SOUTH GATE, Calif. – Rigoberto Ruelas Jr. was considered much more than a fifth-grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary School — he was a mentor to youth tempted to join gangs and a tireless booster that kids could make it to college.
But after a newspaper published a school district report that ranked Ruelas as a "less effective teacher" based on his students' test scores, colleagues saw him grow despondent. His body was found Sunday at the foot of a remote forest bridge. Investigators believe he jumped to his death, although the inquiry is continuing, said Steve Whitmore, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
Parents, colleagues and former students gathered on the school lawn Monday around a memorial shrine of flowers and candles, shocked that the 39-year-old teacher had taken his own life and angered that he would be judged solely by test scores.
"It's not his fault the students were low," said Ismael Delgado, a 20-year-old former pupil.
Miramonte is a large school in an impoverished, gang-plagued neighborhood about six miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. About 60 percent of the students are Spanish-speaking English-language learners.
The school was a big part of Ruelas' life. He lived just blocks away and started working there at age 22 as a teacher's aide. Four years later, he became a teacher. Over his 14-year teaching career, he had nearly perfect attendance, the district said.
"We need more teachers like him," the district said in a statement.
The motive for Ruelas taking his own life is far from clear. But officials with the United Teachers Los Angeles union said he had been upset since August, when the Los Angeles Times published his district ranking as a "less effective" teacher based on his students' standardized English and math test scores.
Ruelas scored "average" in getting his students up to acceptable levels in English, but "less effective" in math, and "less effective" overall. The school itself ranked as "least effective" in raising test scores, and only five of Miramonte's 35 teachers were ranked as average.
The Times' publication of individual rankings for elementary school teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District sparked widespread outrage among teachers. The district's rankings ranged from least and less effective to average, more effective and most effective.
The UTLA union protested in front of the newspaper's downtown headquarters and called for a boycott of the Times, which published the rankings as part of a push for a better method to evaluate teacher effectiveness.
Although other factors may have been at play in Ruelas' death, Mathew Taylor, chair of UTLA South Area, said Monday he believed the ranking was a contributing factor based on conversations with teachers at the school.
"He was a very well-respected teacher," Taylor said. "He took the pressure being applied to him to heart."
In a brief statement Sunday, the Times extended its condolences to the family and noted the death is under investigation.
Ruelas was last seen Sept. 19 when he dropped off a birthday gift for his sister. He notified the school to get a substitute for his classes Monday and Tuesday, but he did not return to work Wednesday and his family reported him missing.
By all accounts, he was a dedicated teacher who cared deeply about the children at Miramonte. Parents and students said he often stayed after school to tutor struggling kids and offer counseling so they stayed on the straight and narrow.
"He took the worse students and tried to change their lives," said Delgado, the former student. "I had friends who wanted to be gangsters, but he talked them out of it. He treated you like family."
Parents said they were grateful.
"He gave my son good advice. He told him to study and to listen to his parents," said Guadelupe Pina, whose son was in Ruelas' class last year.
Principal Martin Sandoval said many of Ruelas' former students told him they went to college because of his encouragement that they could do it.
"He came out of this community so he was more here than a teacher," Sandoval said. "There's no question he affected many lives."