Profile: Mrs. Mellor and her pupils defied all expectations. She coaxed
farm workers' children into achieving and elite colleges into accepting
By JESSICA GARRISON, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 21, 2002
COALINGA, Calif. -- Before they met Nancy Mellor, their world was the long
flat fields of the Central Valley, their backs hunched in the heat picking
cotton and tomatoes, the hazy slope of mountains in the distance holding
back the outside world.
At school, the children of farm workers were not expected to enroll in
advanced classes or go to college.
That was before the strange, scary math teacher from Pennsylvania showed
She recruited the farm workers' children for her advanced math classes,
coached them and tutored them in sessions after school and at her home.
She issued impossible instructions:
You will stop working in the fields for the summer. You will attend a
six-week program for gifted youths at UC Berkeley, and you will study
harder than you ever thought possible.
To raise the money to go there, you will persuade strangers to buy tickets
betting on where a cow will relieve itself.
You will take the SAT. You will apply to colleges, and write and rewrite
and rewrite again your personal statements until I am satisfied with them.
You will win scholarships.
She badgered the Berkeley summer program into accepting her students and
subsidizing them; she wheedled colleges into looking past the students
sometimes lackluster test scores to the gifts and grit underneath.
Over the next decade, almost all of the children of farm workers who came
under Mrs. Mellor's wing would attend college, nearly 100 of them. Gilbert
Mireles is at Yale. Eduardo Gonzalez went to Brown. Others went to
Harvard, MIT, Stanford. They have become city councilmen and school board
members, bankers, engineers and teachers. Some of them have returned to
transform their hometowns.
It was almost inevitable that Nancy Mellor would make waves when she moved
to Coalinga 17 years ago. A Pennsylvania Quaker, she had come to the
Central Valley to follow her husband to his new job at a community
college. Her background was in the civil rights and feminist movements.
She came with a love of city culture--music and plays--and, as the mother
of two college students, she held strong opinions about the importance of
Then 46, she found herself in an isolated world of tiny, dusty towns, vast
fields and clearly marked boundaries between whites and Latinos. A place
without so much as a movie theater.
Coalinga was a town of mostly working-class white people, where the modest
ranch houses were set out in rows almost as tidy as the surrounding crops
and where many made their living in the nearby oil fields.
Huron, 18 miles away, is a town of farm workers, mostly Mexican
immigrants. Many live crowded into trailers and crumbling apartments.
The two towns have long shared a school system, with Huron students
bumping over country roads on a bus to Coalinga.
In school, the gulf between the two towns and two ethnic groups was stark,
Mrs. Mellor learned.
The new teacher walked into sunny Room 10 at Coalinga Middle School to
convene her advanced math class and blinked in surprise. On a campus that
was then 51% Latino, almost all the faces gazing back at her were white.
She asked administrators for an explanation. Their answer, she said:
Latino students did not speak English well enough to take higher-level
Her students say such attitudes were common. Gilbert Mireles, now a PhD
candidate at Yale, recalls being told that he would not be allowed to
enroll in the ninth-grade honors English class. A straight-A student, he
asked why not. The answer: That class was for the college-bound only.
"The established social order is just so valued to people in that
community," Mireles said. "As a Mexican, you're supposed to be humble."
Mellor refused to accept the situation. She plucked promising Latino
children from her other classes and installed them with the other advanced
The anointed students were terrified. The middle-aged teacher with the
flyaway hair and caged rat named Pepito allowed no lags in attention
during class and piled on the homework. After reading that students test
better if they are slightly uncomfortable physically, she threw open the
classroom windows one winter morning before handing out exams. But the
students were entranced by her talk about how the world would open up for
them if they were willing to work hard.
Many of their mothers and fathers were delighted too. Mireles' father,
Gilbert Sr., had made a habit of calling schools of education to solicit
advice on how to help his children succeed. In Mellor, parents saw an ally
close to home.
The children started coming into Mellor's classroom after school to tackle
their homework together, and stayed to chat about whatever was in their
heads. Room 10 became their hangout. From advanced math, they moved onto
the academic pentathlon team that Mrs. Mellor coached. Suddenly, they were
seen as serious students; they saw themselves the same way.
Before long, many students were spending time at Mrs. Mellor's house and
calling her "Mama Mellor."
And then came her inspiration, one that would transform the lives of
hundreds of her students.
He took a front-row seat in her class: skinny Ricardo Gonzalez, with his
slight Mexican accent, his big eyes and his endless questions about
college and life outside Huron.
