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Love of Latin Culture and Kalamazoo Go Hand-in-hand for Local Principal

Heather Grisales

Heather Grisales came to Kalamazoo in 1997 for college; she has stayed ever since because of the sense of community.

The Muskegon native enrolled in Western Michigan University (WMU) after high school and earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education and Spanish in 2002.

"I have always loved children. Ever since I was a small child, I wanted to be a teacher," Grisales said of her career choice. "I vividly remember helping my teachers in grade school and throughout high school.

"During my third year at WMU, I studied abroad for six months in Queretaro, Mexico. This experience not only opened my eyes to a new language, but a new culture, an essential tool in truly acquiring another language."

Despite receiving job offers elsewhere in Michigan after graduation, Grisales knew Kalamazoo was where she wanted to stay.

"I began searching for and interviewing for teaching jobs all over the state. I had a few offers, but my heart was in Kalamazoo and I was waiting for the opportunity to work for Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS). I did an internship at Lincoln International Studies School in Kalamazoo and I was passionate about working with the children of Kalamazoo," Grisales said.

"None of the other communities had the same vibe and connectedness that Kalamazoo has. I love working in Kalamazoo because of the richness in culture, diversity, experiences, and opportunities. We are a big, small city!"

As a result, Grisales was happy to accept a teaching job at Lincoln and begin her teaching career in Kalamazoo.

"During my years at Lincoln I had many opportunities to travel to Central America, Mexico, and various parts of the United States to study language, culture, and public and private educational systems. After Lincoln, I transferred to El Sol Elementary and taught second grade for two years.

"I worked a total of nine years before becoming a principal at Pullman Elementary in Bloomingdale Public Schools. I served as principal there for two years before returning to Kalamazoo Public Schools. I accepted the position as El Sol principal in August of 2013," she said.

Along with her various teaching and principal positions, Grisales earned a master's degree in educational leadership from WMU in 2008 and married her husband, Carlos, a native of Colombia, in 2012. The couple is now raising their young daughter in a bi-lingual home in the Westwood neighborhood.

Grisales' current position at El Sol is a perfect fit for her bi-cultural lifestyle. El Sol is a 50/50 two-way dual language immersion program in the Kalamazoo Public School system.

"We currently educate 328 students, kindergarten-5th grade. Half of the instructional day is in English and half of the day is in Spanish," Grisales said.

"Spending time with and being surrounded by all of the charismatic students at El Sol is what I love most about my job," she said. "Their laughter, love of learning, moments of inquiry, cross-cultural, and cross-linguistic connections are all very exciting and priceless!"

Grisales said WMUK public radio, one of the local WMU radio stations, is currently working on a feature story about the dual language immersion program at El Sol.

"Sevilla Mann, WMUK reporter, recently spent two days with our staff, students, and parents in order to get a thorough picture of how we educate students in both Spanish and English," Grisales said.

"The students were very enthusiastic about being interviewed by the reporter. They were interested in sharing their educational journey with southwest Michigan and beyond. The story is projected to air in mid-December."

In addition to sharing El Sol with a wider audience, Grisales also enjoys the cross-cultural nature found outside the walls of the school.

"Kalamazoo has so many wonderful things to offer to people of all ages, cultures, and walks of life. We have so many wonderful events going on each weekend, there is never a dull moment or a reason to leave. You can immerse yourself in the Latin culture with a night of salsa dancing on Saturday night at Blue Dolphin, experience a plethora of styles of yoga at Down Dog Yoga Center, attend the monthly Art Hop and hit up Bell's Eccentric Night later in the evening, or bike ride to your heart's content on the Kal-Haven Trail or the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail.

"Don't even get me started on the potential of the Kalamazoo Promise. Talk about a life-changing and impactful offer for all of the students of Kalamazoo Public Schools. Now that I am a mother, I am especially excited about the opportunities that it offers for the future of our child, Camila.

"This is the coolest town!" she added. "I enjoy the people of Kalamazoo and the way in which people work together and stay connected with one another. Whether I am at the Kalamazoo Farmers' Market on a Saturday morning or bike riding to Bell's for a Thursday night bite to eat, my family and I seem to always connect with another family, couple, or colleague.

"I love that people who want to stay connected do so downtown and by supporting one another locally. This community truly supports one another and it shows in the ways in which we spend our resources and how we spend our time.

"When I support local businesses I feel proud and connected. The owners' of local businesses also take the time to get to know the consumer. This is an insane connection and one that is priceless in order for this community to continue to work and play together successfully."

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