For nine nights in a row in June, students and former students, young and old, gathered together at Laguna Middle School in San Luis Obispo, lighting candles and sharing stories about a beloved teacher gone too soon.
Andrea Blanco, a giant in SLO's school community, died on June 12, at age 62, of complications from knee surgery. A teacher in the San Luis Coastal Unified School District (SLCUSD) since 1996, Andrea left behind a legacy of tireless work helping students from all walks of life overcome challenges in the classroom and beyond.
Her sudden passing triggered an outpouring of grief and gratitude that was commensurate to the impact she had on her students.
"Watching all of the kids respond, the things they were saying, was pretty amazing," said Rick Mayfield, a SLCUSD administrator who attended the vigils. "She was like a mother figure to so many of those kids—somebody they could really connect with, listen to, and go to."
Blanco, who spent the bulk of her SLCUSD career at Laguna Middle School, was an especially beloved figure in the Latino community. There, she wasn't just a teacher, but a mentor, an ally, an advocate, a networker, and a problem solver for students and families.
"She totally went above and beyond," Mayfield said. "She'd talk to them on evenings and on the weekend. She'd help them with whatever it was—a transportation issue, clothes or food, a translation, taking them to appointments, or helping them get legal assistance."
To honor and continue her work, the SLCUSD's Educational Foundation recently established the Andrea Blanco Legacy Fund, a scholarship program that will benefit local Latino youth and their pursuit of higher education. The idea for the fund came in the wake of the powerful vigils.
"It's really touching, unexpected, and very moving," Jose Arturo Blanco, Andrea's husband, told New Times. "I can see the void that she left already."
Andrea's work in SLCUSD started in the '90s as an after-school teacher at Bishop's Peak Elementary. It was there she became acquainted with the complex issues that many Central Coast students, especially of Latino backgrounds, face in their lives.
"This was an after-school program to help the kids who needed it," Jose Arturo said. "It was mostly reading, but it was more than that. She found out soon that the needs weren't only just [at school], but also what was around their environment."
- Photo Courtesy Of San Luis Coastal Unified School District
- IN MEMORY Students light candles for former San Luis Obispo teacher Andrea Blanco, who passed away in June. Blanco was recognized for her impact in the local Latino community.
In a wealthy, mostly white school district like SLCUSD, families' struggles with poverty and other barriers can often go unnoticed or misunderstood. Andrea established herself as someone who students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds could trust and talk to.
"It's hidden here," Jose Arturo said. "Sometimes you don't see it. People would feel comfortable with her and start sharing their issues."
Andrea's quiet and unassuming demeanor helped students feel safe with her, Mayfield said.
"She was a very quiet person, very determined and forceful, but very quiet and very much not in your face. And she'd reach out to these kids in a quiet way," Mayfield said. "Sometimes—especially in a town like SLO, which is very Anglo, super English dominant, and not culturally diverse—kids have trouble connecting with their school. And so she was, for a lot of those kids, that connection."
Andrea possessed the unique ability to not just want to help and support students, but to deliver it. That was something she trained for. When she was in law school in San Francisco, Andrea frequently visited undocumented field workers to help connect them with legal services. One of her gifts, her family said, was to navigate tough situations with skill, grace, and compassion.
"She was a helper," her daughter, Cristina, said.
These abilities proved essential to her work at SLCUSD. As her career progressed to Laguna Middle School, where she led the English Learning Advisory Committee and After-School Program, Andrea's network of students, families, professionals, and service providers expanded. If a student or family needed something or was in a crisis, Andrea knew somebody she could call on.
"She had connections throughout the community at all sorts of different levels," Mayfield said. "There are a lot of people and organizations in our community that are willing and eager to help, and it's making those connections sometimes that can be one of the most important steps."
In many other instances, Andrea found ways to resolve issues under her own power. One time, according to her family, two students who Andrea knew got in a fight that nearly caused one family to sue the school. Andrea went to the family's house to explain why the student was violent and where his deeper issues may stem from. Not only did the family drop their legal threat in response, they volunteered to help that student.
"It was eye-opening for me," Jose Arturo said.
SLCUSD hopes to keep Andrea's work alive through the Andrea Blanco Legacy Fund. The details and mechanics of it are still under discussion, and Jose Arturo said he hopes it's structured in a way that makes the resources accessible to all kinds of students in need.
"How are we going to make this so there is a fair shot for everybody?" he said. "At the end of the day, it's going to be helpful. I'm just very grateful."
Jose Arturo, an engineer for PG&E who was born in Mexico, said he still receives phone calls today from students looking for the help his wife used to provide.
"I see the void; I see the need," he said. "When I hear the issue, I say I know she would already be solving this. I try to remind people, you know what she did, try to continue that. I hope it continues, that these people try to fill that void. That's my wish." Δ
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