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The schools we remember most: 7 educators we’re thankful we met this year

LA School Report | November 20, 2018

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A teacher and student at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools. (Photo: Emmeline Zhao)

From coast to coast, and up and down the Pacific Coast from San Diego to Los Angeles to Washington state, we’ve spent the year traversing the country in search of innovative schools and inspiring student breakthroughs. Along the way, we’ve met many inspiring educators who are lifting up their students and their communities. As we near Thanksgiving and reflect on the year that was, here are a few of the standouts from 2018 — seven educators and leaders we’re thankful we met this year:

Teacher Michael Tong, San Diego: At the Juanita Street campus of San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, the day begins with a high-five and a warm greeting at the visitors’ gate. The charter elementary school currently occupies a handful of compact, semi-permanent buildings and a blacktop in a hilly stretch of the City Heights neighborhood. Its electronic gate is still pretty new; when Juanita Street first welcomed students in the fall of 2016, it was short of a few amenities that families typically look for, like play structures and a performance space. Almost two years later, the campus resembles a forward operating base more than a traditional school. But if the raw materials look like they were just dropped off an IKEA truck, the educational vision behind them is deliberate and assured. The purple modular classrooms that roughly 200 kids filter into each morning are festooned with student artwork and pictures of world leaders like Gandhi and Barack Obama. The outdoor stage facing the main office was constructed by the students themselves, part of Thrive’s philosophy of project-based learning. The ad hoc look at Juanita Street reflects the dizzying growth of an organization still in its gestational phase. Here’s what learning looks like at Juanita Hills: Olivia, 8, and Russell, 10, are both finishing up their first year in Core 3, a combined track of third and fourth grades. After their morning meetings, they’ve gathered in teacher Michael Tong’s class to talk about the Light of Kindness. That’s not a motivational poster of a lighthouse hung over the chalkboard. It’s the name of a project they completed a few months back. Along with math and literacy, Thrive students focus on project-based learning. Each class takes roughly eight weeks, three times over the school year, to develop a project they complete together. The stage outside was one such project, created with the help of staff and a few parents. They’ve also created their own books and flown a fleet of drones over the blacktop outside. (Read more about Tong and Thrive Public Schools here.)

Ruben Alonzo is the founder of Excelencia Charter Academy, which opened this fall in Boyle Heights. (Courtesy: Excelencia)

Teacher Ruben Alonzo, Los Angeles: Ruben Alonzo was teaching English learners in Texas when his wife Cynthia, a California native, challenged him to bring his vision for academic success in underserved schools to even more students. “We both asked ourselves, where we can make the greatest impact? The answer was Los Angeles, East LA, and we said, ‘Let’s go!” In August, Alonzo opened Excelencia Charter Academy in Boyle Heights with an innovative teaching model for English learners. “Unfortunately, too many schools here are not proving that their success is possible. We want to prove it, we want to be a bright spot in the city of LA, in the state of California.” Alonzo believes in English learners’ potential the same way a teacher had once believed in him — a third-generation migrant worker who went on to MIT, Harvard, and Columbia University. “I was an 18-year-old boy, with limited options, whose brother was in prison, whose father passed away, living in poverty, but this one teacher had such a high bar of excellence for me,” Alonzo said. His teacher helped him fill out and submit his application to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When he got in, that was “the moment that completely changed my life, and that’s what Excelencia is about.” Excelencia will offer a unique “regrouping” model where students, even in the earliest grades, are taught by teachers in different specialties, like in high schools. The two-teacher program is tailored to support English learners. “Excelencia takes that message and that vision that my calculus teacher gave me, and now I want to share it with my students — 4-years-olds, 5-year-olds. When they’re going into first grade, I want them to have that vision that they are going to college, surrounded by adults in school that know that’s the goal,” Alonzo said. (Read more about Alonzo and Excelencia Charter Academy here.)

Teacher Kirsten Farrell, Los Angeles: Kirsten Farrell created one of the first LA Unified sports medicine teams and teaches it at all four grades at Venice High School. Last year, she was the only Los Angeles teacher to be named a 2018 California Teacher of the Year. In March, Farrell helped organize about 2,000 students at the West Los Angeles campus as they walked out of their classrooms to honor the 17 victims of February’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. “After today I’d like to see students continue this movement, and I’d really like to see the federal government banning weapons we consider weapons of war and really have some conversations on gun safety and mental health and the background checks,” Farrell said. “I was very lucky to teach in countries with very strict gun laws, and I think we need to pay attention to what other countries are doing.” Before coming to Venice High, she taught at St. Monica Catholic High School in Santa Monica, Leysin American School in Switzerland, and Nishimachi International School in Japan. The March demonstrations at schools throughout the city came one day after the LA Unified school board approved a resolution to strengthen school safety. “I think we should have more drills at school because we haven’t had any, and I feel like we’re really unprepared in case a real (shooting) happens,” Talita Villanueva, a sophomore at Venice High, said as she walked with a poster among 17 empty desks set up on the school’s front lawn. “We’re showing today that we don’t have to be afraid to go to school.” (Read more about Farrell and Venice High’s Wednesday Walkout here.)

