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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

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | December 11, 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.

Letting her students guide their own instruction and learning from each other has been one of the keys to success for novice teacher Amber Lewis, who is in her second year teaching at Excelencia Charter Academy and is already meeting her students’ growth goals.

Lewis is a founding teacher at Excelencia, an independent charter elementary school that shares a campus with a traditional L.A. Unified school in East Los Angeles. She said that being part of a starting charter school in an underserved neighborhood was what really attracted her to work for the school. She also thought in a school like that her ideas could be heard.

“So, it was just all of these different factors, like wanting to be able to bring ideas to a school that was brand new that I felt would listen to me. Wanting to see how the charter schools actually work. Doing my own type of research like: Are they even better? And obviously, going to a community that really needs higher education. So I was all for it at the time.”

She was also interested in the school’s two-teacher model. Though that has changed for the second school year, she believes the school’s model is innovative at the elementary level because it allows teachers to provide a tailored education and accelerate their learning growth.

“When students came into our school 20 percent of them were considered proficient in math based on a computer differentiated math test. Meaning they can count, they can add. And then, by the end of the year, 81 percent were proficient,” Lewis said. “Students just grew so much. Sure I worked really hard, but I also think we had a lot of the tools that we needed.”

She said she let her students guide their own instruction through hands-on learning and by fixing their own mistakes right away. “But I think the best way is for them to learn is from each other.”

Prior to Excelencia, Lewis was a substitute teacher and teacher assistant at a dual language immersion school in Alhambra. She graduated from California State University Fullerton where she earned a bachelor’s degree in child and adolescent studies and obtained her master’s degree in education from Azusa Pacific University.

LA School Report asked Lewis 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 2019-20. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tell me a little bit about your students and the community you serve at Excelencia, what are some challenges they face?

Our community at Excelencia is almost 98 percent Latino or Hispanic, maybe even 100 percent. And with a high population of Hispanic or Latino (students), a lot of them came in as English language learners. So for me, I think that was one of the major concerns I had was the language barrier because I don’t speak Spanish. I am Hispanic, but unfortunately, I never learned Spanish. So that’s always been one of my biggest flaws. So that was one of my main concerns and that’s pretty much our demographics. And then the other one was, I don’t know if the percentage of how many students got preschool education beforehand. And if they did, what was the quality of the education, because when our students came in — so I’m basically teaching the same students I taught last year because last year I taught TK (transitional kindergarten that is meant to be a bridge between preschool and kindergarten) and K (kindergarten) and now, this year, I started teaching first grade. But last year when I had my students, I know about 75 percent of them were not able to count up to 10 at the very beginning of the school year. Some didn’t even recognize any alphabet letters. So it was very challenging. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, how are we going to reach these massive goals that we set for ourselves to help the students?’

And did they meet their growth goals? 

Oh, absolutely. I think that was part of my selfish reasons to move up with the first-graders because I taught them these math skills. I want to see if I left any gaps in between kindergarten to first grade, or are they going to just keep thriving? Did I do my job? Did I prepare them for first grade? So, now as their first-grade teacher they have just blown my mind. It’s really amazing to see how much they’ve grown. In all aspects, not just reading and writing. It’s phenomenal!

I understand Excelencia has a two-teacher model, how’s your experience been so far working under this model?

Well, the first year was completely different. The model itself and how our school operated is completely different from this year. So last year, we had two kindergarten and transitional kindergarten combo classes, and there were two literacy teachers at all times that taught literacy. And then it was me by myself, and I taught math, science, and social studies. So I went from one class in the morning and taught them math, science, social studies. And then after lunch, I would swap with the literacy teachers, and I would teach the second class math, science and social studies as they were teaching the first literacy. So it was just, a swap after lunch. So I had about 40 to 48 students that I was teaching the first year. And then this year, we are now your more traditional self-contained classroom. So now I have my own classroom all day instead of just in the morning and then swapping to a second class in the afternoon. So now I’m in my own class all day. I’m teaching them all subjects. So now I’m also teaching reading, writing, along with math, science, social studies. I do like it a lot. I think it gives me more autonomy in my classroom and definitely fewer students to manage and teach. Now, I have a class of 20 where last year, as I said, I had about 48 students. So it’s a little bit more manageable, or actually a lot more manageable to give these students all of me instead of just being exhausted by the end of the day because I’m now working with a whole new set of students with so many other different personalities.