Born in Mexico, Ricardo came to the Central Valley with his parents when
he was 6. Even as a child, he worked summers in the fields, picking as
much cantaloupe as his arms could carry.
He was determined not to spend his life picking crops, aware that his
father had moved from Mexico mainly for his children's education.
Ricardo spent hours after school talking to Mrs. Mellor. And with her own
children a continent away in Eastern colleges, he took a place in her
heart. "After hearing so much that you're not going to be anything, I was
looking to find someone who believed in me," Ricardo said.
Mrs. Mellor remembered a summer program at UC Berkeley that accepted
gifted middle school and high school students to take college classes. She
had Ricardo apply. He was rejected.
The next year, Mrs. Mellor buttonholed Berkeley officials at a conference.
You say you want talented minority students; well, I've got one for you.
Who cares if his test scores are low? He has talents those tests can't
In the summer of 1986, armed with a backpack and some emergency numbers,
off went 14-year-old Ricardo to stay with Quaker friends of Mellor's in
the Bay Area.
"It was a complete disaster," Mellor cheerfully recalls. The only Latino
boy in a program full of mostly middle-class white kids from the Bay Area,
Ricardo sank into lonely isolation.
"I was miserable," he said. "It was tough material, and there was no one
to talk to."
But Ricardo went back for five consecutive summers.
During the school years, Mrs. Mellor paid him--sometimes out of her own
pocket--to grade papers for her middle school math classes. The teacher
packed him and a bunch of others into a van one Saturday and drove them to
Stanford University so they could see the campus. The morning after his
senior prom, he went to Mrs. Mellor's house with his friends. She made
He finished high school and returned to UC Berkeley for college, helping
to found the university's first Mexican American residence hall.
After college, Ricardo became a teacher--of math, as it happens. After two
years in the schools, he turned to the business world; now 30, he runs his
own computer business from a home office in Hanford, not far from Coalinga
Such a future seemed unimaginable at the end of that first disastrous
summer in Berkeley. Teacher and pupil talked and talked about what had
gone wrong, what could make it better.
"I told her that it would have been perfect if I had some company, someone
going through the same thing with me," Ricardo said.
'Disaster' Inspires Redoubled Effort
Mellor was inspired all over again. Rather than back off from the Berkeley
program, she would send more students, dozens of them. She would spend her
summers with them, egging them on. Their families would come up on
weekends to ease the homesickness and remind the children what they were
working to attain.
She learned that Berkeley officials wanted to bring more minority students
into the summer program.
Mellor told them: I've got the students. All you have to do is change your
criteria so you're no longer relying on the SAT, and give them financial
Berkeley officials were game. "We were going to change the criteria
anyway," said Nina Gabelko, director of Berkeley's Academic Talent
Development Program. "But she was very insistent about it. She came in
Mellor decided to include students of all ethnic groups from Coalinga and
Huron. She hoped to start breaking down barriers, and she believed that
the white students also needed more demanding classroom work and a bigger
perspective on school and life.
In the summer of 1987, Coalinga-Huron House was born, an organization to
help students get into the Berkeley program and pay for their stay. It was
also the name of their rented digs in Berkeley.
Ricardo's parents sat on the first board.
During the school year, Mrs. Mellor's proteges had to do all their
homework, all the time. They had to fill out the intimidating Berkeley
application. And they had to help bring in the cash for summer room and
board, using Mrs. Mellor's moneymaking ideas.
They ran through public parks plucking wisteria pods that they sold to a
dried flower distributor in Oregon. They sold candy, tamales and cinnamon
rolls. They staged the Cow Pie Drop, a rustic form of bingo still held
Near a park in the center of Coalinga, students draw a grid on a field,
marking it off like a giant bingo board. Nearby, a cow munches on grass.
Other students sell bingo boards to townspeople, who bet on where the
just-gorged bovine will make its mark.
That first summer, Mellor managed to get 17 students into the program,
with their costs covered. As June turned to July and the heat pushed down
on the valley, the students made the four-hour drive up Interstate 5 from
their tan, level towns and into the colorful streets of Berkeley.
They lived in rooms rented from a fraternity house, sharing it with the
frat boys who had remained for the summer and staring in awe at their
posters of scantily clad women. But they lived by very different rules. No
cliques or romantic involvements were permitted. Class and ethnic lines
were temporarily erased. It was as liberating for the white kids as for
"Being young and stuck in our own little stereotypes, it really helped us
break down those barriers," said Richard White, a 1993 Coalinga High
graduate who spent four summers in the program and made lifelong friends
with Latino classmates.
