History

Interview by Carol Pine

"Kids will always rise to your expectations, if you teach with your heart first.” Kellina Porthan, teacher and founder of Walter’s Wish Foundation.

Kellina Porthan is a bilingual school teacher, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, who started Walter’s Wish Foundation in 2006 to help Hispanic students realize their dreams of a college education and a professional career.

Joined with an enthusiastic cadre of teachers and professionals, all volunteers, Porthan’s goal is to help reverse a disturbing trend for young Hispanic youth.

Closing the "Achievement Gap”

Walter

"I was horrified when I read an article in my local newspaper about the predicted future success of Latino students,” Porthan says.

"Graduation rates for Hispanic students were much lower than those of their white classmates. Less than 50 percent of St. Paul’s Hispanic students went on to college in 2008. To me, that was absolutely unacceptable and I decided I would do my best to help change that.”

"I Think I Can, I Think I Can”

A teacher in urban schools since 1996, Porthan began working with third grade Hispanic students in 2002. "I always started the school year off with the theme from ‘The Little Engine That Could,’” she says. "Right after I kicked off my first school year at Homecroft School in St. Paul, I had all my students chanting ‘I think I can, I think I can.’”

Most of Porthan’s students come from immigrant families where little English is spoken. Their parents left their homelands for America to give their children and themselves a better life. "Their parents are very supportive of their childrens’ education,” Porthan says, "because many of them never had the opportunity to finish a higher education when they were young”

Enter Walter, an Unlikely "Mentor”

What does a Chihuahua have to do with education? As it turns out - plenty. Walter, Porthan’s adopted Chihuahua, quickly became a class favorite when she brought him to school one day.

But he soon became more than a visitor.

Walter

"Walter was a retired blue ribbon best-in-show dog,” says Porthan. "Because most of my students live in apartments and they don’t have pets of their own, I thought they would enjoy having a ‘class pet’ to help them learn how to care for pets and respect animals. They read with Walter when he came to school on Fridays but they loved hearing about Walter’s best-in-show accomplishments most of all.”

Being Your Best

With Walter as a symbol for being the best, Porthan started talking with her students about how each of them could aspire to be their best. If they imagined the best, she asked her students, what would it look like? Getting A’s. Being happy and having fun. A good job. A nice, safe house. Going to college. Making their parents proud.

The more they talked, the more Porthan’s students imagined achieving their personal best – just as Walter had.

A Sobering Reality Check

But Kelli Porthan had to face the facts. "Here I was, encouraging my students to be their best, only to read a recent statistic that some of them might not even graduate from high school, let alone go on to college,” Porthan says. "I could NOT let this happen to my kids! I wanted to see all of them graduate and succeed.”

That’s when Walter’s Wish was born. The program, still in its infancy, follows and mentors most of Kelli’s (and Walter’s) students – now 50 of them.
With the help of fellow teachers and professionals who volunteer, Walter’s Wish offers weekend enrichment classes for the students, matches each student with an adult mentor, and helps find the funding they need to finance their higher education.

Walter’s Cadre of Volunteers

Many volunteers have given their time and energy to make Walter’s Wish teaching and mentoring programs possible. They include Jesse Jahnke a teacher from "Get ready, an early college awareness program,” The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers or S.H.P.E, and a handful of talented St. Paul Public school educators.

As the program grows, more Hispanic students in St. Paul will have a chance to realize their educational and career dreams. Kelli Porthan hopes that other teachers around the United States will continue to mentor their students. "We are teachers because we want to bring out the best in our students,” she says. "That means helping them realize their dreams, even after they leave our classrooms.”

"I gathered all the students I taught over the last four years and announced the launch of Walter’s Wish. I explained what it was and promised I’d be there for them throughout their educational journey. Then all 50 of us gathered on the school’s front steps with Walter and posed for pictures to celebrate.” Kellina Porthan

What One Woman and a Chihuahua Can Do

"There have been times on this journey that I’ve been frozen in my tracks wondering, ‘Kelli, what have you signed up for? How in the world are you and a class pet going to mentor 50 kids through school and send them off to college? Are you nuts?”

But Kelli Porthan perseveres because she feels called to do this work. "I know these kids will make it if I stick with them,” she says. "And many times I have quoted the little engine for my own benefit, ‘I think I can, I think I can.’”

Walter’s Wish Foundation helps Hispanic students graduate from high school and pursue college through enriched educational programs, mentoring and special funding.