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Teacher Spotlight: Alliance’s Guillermo Lopez on setting higher expectations in math for low-performing students and convincing their teachers that excellence is possible

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | September 16, 2019

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This interview is one in a series spotlighting Los Angeles teachers, their unique and innovative classroom approaches, and their thoughts on how the education system can better support teachers in guiding students to success.

Guillermo Lopez, left, math specialist at Alliance Judy Ivie Burton Technology Academy, with one of his students.

Guillermo Lopez has one expectation for all his students, including the ones with the most challenges to learn, and that is to achieve high scores in mathematics. It’s a subject he’s passionate about teaching — not just to students but also to other teachers. He believes that getting to know students individually and understanding their community is key for even the lowest-performing students to reach proficiency.

Over the last three years as a math specialist at Alliance Judy Ivie Burton Technology Academy, a charter high school in South Los Angeles, Lopez has seen “tremendous growth” in his students’ math scores on CAASPP, the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress. The state test measures grade-level learning in English and math for students in grades 3-8 and 11th grade.

Burton Tech’s scores went from 34 percent of students meeting and exceeding math standards in 2015 to over 47 percent last year. That’s higher than the 32 percent of L.A. Unified students who scored proficient in math districtwide and the 39 percent who scored proficient across the state.

Lopez credits those gains to the creation of support systems that ensure student subgroups, such as English learners and students with Individualized Education Plans (IEP), can thrive in the classroom, including behavioral intervention, emotional support and offering credit recovery courses. It also includes offering college enrichment courses for the highest- performing students.

“We’re actually really focusing on multiple subgroups of students. And what I mean is that most schools support the middle students, but we’re also taking a really close look at our lower students, our students who in the past have really struggled with academics, and we’ve provided different programs for them,” he said.

Lopez grew up in Mid-City Los Angeles, attending public schools in Culver City Unified. He was accepted to UCLA with a Gates Millenium Scholarship, where he was able to tutor other Latino students who were members of student organizations such as MEChA, the Mexican American student group, and Latinos Unidos. It was then he discovered his passion for teaching math. To get the education he needed to become a teacher he went to Stanford University to complete his master’s degree in math education.

Lopez has spent 10 years teaching. Early in his career, he taught math at a traditional school in the Bay Area before returning to Los Angeles to work at Alliance Marc and Eva Stern Math and Science School for six years. At Burton Tech, which serves a 96 percent Latino student population and where nearly all students are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged, he has spent the last three years teaching and coaching other math teachers.

Lopez says that “really getting to know the students, their culture and giving them a voice at the school” has helped Burton Tech to reach its goals. For the next school year, he expects to continue showing that, students from these communities can really accomplish a lot.”

LA School Report asked Lopez about what could be done better or what needs to change in the education system to allow reforms and innovation to take place in the classroom, as well as his goals for next school year. His answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What kind of challenges do your students face and what kind of support are you offering in the classroom?

We’re really looking at students from multiple points. We’re not only looking at their data in terms of, these are the numbers, these are the test scores, but we’re taking time looking at the students in particular, like specifically groups of students, and we’re doing a type of model where we do behavior intervention. We do circles, which is where we take time away from our instruction, like five or 10 minutes, and we do circles within the classroom, where they talk about their emotional intelligence and different things like this. We’re trying to really get to know the students and their culture, and give them a voice here at the school.

In terms of training the teachers, we have constant professional developments around just different things that they will need in terms of social-emotional aspects. I know we have an on-site counselor, like a school psychologist, that comes in for those PDs for the teachers. So we’re really trying to train the teachers to really understand the students. And not only just that they’re students but (also understanding) their communities.

All those things play a role into really helping the students and their community. In the beginning of the year, we meet as a school and we talk about the culture of our school, we talk about our students, where they come from, and we really emphasize the importance of building culture into our classrooms.

What are you or your school doing now that is innovative and working for the students? 

So for unique, I think it’s just constant research. I would say that is when you get to know what the students’ interests are, what their hobbies are, and when you can apply some of that into the classroom, it can really make it innovative. For example, I know right now what’s really big with students is social media, technology, because once you have the students engaged into your content and in your classroom, there is so much more learning that can happen in this.

We’re also taking a really close look at our students who in the past have really struggled with academics. We have credit recovery programs for them. We have support for our EL students and our special ed students. We are working with the Jaime Escalante program at East Los Angeles College. This is a math program, and what we do here is we actually bring in enrichment programs throughout the whole year.

So we’re actually advancing the students to a point where they’re taking college-level math courses by the time they’re seniors, beyond calculus, we’re doing multivariable calculus, which is like a second year of college-level math. And the only way they were doing that is because these students are committing Monday through Saturday for five hours a day to get additional time in mathematics. So they’re actually skipping two grade levels because of that program. And now, by the time they graduate, they actually on their transcript will have two levels of math classes that are college-approved that will advance them even more in college.