Mellor lived in Berkeley with the students, as unpaid cook, substitute
mother and tutor. They lived on the cheap, with boxes of lettuce and
tomatoes picked by parents. When the prison in Coalinga was selling
poultry for 10 cents a pound from one of its inmate industries, the
students ate chicken for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Mellor forced them to study. But she, too, underwent a change. So fierce
in the Coalinga classroom, she softened and relaxed in the cool Bay Area
fog. She listened as their new perceptions unfolded, listened to their
most secret dreams, and acted as a tour guide into a bigger, richer world
They went to museums and cafes and bookstores. Mellor persuaded a local
theater company to donate tickets.
When one teen made a disparaging remark about a homeless person, Mellor
had the whole group serve food at a local soup kitchen. She brought
dignitaries to the grubby fraternity house for visits. Former UC Berkeley
Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien dropped by one day, planning to stay for half an
hour and hanging out for 3 1/2.
The number of students grew each summer, topping out at 50. In all, 200
have gone through the Berkeley program, nearly half of them children of
farm workers. It showed them that if they were willing to put in six or
more hours of study a day, they could hold their own against the brightest
students in California, urbane teenagers raised with every possible
It bolstered their transcripts with college credits from one of the
nation's best public universities.
But more than anything, the students say, those summers awoke a hunger for
all the things their muted agrarian world at home lacked.
"When you go back to Coalinga, you feel like you're worth something," said
Gilbert Mireles, who became the first in his family to go to college--at
Now 26, he has almost completed his doctorate in sociology. His area of
research is migrant farm workers.
His younger brother and sister also went through Mellor's program and then
to Swarthmore on scholarships. Isaac works at an investment bank in
Philadelphia. Laurie is a senior.
An older sister who did not go through Mellor's program dropped out of
high school in the 11th grade.
Of course, it took more than the summer Berkeley program for
Coalinga-Huron students to gain admission to top colleges. Sometimes, it
took nothing less than Mellor's indomitable will.
She pushed the students to take college entrance tests. She coaxed them to
write draft after draft of their personal statements. She slaved over her
own letters of recommendation. And then, when the carefully typed forms
had been checked and rechecked and mailed in crisp envelopes, she got on
the phone to the colleges or visited admissions offices during what was
left of her summer vacations. In 1994, she became the guidance counselor
at Coalinga High.
Debra Chermonte, dean of admissions and financial aid at Oberlin College
in Ohio, said Mellor was something of a legend in her office.
Eight of Mellor's students attended Oberlin. Many of them had much lower
SAT scores than the average Oberlin student, Chermonte said, and probably
would not have been admitted without Mellor's passionate recommendations
"It was very inspiring to the admissions committee," Chermonte said.
The lessons went on even after the acceptance letters came in. Gilbert
remembers Mellor sitting him and a friend down to dinner at her house,
teaching them to use a knife and fork properly, what to do with multiple
spoons and how to pass plates.
For children who consumed almost every meal using tortillas as a utensil,
it was a valuable starter lesson in facing the intimidating world of
Mellor says she has more in common with her students than they know. She
was the child of Swedish immigrants and grew up in rural Michigan before
going off in 1955 to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Surrounded by
sophisticated young women from well-off families, she felt sorely out of
After graduation in 1959, she married and taught for one year, then quit
to rear two children. She said she never thought she would do anything
else with her life.
"I was Mrs. Him," she said. "I didn't have anything to say for a long time
in my life. I think I was a slow developer."
Her husband, a history teacher and college administrator, appears lovingly
perplexed by the transformation in his wife.
"When we first got married, she wasn't like this," said Reed T. Mellor.
"She was more a typical woman of the 1950s."
But about the time her youngest daughter, Kate, now 35, went off to first
grade, Mellor began to think about going back to work.
The women's movement and the civil rights movement transfixed her, made
her yearn to do something with her life. Besides, she said, "I'm bossy.
I'd run my kids' lives if I was at home. I had to find some other outlet
for my energy."
She began teaching again, taking night classes to get her credential.
"I was hooked," she said. "And of course what hooked me were the underdog
In 1984, Reed Mellor came home and said he had a job offer in California
as an administrator at West Hills College.
They arrived in Coalinga that summer, a rough time for the area. A 6.7
earthquake had nearly leveled the downtown the year before.