So would you say that Excelencia is still offering an innovative school setting in comparison to other traditional elementary schools in the neighborhood? 

Well, so far our literacy portion … So even though we have our own classrooms, we’re still kind of doing the two-teacher model. I have one first-grade classroom that’s all mine. And then I have another co-teacher who came back from last year. She was also a founding teacher last year and she was one of the reading teachers. She’s also teaching the second first-grade classroom. So between us, we both have about, I think she has 19 students and I have 20 students. And so, based on our students’ scores and needs, we kind of have them do the shifting around this time. So last year for reading, the teachers were the ones that moved classrooms. This year, we’re having our students go to specific classrooms. So each team of reading teachers teach within specific levels so that each kid is having, basically a tailored education.

What’s the main reason why you wanted to become a teacher?

Well, I think it was back in 2010. I’ve always loved kids first of all, and I would always pretend I was the teacher or the (school) principal. So I declared my major as an undergrad in child development, and with that, I had to start taking classes and doing observations in the classrooms. So, just being in the classroom, I just started feeling like, ‘Oh, this is me. I like this, it’s fun, it’s cute. The kids are so cute.’ I had been more in day cares and kindergarten classrooms. And then, afterward, I was, ‘OK, this is not challenging enough.” Just basically watching them, taking care of them. Because I worked at a day care for a while and I just felt like I wasn’t making a difference with these particular kids out of day care and I felt like I wasn’t challenging myself enough. So I was talking to my fiancé at the time and he was just like, ‘Why don’t you try going back to school and getting your master’s?’ And so I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know if I could do it. What if it’s not right for me? What if it’s going to be too hard?’ And I was like, ‘You know what, I’m just going to do it. If I get accepted into this program, I’ll go for it.’

And I did, and along the way, again doing more student teaching and observations, I just realized, OK, this is for me. There is a reason why I decided to apply for grad school, and I got in. And then, I started to get more into the classroom, helping develop lesson plans, and actually executing them and just working with kids, in general, is always so fun. It’s tiring, it’s exhausting, but at the end of the day, I love how they’re so excited to learn. And just how much they want to please you as a teacher, and prove to you that they can do it. And you believe in them. It’s just a great feeling overall.

What do you think is a major difference between preparing to become a teacher and actually being in the classroom?

So, when I was doing my observations, obviously I wasn’t the main teacher, so all the responsibility wasn’t on me. It was just kind of, more fun and a little bit of a playful type of experience. And then once becoming the actual main teacher it was like, ‘OK, it’s still fun, but it’s a lot harder than it looks.’ It’s not all fun. There’s definitely a lot riding on your shoulders and you’re just constantly putting a lot of pressure on yourself to make sure you’re covering all the basics with these kids and you’re giving them all you can so that they can keep growing and not just stay stagnant. It’s much harder. Just what everyone else says, too, like, ‘Oh, you’re off at 2:30. You get your summers off, vacation this and that.’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, no, that’s not how it works.’ You’re still working on the weekends doing lesson plans or just making sure you have all your materials, that you’re mentally prepared, physically prepared. You’re staying later than what you’re contracted to stay. Over the weekend, or over the breaks, I find myself still like going on Pinterest and finding more ideas to like, ‘How can I help these students?’ So it’s a lot more than just a fun, playful job. It’s a lot of hard work. So I would say that’s a major difference.

What do you think the state or school districts should do better to support teachers for success?

