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Teacher Spotlight: Ednovate’s Kyle Perez-Robinson on mentoring 19 girls through all 4 years of high school, breaking down barriers for future Latina scientists and missing her students over summer break

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | January 8, 2020

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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.

Kyle Perez-Robinson with the students she mentors

Having the privilege of receiving abundant support from teachers and family throughout her life, Kyle Perez-Robinson thought it was her duty to choose a profession in which she could give back to society. She decided to become a doctor and enrolled in pre-med in college, but one day she realized teaching was the way she could really have a bigger impact.

“If I think of the people who really helped shape me to be the person that I am today, I always think back to my teachers,” said Perez-Robinson, who is in her second year teaching at Ednovate East College Prep in downtown Los Angeles. “And so it kind of hit me that if I wanted to be someone who can have an impact on young people and help them gain access to the things that they deserved, then teaching was probably the place for me.”

Perez-Robinson graduated with a bachelor’s degree in human biology and a minor in education from Stanford University and got her master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University. She is teaching ninth-grade biology at Ednovate East, where she was placed through Teach for America, a nonprofit that recruits recent college graduates to teach for two years in low-income schools across the country.

She says the part of her job that makes her particularly excited is working closely with 19 female students as their advisor, a role she’ll have throughout their four years of high school.

It’s a distinct opportunity, Perez-Robinson said, for both her and her students, as she works to become the adult figure the girls feel close enough to to help them through challenging situations while also making sure they’re ready for college — that they’re tracking their grades, monitoring their own behaviors and learning how to advocate for themselves.

“I think that space is really unique and I know I certainly didn’t have that in high school,” she said. “I love how we do advisories because I know I’m very close with all of my girls … I think that’s something that really sets our students up for success because they have somebody who is there just for that. While at bigger schools you can sometimes get lost, and we make sure that doesn’t happen here.”

Most importantly, Perez-Robinson said, she is passionate about helping her students get enough confidence that they can pursue STEM programs in college and become future scientists.

LA School Report asked Perez-Robinson 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 her goals for the 2019-20 school year. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You are two years into your teaching career, how is your experience been so far?

I love teaching so much. I definitely think I am teaching the correct age group. I think ninth- graders are the coolest kids ever. They’re right at that age where they’re still OK being wacky and goofy with you, but they also can have elevated conversations just about how the world works and things that they think need to change, which is really amazing. So I absolutely love teaching ninth-graders as a whole.

Even more so, I’m really passionate about teaching science. The persistence rates for Latinx students in college in STEM programs are really low when you compare them to their white peers and there’s a lot of research on it. It’s not entirely known why that’s happening. But as I’m teaching science to all of my students, I know that they’re so capable of being scientists in the future, of having careers in STEM and I really want to be the type of person who can share that with them, and make them feel encouraged, and give them the self-esteem in science that they need in order to pursue those things.

So I get really excited when students get excited about science and it happens a lot so I get to nerd out with them, and it makes me so happy. But I do feel so privileged and grateful that I look forward to my job every day. Breaks are really hard for me, summer breaks, because I just really miss the kids. They have so much life and so much potential that it’s amazing to be able to have a part or play a role in all of the developing that they’re doing, because I know they’re going to be so successful. So I’m just honored that I’m able to be part of that journey with them.

Can you share more about your students, their demographics, their challenges and their strengths?

So most of our students identified as Latino students. A lot of them are native Spanish speakers. We also have some students who identify as black. We have very, very, very few students who identify as white. So something that’s been super amazing is as an advisor, I’m responsible for doing all the parent conferences with my advisees. So I know their parents really well now, and I think that’s an incredible thing that Ednovate does because we’re building that (school) community. A lot of students are coming from low-income households, which is we can see that through our free and reduced lunch data. I don’t know the exact number, but I do know it’s a really high proportion of our students. Some of our students live in the projects. I know a lot of our kids, I’m thinking of one advisee in particular, she isn’t really allowed to do extracurricular activities because her mom is nervous about her being outside when it’s not light anymore. So a lot of them are facing a lot of unique challenges, which, to be frank, I came from a really privileged background comparatively and so they’re things that I’ve never had to go through before. A lot of my advisees’ parents are undocumented, and they’re dealing with very specific issues. One of them has health issues, and I’m trying to support them through that, but it’s really difficult.

So I think ultimately our students are students who have a lot of grit, and perseverance, and so much resilience, and also a lot of pride. So I moved here from Northern California, and I went to a predominantly Latinx school as well and I identify as Latina. But I think there’s something about our school or maybe something about L.A., where our students are really proud of their heritage. They’re happy to use Spanish in class. It’s really amazing to see how happy they are to integrate their culture into their every day, and also how our school supports them in that and encourages it.

● Read more: Teacher Spotlight: Excelencia’s Amber Lewis on getting 81% of her students proficient in math, why teaching is harder than it looks and making sure her kids never feel failed by the system

What kind of unique or innovative things is your school doing in serving these students?

I think the primary thing is that we’re providing them with the same opportunities that a lot of students in more affluent areas are getting that sometimes this demographic isn’t given. For example, all of our students have computers that they use in class. I think when I think back on my experience in college, I definitely experienced a lot of imposter syndrome. I think having some technological literacy would’ve been helpful and I think that’s something we help them with.

