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For more than a decade, Jose Sevilla spent his nights cleaning bathrooms, vacuuming classrooms and doing small maintenance jobs as night custodian at Santa Rosa's Luther Burbank Elementary School.

He worked nights cleaning and spent his days studying and caring for his growing family, but he always had a vision.

It would take years of adjusting his plans and getting too little sleep — with his job as janitor one of life's only constants — but in the fall of 2009, Sevilla showed up at Luther Burbank not for his 3 p.m. janitorial shift, but for the 8a.m. school bell.

Sevilla had become a student teacher.

Today, he is lead teacher at the Spanish-language dual-immersion Cesar Chavez Language Academy in Santa Rosa, with a classroom full of kindergarten students who call him "maestro" — a Spanish word for teacher

"It hasn't been easy for him, but he stuck to it," said Kris Cosca, now director of human resources at the Napa Valley Unified School District and one of Sevilla's principals during his years at Burbank.

Sevilla acknowledges the challenges he's faced. "Going to school, working full time and also taking care of a family — that was definitely another gear that I didn't know I had."

"There were times I considered, 'Maybe this is not for me because of the amount of work, maybe it's a good dream but maybe it's not meant for me.'

"But my subconscious would say 'You are here, you are doing well, don't quit.'"

Sevilla embodies life lessons for kids, Cosca said. "Resilience, perseverance, that's what we want. I'm just so proud of him.

"I just love his story," he said.

Sevilla's story is not a linear one. There have been stops and starts and disappointments, but friends and colleagues say his focus on the goal of being a teacher — while also providing for his growing family — has been laser-like.

Sevilla, 41, at times would take on a greater portion of child care duties for his daughters — who now are 19, 15, 9 and 5 — so his wife, Monica, could proceed with her education and eventually land a job as a kindergarten teacher at Mattie Washburn Elementary School in Windsor.

"When you work hard for something, when you don't have a handout, you appreciate things more," Monica Sevilla said. "He has earned everything he has and he appreciates it better than having something given to him. He really values education — it isn't something you just pay for; you have to earn your grade."

Sevilla, who moved to Sonoma County from Mexico City with his family when he was 14, struggled to master English while in high school. He graduated from Healdsburg High in 1990, but felt he was behind where he needed to be academically.

"I did have my diploma, but all of those (Advanced Placement) classes you need to take? I didn't take those because I was taking the basics because of my limited understanding of English," he said.

Sevilla enrolled at Santa Rosa Junior College and took a job at Round Table Pizza, starting a pattern of juggling one, two or three jobs with college course work and caring for an expanding family.

On some days, Monica would come home at 2:10 p.m. and Jose would leave for his 3 p.m. shift. And he never complained, always stayed the course.

"He has done what his mom and dad brought him here to do," Monica Sevilla said. "It kind of sets the standard not just for little kids, but for everyone, at any age."

Sevilla said his parents always told them they left Mexico City for a reason: "We are moving to America so you can have better opportunities."

He credits his mother, Antonia Sevilla, 66, for giving him the gift of patience. He's needed it to pursue his dream.

Sevilla's academic journey was not a straight shot, nor was it particularly swift. And he didn't always think of being a teacher.

After he left SRJC, he spent time pursuing an engineering degree at San Francisco State University but took a hiatus when his third daughter was born and his wife began her teaching job.

Still on the engineering track, Sevilla spent a summer tutoring high school students who were struggling with math and science. It was then that something clicked.

"When I was helping students to learn math, it kind of brought me back to high school when I didn't have someone to help me," he said.

A seed was planted. He started volunteering in his wife's class and his impact was remarkable, she said.

"When he came in and was talking in Spanish, even the boys were saying 'I want to be a maestro when I get older,'" she said.

It turns out that Sevilla wanted to be a maestro, too.

In May 2009 he earned his bachelor's degree from Sonoma State, becoming the first in his family to earn a college degree. That August he enrolled at Dominican University in Marin County for his teaching credential. Throughout, he continued to clean the Burbank campus at night, surrounded by kids and books and learning, but viewing it from a different vantage point.

In fall 2009 he took a leave of absence from his custodial duties and began showing up at Luther Burbank Elementary in the morning — as a student teacher.

"It was difficult for some kids," he said of the role change. "They were kind of shocked I was in front of the class. They were calling me by my first name."

Children would approach him and say "You are an adult. Adults don't go to school," he said.

