From Campeche to Crete: Perla Jaimes’ incredible journey to principalship

From Campeche to Crete: Perla Jaimes’ incredible journey to principalship

By Tyler Dahlgren

Crete Middle School principal Perla Jaimes fell in love with school in Denison, Iowa some 23 years ago, but her story begins thousands of miles south of there, in the Mexican port city of Campeche.

It was December of 1999 when Perla, nine-years-old at the time, boarded a bus with her mother and embarked on a journey that would ultimately shape the rest of her life. The ride to the Arizona border was long, a two-dayer, but not all that grueling. What awaited, however, was harrowing.

Perla, upbeat and open sitting in a principal’s office she was always meant for, admits that some of her memories are a little hazy. Over the years, she’s asked her mother hundreds of questions about their voyage to the United States. Some of her memories, on the other hand, are vivid.

She remembers the “coyote” picking her and her mother up from a house around dusk. She remembers walking eight or nine hours through the night and taking cover in various ditches to hide from the helicopters in the air above.

“We’d have to cover our eyes, because they said the people in the helicopters could see their shine,” Jaimes remembers. “So anytime we heard that noise, everyone knew to drop and cover their head until the helicopter stopped hovering over us.”

At one point, when they were close to their destination, a house where her brother was waiting with a car, a patrol car crept slowly down the road. Perla remembers the terror of being caught.

“We hid in another ditch, and thankfully we weren’t seen,” said Jaimes. “But I remember my teeth just chattering so loud, either of cold or fear, probably of both.”

Eventually, they made it to her brother’s house. A week later, they were in Denison, where three more of her siblings were living and working. From there, Perla’s journey, one that’s a million times more inspiring than it was harrowing, really began.

She enrolled in school in January of 2000, the beginning of a new semester and a new life. Her first experience with an ESL teacher was in Iowa, where she learned enough English in four short months to start translating for her mother at the doctor’s office and other various appointments.

“I remember being really eager to learn English growing up,” said Jaimes. “My brother had kids with an American woman, so they’d speak English when they’d come visit us, and I remember having this desire to learn the language. My ESL teacher was just amazing in Denison.”

That teacher helped to spark something inside little Perla Jaimes, who grew up playing school with her friends, always assuming the role of teacher and even handing out math problems and grading their not-so-make-believe assignments.

“The school, just the building itself, was so different from what we were used to in Mexico,” she said. “I loved all the supplies, and I remember showing up and the teacher had everything ready for me. I had a desk with my name on it. I’ve always been so eager to learn, and it was just awesome. A dream, really.”

That eagerness only grew from there. It followed Jaimes when her family moved to Crete later that summer. She received good grades and graduated from Crete High School in 2008 with nothing but pleasant memories and her eye on a career in education. She wasn’t yet a United States citizen, so didn’t qualify for FAFSA, but with the help of the staff at Crete and an unflappable will to advance her education, she received an Education Quest scholarship that allowed her to enroll at Doane University.

“I had a lot of people that pushed me on and believed in me and that I could do and accomplish whatever I wanted to,” Jaimes said. “Teaching was just always what I wanted to do. I was just lucky that the adults in the school kept me informed, and then that I just took advantage of those things.”

Looking back, that’s what Jaimes is most proud of. Her journey’s incredible, but it wasn’t easy. She had to take advantage of every single resource available to get where she is.

“I had to fend for myself a little bit, with my mom not knowing English,” Jaimes said. “She just had no way to advocate for me, so I think I did a good job of advocating for myself, and a large part of that was taking advantage of everything and anything that was out there.”

Jaimes graduated from Doane in 2013 and received an ESL endorsement before starting as an ESL classroom teacher, a job she relished for seven years.

“My goal as a teacher was to always try and replicate that same feeling I felt when I first stepped in a US school,” said Jaimes, who would take all of her students outside to play in the first snowfall each winter. “I always hoped that the first snowfall would come on a school day, because we would stop what we were doing and go outside. I had videos of the kids twirling around in the snow, because I knew it was the first time they were seeing it and I could connect to what that felt like.”

Jaimes considers herself a Crete kid, through and through. She wholeheartedly appreciated the way the community embraced her and her family. She admired the effort the town made to communicate with their non-English speaking community, and she holds that time in her life near and dear to her heart.

But eventually, she felt the need to make a greater impact. And who makes a greater impact in a school than a principal? For Jaimes, it was back to school. She joined the Educational Leadership Program at Doane simply to be a better leader for her ESL team at Crete. Then two administrator jobs opened in the district.

“I couldn’t pass up on at least trying for one of the two opportunities,” Jaimes said. “I convinced myself at that point that I could make an impact on hundreds of kids and hundreds of kids to come as an administrator. And if I could eventually have an impact on the teachers in the building, then I just couldn’t let that opportunity pass.”

Brent Cole was the principal at CMS at that time, and hired Jaimes, who had built a remarkable reputation in the district, as his assistant. Her network, the colleagues and role models behind her, has been instrumental in every step of her career, Jaimes said. She stepped into her new leadership role determined to return the favor.

After 10 years with the district, three of those as assistant principal, Crete Middle School named Perla Jaimes its principal before the start of this school year. She still wakes up invigorated to walk through the front door and champion her students every day. 

She hopes they see themselves in their principal, and that they know the sky’s always the limit.

“I tell them all the time, ‘You are a big deal. You’re learning both the content and a new language at the same time. That’s a difficult task,’” Jaimes, who’s both encouraged and energized by the prioritization of ESL across the state, said. “Any time we have discussions around ESL, I’m so glad to be at the table. I think it’s awesome to have an administrator who has been part of the program, who has exited and then taught in the program, advocate for them.”

Jaimes’ story has a happy ending, though she barely has time to reflect between being a principal and a mom. She likes to read when there’s free time between running her son to basketball and soccer games and dance practices, though that time is admittedly sparse.

Jaimes has packed a lot into the last 23 years, but the nine-year-old girl giddy over seeing her name on a school desk is still in there.

That feeling never grows old.