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Hundreds celebrate life of L.A. teacher who killed himself

Relatives, colleagues and students remember Rigoberto Ruelas, a fifth-grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary School, as a dedicated educator who made a difference in many lives.

September 30, 2010|By Alexandra Zavis and Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times

Hundreds of people filled a church near South Los Angeles and spilled out into the streets for an emotional Mass on Wednesday celebrating the life of a popular fifth-grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary School who committed suicide in the Angeles National Forest.


FOR THE RECORD:
L.A. teacher's memorial Mass: In the Sept. 30 LATExtra section, a photo caption and article on the memorial Mass for Los Angeles Unified School District teacher Rigoberto Ruelas gave the name of his mother as Rita. Her name is Maria del Refugio. —

Tearful relatives, colleagues and students remembered Rigoberto Ruelas as a dedicated educator, who steered children away from gangs, helped them overcome academic difficulties and inspired them to aim for college.

"He wasn't just a teacher to me, he was a second father," said 13-year-old Karla Gonzalez, who broke down and sobbed when she took her turn at the microphone. She said Ruelas helped her learn English when she arrived from Mexico and bought her books to read. "I will always be grateful to him," she said.

Many of those at Presentation Catholic Church in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood expressed anger at The Times for posting on the Internet the rating he received in a database. The Los Angeles teachers' union has said that it learned from Ruelas' family that he was depressed about his score when he disappeared last week. His body was found Sunday in a ravine in the Big Tujunga Canyon area, about 100 feet below a bridge.

Using a system known as "value-added" methodology, the newspaper analyzed seven years of student test scores in English and math to determine how much students' performance improved under about 6,000 third- through fifth-grade teachers. Based on The Times' findings, Ruelas was rated "average" in his ability to raise students' English scores and "less effective" in his ability to raise math scores. Overall, he was rated slightly "less effective" than his peers.

Ruelas' brother, Alejandro, told "AirTalk" on KPCC 89.3 FM on Wednesday that it was unfair of The Times to post the information. "He's not a mayor," he said. "He's not the president. He's not a public worker."

But when asked by radio host Larry Mantle what his brother had said about the scores, Ruelas indicated that was not the kind of subject Rigoberto discussed. "I don't know if he felt he didn't want to burden anybody," said Alejandro Ruelas, who has declined to speak to The Times.

He said he was unaware of any personal problems in his brother's life. Asked whether he believed that Ruelas took his life out of frustration with the scores, he said the family was still gathering information from his colleagues.

"The little feedback that we are getting right now is that that school wasn't the healthiest place to be working," Ruelas said. "The people who are supposed to be helping them as far as administrators, principals are using this kind of scores also to bully and harass."

Miramonte Principal Martin Sandoval said Monday that he gave little credence to the method used by The Times and had not discussed ratings with his staff.

"Numbers come and go," Robert Lopez, a former Miramonte principal, said at Wednesday's memorial Mass. "I have a completely different impression of what value-added means. It means coming in early and opening up the door, allowing students to come in for help when they need it."

Ruelas' mother, Rita, spoke for the family when she offered impassioned thanks to all those who attended the service. "He was your son, he was your brother," she said. "He was there with you for all of those years."

Many then walked to the nearby school for a candlelight vigil in front of an improvised memorial wall decorated with handwritten messages, drawings, flowers and balloons.

A funeral Mass will be held Tuesday at St. Emydius Catholic Church in Lynwood.

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

carla.rivera@latimes.com

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