A follow-up conversation about perseverance, patience and lifelong learning inevitably followed.

"Having worked so hard, he places a high value on education, clearly. You can see that," said Leslie Maricle- Barkley, Sevilla's former colleague at Grace Hudson Elementary School in Ukiah, where Sevilla had his first full-time teaching job.

"He persisted to get to where he is and that is an important element that not everybody has in teaching," she said.

And his evolution from night janitor and adult student resonates with students, parents and colleagues, she said. "He has seen schools from different angles and is a parent himself. To me, I think that can really give him a different viewpoint of what is happening at a school and an appreciation of what is going on behind the scenes," Maricle- Barkley said.

Cook Middle School Principal Patty Turner served as principal at Burbank when Sevilla spent his nights cleaning up the messes that only elementary school students can make.

Before his shift began, Sevilla could be seen on campus quizzing teachers about lesson plans, time management or classroom structure before starting his daily duties in the quiet of an empty campus.

"He would question: 'Why are you doing this? What is the project that you are doing? Why is this on the board?'" Turner said.

"He was very observant."

Sevilla is described as a student of teaching, but colleagues also call him a perfect fit for the classroom.

"He was actually in the school environment. He appreciated the kids, the atmosphere, the students, the caring, the nurturing," Turner said of Sevilla's time as a custodian.

His transition to the front of the class was smooth, she said. "He was a natural."

He may be a natural, but Sevilla also is an anomaly.

In 2011-12, the most recent year for which figures are available, 23 percent of Sonoma County teachers were male. Latino men accounted for just 1 percent of all teachers.

Statewide, Latino men made up 5 percent of the teaching ranks.

"It's ever so needed. It's critical," Turner said of having male teachers, especially in elementary school.

In Santa Rosa City Schools, where Sevilla now works, just 13 percent of elementary school teachers in 2011-12 were men and 1 percent were Latino men.

The student population is far different.

In 2011-12, 60 percent of the district's elementary students were Latino. Districtwide, 46 percent of students in Sonoma County's largest district were Latino.

"Whether it's Santa Rosa or Napa, our teachers don't look like our kids and they haven't had the same experiences as our kids," Napa Unified's Cosca said. "I think it's important because we need to have models that look like them so that they can say, 'Hey, he did it. I can do it, too.'"

"We make decisions about what kids need and sometimes if we haven't walked in their shoes, sometimes it's hard to know exactly what they need," he said.

In his years in and around schools, Sevilla saw there was a dearth of Latino men in the halls and in front of classes.

"I didn't see a lot of Hispanic male role models in the primary grades," he said. "There was always that male role model that was missing. I thought, 'Hey, these kids need to have a model.'"

Sevilla, who plays soft music in English and Spanish while his students work, said he harkens back to his own time as a young student to find strategies for dealing with the kinetic energy of elementary school students.

"I'm very calm in my class," he said. "But when I was small, their age, I had a lot of answers. I think I tested my teachers' patience."

After two years of taking substitute gigs while waiting for the right job offer, Sevilla signed on with the dual-language Spanish-immersion program in Ukiah for the 2012-13 school year.

It was only the hour commute that made him look elsewhere for the current year, he said. He got an offer to be in the first class of teachers at Cesar Chavez, but he also had an offer to return to Burbank, where he had spent so many years as custodian.

He lost sleep over the decision, Monica Sevilla said.

He said chose Cesar Chavez because he wanted to grow a program from scratch and because he believes teaching children multiple languages can help communities come together.

"When you learn a language, people feel you know their culture," he said.

Sevilla doesn't have to reach back too far in his own history to remember feelings of being disconnected at school because of language.

"Some of our parents, they don't know how they can be of service to our schools," he said. "Here they can do that, they feel empowered."

Cesar Chavez Language Academy Principal Anna Guzman named Sevilla the school's lead teacher in August when it opened its doors to 66 kindergartners for the first time.

It is a role that has elevated importance not only because the school is in its first year, but also because Guzman's duties as principal and as district director of charter schools take her away from campus more than is typical.

"(He's) the holy grail — a man who teaches kindergarten," Guzman said. "He's a true find for Santa Rosa City Schools as a teacher."

"He's an incredible role model for all kids," she said. "He walks the walk."

Sevilla is much more understated about his accomplishments. His degree, his career, "is to honor my parents," he said. "You made sacrifices, so now I'll make sacrifices for you, to get this done."

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.

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