LifeChanger of the Year Nominee Profile

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Mary Jo Montenegro

Position: Retiring Bilingual School Social Worker
School: Cincinnati Public Schools
School District: Cincinnati Public Schools
City, State: Cincinnati, OH

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Mary Jo Montenegro was nominated by her colleague, Patty Fong.

Ms. Montenegro has served as one of the only bilingual school social workers in Cincinnati Public Schools for 31 years.  She has tirelessly supported the CPS community during a time period when the English learner population grew over 1200%. She is the backbone of what has developed into a comprehensive educational and social-emotional support program that serves over 4,500 students and their families in the region. Ms. Montenegro is a quiet and humble professional, and she has worked far beyond the hours for which she has been paid, all in an effort to lift up an underserved population – the English learners in CPS.

Most of Ms. Montenegro's work for the last 8 to 10 years has been in supporting the unaccompanied minor population that has exploded in Hamilton County.  According to data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Hamilton County has received the highest number of unaccompanied minors released to sponsors than any other county in Ohio. Every one of these students and their sponsors knows Ms. Montenegro. She is one of the first friendly faces they see, and she helps them with everything from filling out the enrollment paperwork, to selecting the best school for their needs, to meeting with the student and/or their family to understand the child’s educational history and background. The work she does with students and families creates a safe connection, and she is often the first person called when a student or family is in need. The families and students trust her wholeheartedly.

Ms. Montenegro has served as the ambassador for families who don’t have the social capital or language needed to reap the benefits of a free public education. She helps parents and students understand the culture and expectations of the U.S. school system. She is the one to inform them about uniforms (and provide free uniforms to those who don’t have the means to buy them), read through the code of conduct with them, help them navigate complex bus routes, and more. Ms. Montenegro can often be found in one of the school offices helping a fearful but hopeful family or unaccompanied minor enroll in school.  Sometimes, she can be found doing home visits, trying to help a new teen mom get the benefits she needs to help her baby and complete school herself.  She may be found in a laundromat or in the parking lot of a student’s place of employment trying to talk them into coming back to school to finish the credits they need to graduate. She can even be found on her phone during a family vacation, to make sure a certain student got on a certain bus to make it to their first day of summer school.

In addition to her work with CPS, Ms. Montenegro works closely with community agencies that provide wrap around services to students and families. She attends regular meetings with representatives of Catholic Charities to learn about the refugee families coming to CPS, and she helps Catholic Charities staff understand how CPS can serve the needs of refugee students and their families. She works with Su Casa Hispanic Services Center, The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Refugee Connect, and many more agencies and community groups that support students and families. Ms. Montenegro frequently presents and shares her knowledge to audiences around the region looking to learn how to better support English learners.

"Anyone who is connected to the educational or social welfare of English learners in this region knows about, and has probably worked with, Mary Jo," said Fong. "She has been a true LifeChanger for a countless numbers of students in CPS, and her legacy will be carried on in the lives that she has touched."

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