Claudia Medina is a Forest Park mother, Spanish teacher, Montessori instructor and singer, and she’s running for school board in Proviso Township High School District 209.
But few know Medina has politics in her blood, going back 150 years. Her great-great-grandfather Miguel Samper Agudelo [1825-1899] was one of the founders of the Republic of Columbia, and an early abolitionist: “He helped end slavery in Colombia before it was abolished in the United States,” Medina said.
She comes from a long line of lawyers, politicians, doctors, writers and industrialists in that South American country, including her uncle, Ernesto Samper, who served as president from 1994-1998.
Patriarch Samper Agudelo helped write the first Colombian constitution in the 1850s and was the leader of the family that brought the first electrical power plant to Bogota and built hospitals and schools.
“The family made a lot of money and did a lot of great things,” she said. They called Miguel ‘The Great Citizen.'” Her aunt, Lucy Nieto de Samper, is a journalist who co-hosted a television show with author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
“We were taught to be quiet about it, to be modest,” she said. “But after I grew up I was so proud of my family in Colombia,” she said.
Medina was born in Milwaukee and spent her early childhood in Boston where racial tensions were high after the city introduced busing between poor and rich areas of town.
“A boy called me ‘Mexican’ and punched my face,” she said. “I told my mother, I don’t want to speak Spanish ever again.”
After her mother was stricken with cancer and her parents divorced, the family returned to Columbia to the finca of their grandparents, Medina said. That’s when she learned about the family history and became proud of her Spanish-language heritage. Medina’s grandmother and mother volunteered for women’s causes, including the right for women to vote, which didn’t pass in Colombia until the 1950s.
“My mother and grandmother didn’t have a chance to go to college,” Medina said. “And my grandfather didn’t think I should go either. He thought it was a waste of money for a girl,” she added.
Her uncle, Colombian President Ernesto Samper, butted heads with Colombian drug lord Pablo Esteban. “That’s when the bodyguards had to come for our family. There were kidnappings, threats,” she said.
After her mother’s death left them penniless, Medina and two younger siblings moved to Miami.
“I got off the airplane with $200 and went out to look for a job.” She eventually earned her degree in music and Montessori Education. She got to Chicago in 1999 where she met her husband, Rosalio, who had trained as an army surgeon in his native Nicaragua. The two met singing at a Chicago protest against the School of the Americas, a combat training school for Latin American soldiers, located in Fort Benning, Georgia.
Medina said her background struggling to attain her own college degree and learning the precepts of Montessori made her appreciate the importance of education. She believes the current D209 school board doesn’t expect much from students and that leads to underperforming schools.
“Montessori education is never about lowering the bar. It’s about raising the bar and expecting more from students who start with less,” she said. “When you have a troubled student, raise the bar and celebrate with them every step of the way,” she said. Medina also said the district wrote off kids who were performing well and didn’t help them succeed.
“Parts of this district are dysfunctional, but 60 percent of the students are from functioning demographics,” she said.
To bring the focus of the district back to the students, Medina said the board and administration need to listen to teachers, because they are working with the kids.
Medina said the board lacks Hispanic representation, although more than 40 percent of the students are of Latino heritage. The needs of immigrants must be met, she said, and their dreams of education for their children should be nourished.
“I know because I was an immigrant, starting with nothing. I know how much education means to parents.”
Medina and 209 Together slate-mates Nathan “Ned” Wagner and Theresa Kelly appeared on the RadioVive program in Melrose Park with host Luis Stalin on Jan. 16. She was also interviewed on WBEZ.
The decision to run was based on the emotional anguish Forest Park parents feel seeing families move out of town when the kids hit high school age, she said. Medina said she is amazed at how many fellow Forest Park parents have showed support for her. She is so grateful for the number of volunteers in the campaign.
“We are gathered around an idea on which we can all agree — the future of our children — and that brings people together and gives us the motivation to keep going,” she said.