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After 40 years, she’s still the ‘heartbeat’ of Buchanan

Maria Cervantes recognized for decades of service at GRPS

Grand Rapids — There’s one phrase that Maria Cervantes uses more than any other when talking about her work at Grand Rapids Public Schools: “I love it.”

Interacting with students? “I love it,” she says. 

Working in the library at Buchanan Elementary? Again, “I love it.”

Teaching summer school to high-schoolers from Union and Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy? You guessed it, she loves it. 

Ditto for virtually every moment of her 40-plus years as a media specialist and literacy paraprofessional.

She loves it so much that she’s never thought much about recognition or accolades, but she was recently given just that by the Board of Education, who in May presented her with a plaque and a message of thanks for her decades of service.

“I never thought that I was going to get a reward, you know, for working all these years at GRPS,” Cervantes said from Buchanan’s newly upgraded library shortly after receiving the honor. “I’m so thankful, so honored, that they did this for me.”

‘(Maria) is so loved and we … could not function without her in the many roles she plays.’

— Elena Conley, Buchanan Elementary assistant principal

It’s an honor for district leaders, too, as Buchanan Principal Keri Cooper stated before the board, telling Cervantes that her “love for this district, Buchanan Elementary School and the community … shines through in all you do.” 

‘The Perfect Fit’

Cervantes has been at GRPS since October 1984. She began her career at 19 after coming to the U.S. from Mexico a few years prior.

Maria Cervantes explores the newly updated library at Buchanan Elementary

She started out as a literacy paraprofessional at Burton Elementary, teaching English and math to small groups of Spanish-speaking students, and transferred to the same role at Buchanan three years later.

The scope of her work broadened several years later, when an administrator at Buchanan saw her reading to students in Spanish and English. The school was in need of a bilingual person to help in the library, and Cervantes seemed well-suited to the task. 

She didn’t know much about libraries at the time, she confesses, but she got the training she needed and hasn’t looked back since.

“It just was a perfect fit for me,” Cervantes said. 

To this day, her job still consists of a mix of library hours and small-group English and Spanish interventions.

Many Years, Many Changes

In her time working at GRPS, Cervantes has seen a number of pretty major changes. For one thing, she said, the number of Hispanic students has soared, as has the need for bilingual instruction.

She also saw the advent of the internet, which was a game-changer for library professionals.

“When I started working in the library, we didn’t have computers. We used cards,” Cervantes recalled. “It was a little bit more hard.”

She was a fan of the old system, but she’s not opposed to the rise of technology and digital media. Not only is it easier for her, but it also expands access to books and curriculum materials, allowing students to learn in more ways.

But she does still have a soft spot for books.

“(Students) see the book that I’m reading, and they want to check out the book because (they say), ‘I love the story, can I check out that book?’ … And that’s how they get to love books.”

Cervantes, here with one of her favorite children’s books, was recently celebrated for her 40 years of service with GRPS

Keeping Students Invested

For Cervantes to do her job, she needs students to be invested in learning, whether it’s a second language, reading a book or solving a math problem. She has a few tricks up her sleeve to help keep students engaged. 

She invites fourth- and fifth-graders to read to kindergarten students, and those who take her up on the offer get the special honor of sitting in Cervantes’ chair.

“They feel good,” Cervantes said. “That’s good for them. It helps them to be more comfortable, more social. Because it’s hard — it was hard for me, too — to sit in front of students and read. It’s not easy. … But you get used to it.”

She also encourages them to get the family involved.

“When the students check out books, I tell them, ‘I have a section here of bilingual books in English and Spanish. … If you don’t know how to read in Spanish, your mom can read to you in Spanish and you can read it to her in English so your mom learns English,’” Cervantes said. 

No Plans to Slow Down

Cervantes’ favorite aspect of her job is working on language skills with small groups of students. It’s a highlight for her to see them learn and grow and apply their knowledge to the real world. 

When she runs into former students in the community, she said, they always remember her, and tell her how much she taught them.

“It makes me so proud and so happy that they learn from me,” she said. “That’s what I love the most.” 

Cervantes adores her job so much that even after 40 years she has no plans to stop, despite the occasional plea from her family, which is famous for its support of GRPS and includes three generations of Buchanan students.

The GRPS Board of Education presents Maria Cervantes with a plaque commemorating her 40 years with the district

“My kids always ask me, ‘When are you going to retire?’ I don’t know yet,” Cervantes said. “I love what I do, I love my job and I love to see the students succeed and learn.

“I feel good, I have the energy and I want to keep working. This is my second home and I love it.”

That’s got to be music to the ears of administrators, who are as thrilled to have Cervantes as she is to be there.

“Maria is the heartbeat to our school,” said Elena Conley, assistant principal at Buchanan. “She helps in so many different capacities. … She is so loved and we … could not function without her in the many roles she plays.”

Cervantes said it feels great to get recognition from the district for her work, though the job itself is all the reward she needs.

“Forty years — that’s a lot,” she said. “But to me it doesn’t look like that many years because I love what I do.

“I will say that: I love it.”

Read more from Grand Rapids: 
‘A positive sendoff’: community says goodbye to Stocking after 100 years
Southwest’s first graduation marks a victory for the community

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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