Teacher Ivy Schamis, Parkland: The students in Ivy Schamis’s class had just presented strategies to counter hate groups on college campuses — a seemingly distant threat — when gunshots rang out from the hallway. Students leaped from their seats and scrambled to the corners of the classroom. Some ducked behind the teacher’s desk, and others sought shelter behind a filing cabinet. But there were few places to hide. Schamis, who teaches a Holocaust history class at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, likes to make connections between Nazi Germany and current events — and February 14 was no different. They’d just learned about the Hitler Youth, linking the exploitation of impressionable young German minds and the recent surge in hate groups at U.S. colleges. Seconds after the students dropped to the floor, the gunman shot through a window in the door and unloaded rounds into the classroom. Two students in the class — Helena Ramsay, 17, and Nicholas Dworet, 17 — were among the 17 people killed in the mass school shooting, one of the deadliest in U.S. history. “The lessons of the Holocaust came into our classroom,” said Schamis, who has taught at the high school for 17 years. “There we were talking about how we’re going to combat hate, and a complete hater busted into our class and killed two of our classmates.” (Read more about Schamis, her students and the impact of the Parkland shooting here.)

Co-Founder Kriste Dragon, Los Angeles: Based in California, Citizens of the World Charter Schools operates three schools in Los Angeles that demonstrate that high performance and intentional diversity can go hand in hand. Each of the network’s Los Angeles schools outperformed both Los Angeles Unified School District and the state on California’s Common Core-aligned assessments in all subjects, for all subgroups. Identifying diverse neighborhoods and setting enrollment goals is the first step in the network’s strategy for creating integrated schools. Each charter application identifies the communities that will be served by a school, looks at the community’s demographics, and sets admissions benchmarks to mirror that diversity. In areas where many white and middle-class families are opting out of district schools, Citizens of the World sets goals to create schools reflective of the local population rather than local school enrollment. The network’s commitment to diversity does not stop with enrolling a diverse student body; diversity is woven throughout the network’s educational model, from pedagogy to parent engagement. Its approach to learning is designed to ensure that students have opportunities to interact with diverse peers and with a diverse curriculum. “We don’t think that just by making your population diverse, that inherently leverages the diversity itself,” said CEO and co-founder Kriste Dragon, who started down the path that led to the first Citizens of the World school when Dragon began investigating elementary schools for her daughter. Growing up as a mixed-race child in a highly segregated area of Atlanta shaped the way Dragon thought about education — and she wanted something different for her child. (Read more about Dragon and Citizens of the World here.)

The 2018 Teacher of the Year, Mandy Manning, of Spokane. (Photo: Ferguson Films)

Teacher of the Year Mandy Manning, Spokane: Mandy Manning, a teacher of refugee and immigrant students in Washington state, plans to spend her term as the nation’s Teacher of the Year encouraging schools to give students and their teachers a way to explore new experiences and build a stronger community. Both students and teachers should have “opportunities to seek out things that are outside of their understanding and their perceptions,” she said. “We do that very well in the lower grades … We tend to then become super, super academic-focused, and while that is important … it’s even more essential that we also have connected community members who are able to reach across differences and collaborate with one another and communicate with one another.” Manning teaches English and math to high school students in the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School in Spokane, Washington. Since Donald Trump’s 2016 election and dramatic policy changes that have created a more hostile environment for immigrants and refugees, it’s become more important than ever for Manning to make sure her students know they’re welcome, she said. (Read more about the 2018 Teacher of the Year here.)

Susan Rubio, who worked as a teacher and administrator for 17 years, was elected this month to California’s state Senate in District 22 in east Los Angeles County. (Courtesy Susan Rubio campaign video)

Teacher candidate Susan Rubio, Los Angeles County: In California, one candidate who came in a distant second during the primaries won the general election despite a lack of support from the teachers union. Even though Susan Rubio was a public school teacher for 17 years, the California Federation of Teachers and United Teachers Los Angeles endorsed her opponent, Mike Eng, in the race for a state Senate seat in east Los Angeles County. She won by about 5 percentage points. Rubio said in an email that it was “heartbreaking” that she didn’t get those endorsements, but she believes voters elected her because she has more personal ties to the community, in part because of her teaching background. “As a teacher and councilwoman, there wasn’t a life story I hadn’t heard or had personally experienced,” she wrote. (Read more about Rubio and numerous other teachers who ran for office in 2018 here.)

This article is one in a series at The 74 that profiles the heroes, victories, success stories, and random acts of kindness found at schools all across America. Read more of our recent inspiring profiles at

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