning from 5:30-9 p.m. in the school’s cafeteria.

Each parent gets a binder for notes, a book on parenting, a list of all high school staff that speak Spanish, and other miscellaneous topical fliers.

Attendance has risen from a few dozen in the first year to as many as 120 this year.

“Some of them came here for that better life, but understanding a more structured system is far more difficult when there’s a language barrier,” Ongtengco said. “Because some of them are just getting here, doing homework is a challenge when the student may not have much of a home.”

Parents who attend Universidad de Padres are introduced to the library, after school clubs, park district programs and also encouraged to set aside certain time each night when the entire family does nothing but school work together.

“I know it can be stressful managing your schedule around some of those low-paying jobs, but kids need structure and they respond well to positive supervision,” Ongtengco said. “We also like to explain how some of the classes work so parents know what we expect of their children.”

Ongtengco himself struggled with his parent’s busy schedules and the perceived long road to prosperity.

“It was easy to stay negative,” he said. “It was easy to hang around and accept what had been given to me. But there came a time when I decided I didn’t want to be poor, and I saw how much my loving parents yearned for me to have a better life.”

After becoming a certified nursing assistant and enrolling at University of Illinois, Ongtengco studied education full time while also working 30 hours per week on the graveyard shift at Provena Covenant Medical Center.

“It can be done,” Ongtengco said. “No doubt these parents want a good life for their kids. That’s why we’re partners in providing these students with skills, curiosity and ambition.”

The number of Latinos in advanced placement (AP) classes and extra curricular activities has risen since Universidad de Padres began in 2008, Ongtengco said. Graduation rates among Latinos have also increased, he continued.

While Universidad de Padres continues, Ongtengco is now also focusing on a newer program called “Summer Matters” for English-language learners coming into ninth grade with struggling grades.

“The kids who lose the most over that three-month gap are the kids in poverty,” Ongtengco said. “Those kids won’t have the money to visit the Museum of Science and Industry over the summer. They won’t be going on vacation to Washington D.C. Their brains won’t be exercising as much.”

Classes run between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. and focus on reading in all topics.

The whole program, including free busing, is covered by a state grant.

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