We look at data as well. We know our students individually based on that data. Not only do we know them personally, but we actually create plans to see what we can do to support them. So I would say that’s what makes us unique, and fortunately, in this last year we’ve got a few awards, like the California Distinguished Award. We got a STEAM award, we got another award, I think it was through USC. Because of that, our principal got Principal of the Year award for all the things that we’ve been doing here.

What do you think will be the biggest thing that either a school or a school district, or the state, could do better in supporting educators for success?

I would say they’re on the right track, but I think the best way is to really help educators understand the expectations of the Common Core for Californians. Part of my work is that I’ve retrained a lot of teachers who are used to the old (testing) models. So a lot of teachers think that that’s the way that they should still teach. And what’s happening with the charter schools and district (schools) is that now they have a new expectation called the CAASPP, and so it’s just a different playing field. I think a lot of times, Alliance, for example, and the other districts, have these expectations but they don’t give the teachers time and space to actually re-learn and to get better. So I think the biggest thing is providing the time and space for them to really learn and to do these things well.

What do you think is the biggest issue in the public education system right now?

Sometimes the politics behind what’s expected at a district level to the school level to the student level. So the politics, in terms of I know that there’s a lot of moving parts, but I think sometimes unfortunately, they forget that we’re here for the students. And the politics that get involved — in terms of like financial, budgets, the politics behind maybe the union, or the politics behind just certain policies — sometimes those get in the way and hinder the process of learning for students. I think that’s one of the biggest hurdles.

How easy or difficult is the process that you had to go through to become an educator was?

I wouldn’t say it’s an easy process. I would say that there are definitely obstacles. When I work with teachers and I talk to colleagues and friends, it can be a difficult process, but sometimes you have to seek those opportunities. I think the hurdle, the biggest one that I’ve heard of, is the financial hurdle. The other one is also just finding good mentors and good schools to work at. I’ve talked to many teachers who’ve been burned out the first few years or who’ve had a really bad experience, who had that passion that I have, but because they had a really bad experience, then they think that teaching is like that in every school, and then unfortunately, we lose those teachers.

What do you think so far is the most misunderstood thing about the teaching profession? 

I think the most misunderstood thing is how much time and vocation goes into being a really good teacher. I think there’s this big misconception when people say, “Oh teaching is easy.” I always joke around saying that people who say that haven’t been really a teacher or really a good teacher, because to be a really good teacher you have to spend a lot of time in planning and grading, working with students, calling parents, staying after school, before school. So I think the big misconception around that is just the dedication and passion it really takes to be a good teacher. And again, I work with really passionate teachers who come here early in the morning, stay here at night, and even then they’re really hard on themselves because they feel they could do more.

What would be the best way parents can help teachers better serve their students?

I would say the best way is just to also get educated in terms of the expectations, and also just know the expectations of not only their current school, high school and middle school and so forth, but be aware of the expectations beyond that, like from college and so forth. I think that the biggest successes I’ve had with parents are the ones who actually know what is the expectation of college. So the more educated they are in terms of what goes beyond the secondary level is really helpful.

What would you like the public to know about how it is working at a charter school or in general about charter schools?

I would say there’s a big misconception that charter schools are bad and they take away students from other public schools and so forth, and I think that the message I would say is that charter schools are just another opportunity for these same students in the communities to flourish in a way that sometimes they’re not given. So I’m not saying anything bad against public traditional schools, because I have worked at those schools and I think some of them are great, but I think charter schools are just another opportunity for some students to have a different climate, different culture, with less students, so that they can really flourish.

What’s been your greatest accomplishment?

I would say when I got Teacher of the Year through Alliance a few years ago. It was a big accomplishment because I love teaching and I was able to be recognized for the work that I was doing. It was admin and different school superintendents who would come to my classroom and they would see a model of what it should be. And this was a few years ago before the full Common Core transition happened. I really think it’s an accomplishment, because I was able to show leaders what a Common Core classroom could look like. Often in these communities you see students who are low (performing) and then unfortunately, they have the expectation that they can’t do math, or they can’t pursue a certain level of math. But what I tried to do is really create lessons and structures, so they would actually think it was an honors class, but I would tell them that it was a support class, these are the lowest (performing) students. So I think for me that was the biggest accomplishment, because I was able to highlight the students more than myself, in showing them that these students from these communities can really accomplish a lot. I consider myself a student from these communities.

What is your main goal for the next school year?

My goal is to create a great system where teachers are supported, build capacity and really help educate and make these teachers even stronger. And then just numbers goals. I really want to reach a really high level on the CAASPP, not because it’s just a test, but because I want to show that our students, even the lower (performing) ones, can really reach that high level of mathematics.

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