weather icon Clear

Nevada’s Teacher of the Year focuses on ‘holistic education’

Juliana Urtubey doesn’t view her students as blank slates and feels it’s important to know where they come from.

She wants insight into their families and communities, their goals and interests.

“I’m always teaching based on that,” said Urtubey, a learning strategist at Booker Elementary School in Las Vegas’ Historic Westside.

And in her previous job with the Clark County School District — seven years as a special education teacher at Crestwood Elementary in central Las Vegas — she led the effort to create an outdoor classroom garden.

Urtubey’s approach to teaching has garnered attention. In September, she was named the 2021 Nevada Teacher of the Year. Gov. Steve Sisolak and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jhone Ebert made the surprise announcement during a virtual ceremony.

Educators are nominated and then encouraged to apply for the Nevada Teacher of the Year recognition. A recipient is chosen from five finalists. Urtubey will represent Nevada in the National Teacher of the Year competition.

Urtubey, who has been an educator for about a decade, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in late October that receiving the award was a proud moment for her. She called it “a complete surprise.”

A member of Ebert’s Teacher Advisory Cabinet, Urtubey said she thinks she’s the first Latino educator in years to be named the state’s Teacher of the Year, noting it’s important to have “that kind of representation for our community.” In the Clark County School District alone, about 47 percent of students identify as Hispanic or Latino.

Being named Teacher of the Year is both an honor and a responsibility, Urtubey said, adding that she wants to represent the entire state well, including rural teachers and students who have “very specific needs” that aren’t always considered in Clark County.

Booker Principal Jose Silva told the Review-Journal this month that Urtubey leads by example and shows that one must “start with a heart first when it comes to education, and everything else falls into place.”

Urtubey doesn’t take “no” for an answer when something is good for children, Silva said.

“She definitely has a heart for teaching and kids,” the principal said.

Bilingual background

Urtubey — who was born in Bogota, Colombia, and raised in Phoenix — earned a bachelor’s degree in bilingual general education and a master’s degree in bilingual special education from the University of Arizona. She taught in bilingual schools in Tucson, Arizona, for a few years before moving to Las Vegas and has taught in the Clark County School District since 2013.

Now 33, she came to the United States with her family when she was 5. Her mother was a civil rights lawyer, and her father was a musician.

“My family left, in part, because of the civil war that was happening,” she said.

They arrived in Chicago and lived in “not the best part of town,” Urtubey said, noting that a lot of the schools in their neighborhood had metal detectors and bars on the windows.

But she said that since her father was born in New York, she had dual citizenship from birth, and that made her life easier. Urtubey said her parents also advocated for her and her siblings, and they attended a bilingual magnet school.

Her parents volunteered at their school — her mother teaching Spanish and her father teaching music. Her family moved to Phoenix when she was 7, and her parents continued to volunteer at her school.

‘I get to support teachers’

Now, Urtubey is in her first year at Booker, where she spends part of the day as an instructional strategist — “I get to support teachers” — and the other part co-teaching in special education, she said.

“I am a teacher who really focuses on holistic education, especially because my students have special educational needs,” Urtubey said.

She said she strives to meet students’ social-emotional needs and build their self-confidence.

Urtubey earned National Board Certification, a recognition through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, in 2018 and became a national fellow in 2019. She also has participated in fellowships through national nonprofit Understood and Teach Plus Nevada.

She was among 20 Clark County School District teachers named a 2018 recipient of the Heart of Education Awards, organized by The Smith Center for the Performing Arts and funded by The Rogers Foundation.

While at Crestwood, Urtubey started the school’s garden program in 2014 through a partnership with Las Vegas-based nonprofit Green Our Planet. She said her work with the garden is “one of the biggest joys” of her professional life.

Urtubey raised more than $80,000 to build the garden, paint murals and host two summer garden camps. Students who get involved in a weekly garden club are known as “Crestwood Gnomies.”

“We wanted to make sure the garden was a welcoming mat for the community in Crestwood,” she said, and that the gardens and murals were culturally responsive.

The project started small, and now the garden spans more than 13,000 square feet. It’s also a monarch waystation, allowing students to document butterflies.

“Our kids were citizen scientists,” Urtubey said. “They got to help save the monarchs, and that was really beautiful, too.”

Produce grown is given to school families, Urtubey said. “For us, it was really important that no one felt food was inaccessible to them.”

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.