Alejandro Diasgranados teaches second and third graders at Northeast DC’s Aiton Elementary. Known as “Mr. Dias” to his students, the 26-year-old teacher is a young rising star in the DC public school system. He recently won a $10,000 grant to create a laundry center for the school, where over 90 percent of students come from low-income households and many without access to washers and dryers.
Many of the students have been forced to face adversity early in their young lives. The school is less than a mile from the Northeast DC neighborhood where, earlier this year, four men jumped out of a car and fired more than 70 bullets into a crowd, killing 10-year-old Makiyah Wilson. A recent feature on Diasgranados in Washingtonian magazine described the “complicated” lives of these eight-year-olds –kids who have been recently placed in foster care or had the electricity cut off in their homes still being able to improve academically in Diasgranados’ classroom.
Diasgranados works to create a high-achieving environment for these students, going above and beyond to expose them to new ideas and opportunities so that his students can dream big. A first-generation college graduate himself, Diasgranados raised money to take his students to Baltimore so they could see him walk the stage and receive his diploma when he graduated with a masters in Education from Johns Hopkins University in May.
Lately, one of the tools he’s been using to inspire his kids is hockey and Stanley Cup Champion Devante Smith-Pelly.
Diasgranados is a long-time Caps fan. He watched games on TV when he was younger, but in high school, he and a friend were able to attend a game in person. During warmups, then-Capital Joel Ward noticed the pair and gave them each a puck.
“When I reflect back on how I became a Caps fan, it was the moment when Joel Ward recognized us in the crowd and made us feel welcomed,” Diasgranados said.
Diasgranados introduced the game of hockey to his students in the 2017-18 season in little ways around the classroom. His class uses a goal horn to celebrate when a student passes their reading level. He shows his class video highlights the morning after a game.
One Caps player in particular fascinated Diasgranados’ students.
“They grew increasingly interested in DSP, especially since we have a Devante in our school. They liked how fast he skated, how good he fought, and his calm personality. I started to show his highlights the morning after games, as well as the occasional scuffle. Following those clips I would show him entering the penalty box, and emphasized how he would use those two minutes to effectively calm down,” Diasgranados said. “Taking time to cool down after a heated moment is something we practice often.”
Smith-Pelly’s incredible clutch goals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs made him even more of a hero to the kids in Diasgranados’ class.
“Smith-Pelly’s amazing playoff run had so many students excited to come to school every day (in June when it’s rare) and watch highlights from the game,” Diasgranados said. “In a community where hockey is a foreign concept, Smith-Pelly’s presence on the ice inspired students to want to write letters to him.”
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We wrote on our blog about the inspiring story of how a DC schoolteacher introduced Caps hockey to his classroom. Here’s the kids celebrating the Caps Stanley Cup win in June. Scroll ➡️ to see the letters the kids wrote @smithpelly asking him to visit. (📷: @thatdcteacher)
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The class’s end-of-year writing assignment was to write letters to Smith-Pelly. Some students took the opportunity to ask questions, some wanted to thank Smith-Pelly for inspiring them.
“When I grow up I want to be just like you, even though I’m a girl. I want to play hockey,” wrote one second-grader.
Photos: Alejandro Diasgranados
Diasgranados sent the students’ letters to Smith-Pelly, but he warned his students that Smith-Pelly probably would not reply. A few months later when school was back in session, two boys from Diasgranados’ old class returned, curious if Smith-Pelly had replied to their letters.
He had not. But Diasgranados saw the boys were eager to try again and write another letter. “I saw how much he inspired my boys to write,” he said.
So he tried the creative writing assignment again with his new class. Some of the letters asked Smith-Pelly to visit the school, but Diasgranados again tempered expectations. At most, he thought, maybe Smith-Pelly would write back.
But then the week before Christmas, Diasgranados was stunned beyond his expectations.
“Our principal received a call that a representative from the Capitals wanted to visit the school and donate some coats,” Diasgranados said. “That representative ended up being DSP himself. I had no idea until my students and I walked into our cafeteria and saw him standing there. We were all speechless, but that soon turned into chants of DSP!”
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) December 20, 2018
The Capitals and Smith-Pelly had partnered with Children’s Charities Foundation’s Coats for Kids to donate 250 new winter coats. Together, they distributed enough coats for every student at Aiton Elementary.
Smith-Pelly personally helped students try on their new coats to find ones that fit them. He signed posters, took photos, answered questions, and gave encouragement to the young students that said they want to play hockey now, just like Smith-Pelly.
“It’s a good feeling,” Smith-Pelly said in an interview with ABC7 in October. “There’s a lot of little kids out there—little kids of color—if twenty years from now just one of them gets a scholarship for hockey or ends up playing in the league, they’ll look back at that day, where they saw someone who looked like them–at the parade, on the team—that could change their life, change how they want to live their life.”
The impact of Smith-Pelly’s visit on his students was not lost on Diasgranados.
“For them to now see a Black hockey player, on the Caps, who’s 26-years old, named Devante like so many of them, it just brings it to life for them,” Diasgranados told ABC7. “It lets them know their writing means something.”
Plus, who knows, maybe Smith-Pelly made some new Caps fans out of those students that day. Just as Diasgranados became a die-hard Caps fan years ago when Joel Ward spotted him and his friend, maybe a new generation of Caps fans were born when Smith-Pelly sat down with the young kids of Aiton Elementary.
“Devante Smith-Pelly is not only an inspiration, he’s a representation of what my students can achieve. We are so grateful for him and the Capitals organization,” Diasgranados said. “I have never been more proud to be a Caps fan than I am today.”
Headline photo: Alejandro Diasgranados
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