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How this math teacher helps kids get perfect scores

Mike Szymanski | February 12, 2016

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Teacher Anthony Yom with student Cedrick Argueta at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

It was cause for celebration when 17-year-old Cedrick Argueta was one in 12 students in the entire world to ace one of the toughest college-level calculus tests.

But it wasn’t just one test. Cedrick also earned perfect scores on the English and math sections of the American College Testing entrance exam.

And it wasn’t just one student.

When the international spotlight shone on Cedrick, and his family, and his Lincoln Heights School in East Los Angeles, Cedrick kept pushing the credit back onto his teacher. “I could never have done it without him, he inspired us,” Cedrick said Tuesday when he addressed the LA Unified school board. “And, by the way, it was a team effort because the other students in my class did well too.”

In fact, for the past five years, everyone at the school who took the Advanced Placement Calculus AB exam passed it. And this past year, every student scored a 3 or higher. The scale is 1 to 5, with the highest score meaning “extremely well qualified” enough to do the work of a college level course.

So who is this teacher, Anthony Yom, and what are his secrets? Yom said he truly enjoys teaching. He doesn’t depend solely on the textbook, he doesn’t sit still in class, and he considers the students not only his colleagues, but his friends.

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School board member Monica Garcia, Principal Jose Torres, Cedrick Argueta and his teacher Anthony Yom.

“I don’t really feel like I do anything different than many of the 30,000 other teachers who care about teaching in this school district,” Yom said in an interview with LA School Report. “I love spending time with the students, and I don’t consider what I do to be work. I also try to make it fun.”

Making calculus fun may seem like a tough task, but Yom said he doesn’t depend on dry lectures or boring textbooks. He seeks out additional teaching tools and examples on the Internet and develops worksheets from that. He tries to bring real-life applications to the math as much as possible. He also divides students up into groups so they can learn to help each other.

Although he’s 35 and more than double the age of his students, Yom looks a lot like one of them. Many of them, like Cedrick, are taller and their voices are deeper than the soft-spoken Korean-born teacher. Yom said he is shy and not a good public speaker. It was easy for students to bully their teacher. He said he had a bit of trouble when he first came to teach at Lincoln 11 years ago.

“There was a culture shock for sure,” Yom said about coming to the school of 1,300 where 80 percent are Latino, a majority of the students are low income and 20 percent are English-language learners. “It was a tough transition, but once they accepted me I built my reputation.”


Cedrick Argueta before speaking to the school board.

At first, the teacher was intimidated by the large number of unmotivated students coming to his class. Yom got to know some of the students, calling their homes and offering extra help as they needed it.

No, he doesn’t believe in too much homework, and he doesn’t believe in teaching to the test. Yom said he spends many hours after school and on weekends working with groups of students. He said he prepares students for every possible type of question on the tests, so they aren’t blindsided by something new.

“Another bit of advice I can give probably for teachers is that we should always think of the next level,” Yom said. “Where are they going in the next level, what are they learning in the next class? Then, you can do some backward planning, and that will help you do a good job at explaining things.”

The successes by Yom’s students helped motivate not only the school but the whole school district. School board president Steve Zimmer said, “We’re going to take this excitement and energy and it’s going to supercharge public education. We know that looking at you and telling us about your team that anything and everything is possible.”

Lincoln’s principal Jose Torres noted that Yom has set a high bar for teachers and said, “This is evidence of what can happen in every classroom if we believe every child can learn regardless of background or skill level. If you believe they can learn, they will.”

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Teacher Anthony Yom and Cedrick Argueta at a press conference.

Yom credits his principal and fellow teachers with being part of the team’s success, and includes the parents who bring their children to extra lessons. He also said businesses and community leaders contributed by “letting us come in and turning on the air conditioners on scorching hot Sundays so we can study.”

Yom said, “It takes a village to raise a child. This is truly a community effort.”

Yom said he hoped Cedrick’s successful test scores also will inspire others, especially since most of his college-prep classes are dominated by Asian students. “It’s not as if the Asian students are any smarter than the Latino students,” Yom said. “They need to be encouraged to try.”

Cedrick’s parents, Lilian and Marcos, are not math whizzes like their son. She cleans houses and is from the Philippines; he is a factory worker from El Salvador. Cedrick speaks Spanish fluently.

“My parents didn’t realize how big a thing it was when we first heard about it,” said Cedrick, who now is called “the one-in-12 kid” at school because he was one of 12 in 302,532 students to get a perfect score on the Advanced Placement Calculus AB exam. Cedrick said his dream is to get a scholarship at Cal Tech and work for NASA.

Cedrick is aware of what his test scores mean. “I know that people think that Latino kids cannot do well in math and that’s not true,” he said. “Latino kids can do what other kids can do, all you have to do is support them and believe in them.”

Superintendent Michelle King said she was impressed with both the student and teacher when she visited Lincoln last week. So was President Obama, who sent a special Tweet saying, “Way to go on your perfect score” and invited Cedrick to the White House to attend the national science fair.

“I have to say he is such a humble, remarkable young man,” King said. She is amazed he is taking two more Advanced Placement classes this year, and four more next year including the next level calculus class. “And as far as the teacher, Mr. Yom has a personal connection of trust and belief of his students that allows them to succeed,” King said.

Board member George McKenna, who was a math teacher, said, “Math is the most difficult to teach, you have to wait for that ‘ah ha’ moment.” He told the teacher, “You will be inspirational and motivational for others, and I know how many interminable hours it takes to make mathematics live in the hearts and minds of students.”

Yom, overwhelmed by the attention, said for him, coming to school is like “coming to work with 150 friends.” He is amazed to see the shy freshman who came to his honors algebra class thriving in the public spotlight.

With his parents at his side, Cedrick told the school board, “I am part of LAUSD, I have been in it since pre-K and I’m just one small example of the great things you do.” He called his teacher not only a great influence on his life, “but a great friend too.”

And Yom added, “If you don’t think of this as work, you get better results. For me, it’s not work.”

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