Almost immediately, the Mellors noticed the fault lines separating whites
and Latinos, and the low expectations for all students.
"I was just simply doing what needed to be done," she said. "My conscience
said do it, so I did it. . . . Everyone else would have done it too if
they had thought about it a little longer."
Many in town, even some who were wary of the program and Mellor's methods,
say they grew to admire her work. "A lot of people said, 'You can't do
that with those kids.' And she said, 'I'll prove it to you,' " said Roger
Campbell, principal of Coalinga High School for the last decade. "It
opened my eyes."
Mellor cared little about warnings from some teachers and parents that she
was asking too much of her students, or that Berkeley was not the proper
place for children to spend their summers.
She also turned a deaf ear to her family's complaints about her long
"At times, we were put out," her husband said. "Particularly in the
summer. She was just gone, solid, completely away from me for six-plus
weeks. And even though I'd come up and visit her, I couldn't even spend
time with her, because she was so busy."
The only thing Nancy Mellor took to heart was the successes or failures of
So it was a terrible blow when, in the early 1990s, her relationship with
Ricardo Gonzalez--her first protege, the inspiration for her entire
program--was torn apart in hurt and bitterness. Both say they don't recall
the specifics of the quarrel that separated them. But Ricardo, now 30,
said he felt that Mellor was trying to control his life, even his social
life. The rift has not healed.
"She tried to be my mom and get too much into my life," he said.
Mellor was despondent. She began to reevaluate her relationships with all
her students. Was she trying to be a parent instead of a teacher? Should
she stop playing such a huge role in their lives?
No, she could not do that.
She would simply have to accept that children grow up and leave their
"All teachers with passion have a problem knowing how much to love," she
said. "Sometimes, you love too much . . . and there is a time when they
don't need the love any more."
She sighed a few times and took a deep breath. "It took me awhile to
realize that, that you just let them go."
In the mid-1990s, Mellor began to yearn for a higher post. If she had been
able to accomplish this much as a counselor and teacher, just think what
she could do as a principal. But she says she was turned down for
promotions in Coalinga and Huron. In 1997, she left the district to become
assistant principal of a high school in nearby Avenal, where 94% of the
2,400 students are Latino.
She has shot up the ranks there, from assistant principal to principal to
assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum. She also earned a
doctorate in education from the University of San Francisco.
Some of her earliest students have returned to Coalinga to continue in her
Josh Walker, a white student who went to Stanford University, is back in
the classroom at Coalinga Middle School. His father, an art teacher at the
high school, said he always figured his son would get a Cal State
education, until Mellor convinced him to think bigger.
After graduating from UC Santa Barbara, Richard White also returned to
Coalinga to teach. Now 26, he works for the College Board in the Bay Area.
His area of interest: improving minority access to higher education.
Eduardo Gonzalez, Ricardo's younger brother, took a job working with an
education nonprofit in the Central Valley.
In 2000, he won a seat on the Coalinga-Huron school board. His mission:
Get the schools to do a better job of helping farm workers' children. His
brother Javier, who went to Yale, teaches elementary school in the valley
and serves on the Huron City Council.
But the last few years have been rocky for Mellor's amazing college
entrance machine. Coalinga High School students no longer have her to
bully and cajole them through the application process. Acceptances to
elite colleges have fallen.
In 1998, the first summer after Mellor left the Coalinga-Huron school
district, her summer program didn't happen. The next year, she brought it
back to life and added students from Avenal--but no longer lived in
Berkeley as director.
The replacements she hired haven't quite worked out--she's had a new one
"She's nuts," said Gabelko, the administrator at Berkeley. "Why can't we
find another nut?"
But the program seemed to work its magic even without her there.
Mellor, now 64, takes inspiration from a 14-year-old boy from Avenal who
enrolled in a basic writing course at Berkeley. Night after night, he
reworked drafts of simple five-paragraph essays. Week after week, his
instructor handed back the papers with big red Ds and Fs. Even when it
became clear he would not pass the class, he kept his temper in check,
kept checking his spelling and hammering out his topic sentences. On the
night his last essay was due, he stayed up past midnight going over his
He ended up the victorious author of one glorious paper with an A at the
For students like these, Mellor said, she recently decided to return to
Berkeley part-time this summer.
"They all go somewhere," Mellor said of her students. The day is ending
and children trickle off campus at an Avenal middle school, their clothes
and backpacks bursts of color against the brown landscape and washed-out
sky. Just beyond the parking lot, the fields stretch to the hills. "And
there are so many more like them."