Krystell Guzman Uses Spanish Immersion to Empower Latina Immigrants

The entrepreneur has expanded her Spanish immersion preschool, La Plazita, to include after-school programs and camps, creating leaders and managers along the way.


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Photo by Dave Strauss

When Krystell Guzman started an affordable Spanish immersion preschool in 2011 in the bottom level of her Dimond neighborhood home, she had no idea that eight years later there would be a yearlong wait for parents wanting to enroll their preschoolers.

Her preschool, La Plazita, now consists of two sites in Oakland’s Laurel district and serves over 180 families. Its growth has happened organically, primarily via word of mouth by parents — both Latino and non-Latino — who want their children to be bilingual.

Guzman, a mother of three, views La Plazita’s mission as being unique in that it aims to prepare children for the social/emotional and academic challenges of kindergarten as they learn Spanish. Parents embrace the philosophy.

“My older children spent three years at La Plazita, and our youngest is currently in his third year. Krystell and her team have created a community that feels like family, a place where our family heritage is celebrated, and where my kids have and continue to thrive,” said Kirstin Hernandez, a mother of three and an educational consultant. “The Laurel district needs the ingenuity, energy, work ethic, and social activism of Krystell Guzman and La Plazita.”

Before opening La Plazita, Guzman worked in the corporate world “training coffee producers on how the market worked,” she said. When she decided to open a preschool, she also resolved to leverage her corporate experience to mentor Latina immigrants, particularly La Plazita teachers and staff members, and facilitate opportunities beyond the menial labor jobs too often filled by monolingual Spanish speakers. Guzman wanted to enable them to become leaders and managers.

“Many of them were struggling with career paths, because there were not a lot of opportunities for monolingual Spanish speakers, and some even had degrees in their home country. But here, they were so limited,” Guzman said, “to cleaning houses or other menial types of labor. And when we started to train them to become teachers and pay for them to go to school or pay to get their degrees translated — that’s how we developed our staff. … These women were able to establish careers now that otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to because they didn’t have that support.”

La Plazita site director Yalin Morales is one of the Latina immigrants who has benefited from Guzman’s guidance. She held a B.A. in English in her native El Salvador, but her degree had to be translated and validated in the United States. La Plazita paid for this process and for an early childhood education class that was required in order to classify Morales as a “site supervisor” at one of La Plazita’s sites. She’s currently the director of La Plazita II.

“La Plazita gave me … my first experience as a director of an early childhood education center. I’m very grateful to be able to work in a field I like and to have the opportunity to learn about the field of education from a different perspective,” she said, noting that La Plazita also helped with the challenge of navigating the cultural differences in the United States.

Guzman expressed a sense of pride over the successes of those she has assisted, explaining, “The whole purpose behind the organizational development aspect … is creating leaders so that I don’t need to lead. … When people have the knowledge base to carry on your vision independently, then you feel like you’re successful, because they don’t need you anymore,” she said.

Guzman is also interested in being an advocate for language immersion education at the policy level and indicated the problems with the provisions of California’s Pre-K For All Act that would require head preschool teachers to have a college degree and at least 24 units of early childhood studies, because the measure ignores the specificities of the population of teachers who work in language immersion preschools.

Guzman has expanded her vision for La Plazita and has expanded beyond preschool. She now now offers after-school programs, girls’ softball training, and summer camps that serve families from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. These non-preschool programs are run by La Plazita Community Building and were developed a few years ago when Guzman decided to use the large gymnasium space in one of the buildings La Plazita rents. Although the initial plan was to partner with a baseball coach to offer classes, the coach didn’t stay long, and the focus shifted to girls’ softball — which Guzman saw as way to provide girls with high-quality sports training.

“We started to really help girls get better at softball with the goal of giving them an alternative route to college, if they get to be that good,” she said. “But in addition to playing softball, there’s so many other empowering things for girls here because … they learn to work hard ... be a team player. They learn to face adversity, and they learn to develop as leaders ... boys are conditioned naturally to do that. Girls are not.”

The girls’ softball program, Oaktown Softball, Guzman said, teaches girls, “it’s OK to be bad-ass, to be hard, to be tough.” Guzman saw it as “a movement where I see these girls not just learning the game, but how to live life and be successful in their future endeavors.”

While supporting girls’ sports and leadership skills, Guzman emphasized that LPCB is committed to serving the diverse population of East Oakland specifically, which she believes is often neglected by other leagues.

“The local leagues had a lot of affluent girls from the hills, and there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for the African Americans and the Latinas to play at a higher level. And part of this is access to services, but the other part of it is access to training and money … these girls don’t have the money to pay for the training that other people can pay for.”

This is why one of Oaktown’s core values, Guzman said, “is to charge 20 percent of what normal travel ball organizations charge.” That, Guzman stressed, means a lot of subsidizing and fundraising to pay for professional coaches.

Oaktown softball coach Meagan Dixon echoed Guzman’s sentiments. “Through Oaktown, Krystell is providing great opportunities for young athletes to enhance their athletic ability,” she said. “I started playing softball at age 6, and I would have loved to have a place like Oaktown to receive high caliber training in my own community.”

The after-school and summer camp programs came about largely because of parent initiative, Guzman said, noting the parent of a former La Plazita student wanted her child to keep up her Spanish, so she asked Guzman about staring an after-school program. In the 2017-18 academic year, only 16 kids participated, but in 2018-19, it increased to 40, and there are currently 82 kids registered for the 2019-20 year. LPCB picks kids up from four different schools, including Melrose Leadership Academy and Sequoia Elementary School.

The summer camps have operated for the past two years, with the main catalyst being Guzman’s idea to provide a more affordable Spanish immersion summer camp; many of the existing ones were charging $350 per week, while La Plazita’s camp charges $250 per week; about 100 families attended the camps in 2018, and 150 families attended this past summer.

While her business has expanded exponentially since she opened La Plazita, Guzman has even bigger plans for the future. La Plazita recently bought its first building on the Oakland-San Leandro border, and a new preschool site is scheduled to open in 2020 with space for 45 children.

Guzman viewed the preschool site purchase as a way to offset the negative effects of gentrification in Oakland where the school district has been closing and merging under-attended schools and is looking to sell buildings. Guzman is worried out-of-town developers with lots of cash on hand will swoop in to buy them, exacerbating the displacement of Oakland natives and longtime residents. She saw La Plazita’s purchase as “trying to keep a piece of Oakland for the people here,” and hopes to be able to buy more school district buildings in the future.

 

The author’s son attended La Plazita for three years.

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