So for our school (specifically), I’m not exactly sure how our funding works, but I know in the beginning stage for our startup, we were told, ‘OK make a list of materials that you guys need to help kids learn,’ like curriculum-related materials. So, it almost seemed like our budget was infinite. So at the time, we were able to order a lot of what we needed. I’m going to call it a need because I don’t think I would have been able to get my students where they were without them. So these cubic sticks, specifically for math, these cubic sticks, they’re put in groups of 10 and it just builds that base 10 knowledge. And I just don’t feel like other schools where I’ve worked at use this stuff, these types of manipulatives. And it could be like I said, a budget issue where they just don’t have the means to buy manipulatives.

But I just feel like if public schools had more funding or, these little things, it (would) make the biggest difference.

And I also think definitely staff training in specific subjects. I went to a specific training for two days and then we had a follow-up with the trainer to make sure we were implementing it the right way. And we got feedback if we were a little bit off and just how can we make it better. So all these follow-up trainings and coaching, I just feel is something that schools should definitely invest in.

What do you think is the best way parents can help teachers?

So right now I started implementing the ClassDojo app at or our school.

Because I used it before when I was a TA. For one, it translates. So parents will feel more confident because a lot of our parents aren’t English speakers so they’re able to communicate with me and it’ll translate what they’re saying to me, and vice versa. So for getting parents involved, lately we’ve just kind of been posting what we’re learning in the classroom and then giving them specific things they could work on with their child. So for example, for writing, we’re working on creating a full paragraph with a topic sentence, a body and then a closing sentence. So I posted a picture of the students doing that and then a brief caption saying, “We are working on writing full paragraphs. Please include: topic, body, closing sentence.” And so from there they kind of already see like, ‘Oh, this is what my child is learning. This is how I could support them.’

How does it make you feel when you hear attacks against charter schools given the fact that you teach at a charter school, and what would you like the public to know about your job at a charter school?

Well, when I got hired, I wasn’t aware of any sort of animosity with charter and district (schools). And then, toward our first day of school, the whole school opening, Mr. Alonzo (Ruben Alonzo, Excelencia Charter Academy’s founder and head of school) was informing us like, ‘Hey, by the way, we might have some protestors outside.’ And it was very frightening. I thought, ‘What do you mean? What? Why?’ They (protestors) think that charters, it’s privatization, and that we’re stealing their money. Just a lot of misinformed individuals. And so we were just like, ‘OK, well, what do we do?’ And (Alonzo) was like, ‘Just be friendly. Go on with your day. Don’t bother them and hopefully they won’t bother you.’

There’s still a lot of animosity with some of the teachers at the school where we’re co-located, but I think overall this year it’s gotten better. What I would want the public to know is really, educate yourself more. When they say, ‘There’s a lot of charter schools in LA, and to me, I don’t think there should be that many. It’s like, it kind of seems like one keeps popping open every year.’ But I think you just have to put the kids first and think: If the school is giving my child a better education, or children in general, a better education, why are we fighting them? Why do we want them to close? It’s free for the children to go there. So why do we keep fighting that?

That, to me, you just gotta put the kids first and just think: OK if this school is really doing better than the public school where this child would potentially have to attend, then why can’t I have an option to put my child in a better school?

What is one of your goals for this school year? Or your main goal for this school year?

So since I taught math mainly, along with science, and social studies, I feel more confident in my math teaching ability. So I guess my goal for myself, personally, would be to feel just as comfortable doing all of the other subjects — reading, writing, and just continue to keep these high statistics for our school. Like I said, I had 81 percent of my students be proficient in math and 90 percent of them met a growth goal that was projected for them. And so almost a 100 percent of my students met their growth goal and 80 percent are at proficiency. So just to keep these stats as high. I feel like that’s my goal. It’s just continue this growth and just keep giving the kids my all so that way they can have a great education and not feel like, ‘Oh, the education system failed me.’

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