Another really amazing thing about our school is the idea of PMC. We call it positive multi-generational change and that’s our goal for all of our students: that they’re able to contribute to their community in a positive way and not just for this generation, but for the generations ahead of them and also for the people who are supporting them. They’re contributing positively to their parents, who are providing so much for them to be able to go to school. The way that we break that down is freshman year, focusing on knowing yourself. Sophomore year, the focus is on knowing your community. Junior year is on knowing your nation, and senior year is on knowing your world. We culminate their PMC with a year-long project as seniors where they have to figure out some sort of issue that they’re passionate about and sort of contribute positively to whatever that issue may be.

We focus on that a lot with our advisory. So like I mentioned, my girls are sophomores right now and we spent freshman year with them figuring out how to be high schoolers. Now we’re looking at, ‘OK, what are you passionate about? What do you want to do?’ And so with our advisory, we have 35 minutes every morning and five minutes in the afternoon where we can develop projects about things that they might be interested in or careers that they want to pursue that are also related to supporting their community. So one of my advisees, for example, really wants to be a scientist and so she and I are working on developing some sort of project where she’s able to engage with either science students in college or with scientists who work at universities and interview them so she can figure out what that career path actually looks like and what type of work it entails.

Have you seen that tied to academic achievement?

Yes, completely. I think if I think of my advisory as a case story, I’m able to see what girls’ GPAs are, if they’re passing all classes at all times. Then they always show me their grades. Then we have different rewards, and parties, and stuff when everyone’s doing well. I think I’ve seen it happen in a couple of ways. One, if I can see that somebody is starting to fail a class, there is a set of people who are kind of roadblocks to keep that from happening.

I can also help them communicate with their teachers and learn the avenues to communicate these issues.

I’ve also seen, especially since last year, my girls … they’re always really eager to help those students who are falling behind. So if someone’s struggling with chemistry, another one is always so happy to, ‘Oh, I’ll help you. I’ll show you how to do this.’ And I think that because we have that designated space for that type of collaboration to happen with both teachers and other students, that they’re able to get the support they need before it becomes too late. I think we have a pretty low rate of students who are failing and I think that’s one of the reasons why.

How do you think the state or school districts could do better to support teachers for success? 

Oh my gosh, it is so expensive to become a teacher. So I went to a private university. I was used to it being expensive. So I went to Stanford, and they have a really amazing teacher education program, but the reason why I opted to do Teach For America was because I knew I would be able to get scholarships and subsidies from AmeriCorps when doing my teacher education program and that’s what I ended up having to do just because it made more sense financially. But even so, it’s really expensive. There are a lot of hidden fees. There are a lot of really pricey exams that I’m not sure are really assessing if I’m a quality educator or not as compared to they’re assessing how much busy work am I willing to do. And I think that that is kind of ironic, given that my classes are really amazing, and they’re telling me what quality assessments look like and then I feel like that’s not necessarily persisting for the teachers themselves. So I think that’s one thing. I do appreciate that it is very important to go into higher education or into graduate studies in order to do a specialized profession. I think that it’s necessary, but I think that given the costs of becoming a teacher, that I think — and I’m sure you hear this all the time — I think that compensation for teachers should be equivalent.

What do you think parents can do better to support teachers? 

It’s definitely a team. Again, I’m so privileged to have really great relationships with the parents, especially my advisees, and I’ve noticed the most success when parents and teachers are able to have those difficult conversations because we know that at the center of everything we’re doing, we want the kid to be successful. Maybe we have different ideas of how we’re going to achieve that, but ultimately we want to make sure that the student can fulfill all of their potential.

So I think that the first step to that is giving a platform for those conversations to take place in the first place. Our parent-teacher conferences are really valued and are super important and because of that, we have almost all of our parents attend. Our goal is always 95 percent attendance. I think that if there isn’t that face-to-face contact, it’s really difficult to feel accountable to one another; like if you’ve never met somebody, why are you going to do things for them? So I think that it’s really important for schools to set up that system where parents and teachers can meet each other and then they can come up with solutions for how to support students and follow through on them.

So I think with parents, it’s ultimately like, ‘Please don’t feel concerned about communicating because teachers really do appreciate that communication.’ And the responsibility, I think, is twofold. Parents, please communicate with teachers. Teachers, please communicate with parents.

● Read more: Teacher Spotlight: KIPP Iluminar Academy’s Mercedes Jimenez on preparing her 3rd-graders for college, why Latino parents are sometimes scared to ask questions and the goal charter and district schools share

What has been one of your biggest accomplishments as a teacher so far?

This is really hard because I think being in the classroom every day and just seeing, learning, and watching students from the beginning of the school year all the way to the end, and see how much they’ve grown is so incredibly rewarding.

I think watching my advisee students develop into mature young women has been amazing because there I started out with them as young freshmen and now they’re all turning 16, and they’re acting a lot older. That’s been really cool.

I’m also really proud because I am a member of some of our leadership teams. Specifically, I’m on an innovation team where we can figure out how to make our advisory program better, and it’s something that I’m so passionate about. I am really honored that I’m able to be a part of a group that is actively trying to improve one of my favorite parts of the school day.

What’s your main goal this school year?

That’s a fun question. I think my goal is that my students feel confident as scientists and feel capable as scientists and I don’t want there to be anything holding the student back from pursuing science unless they actually really don’t like it. I don’t want them to think that they can’t pursue science because they’re not smart enough, or because they can’t do the math, or because they are brown, or because they’re a woman. I want them to feel as if those barriers don’t exist for them so that they can achieve whatever they want to. If they don’t like it, that’s fine, but I don’t want them to think they can’t be scientists because of some sort of institutionalized barrier. So it really is just a privilege for me to be able to work with our students and I’ve learned so much from them. I know I teach them, but they also teach me so much every day about myself and about their community. It’s been really amazing.

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