Math teacher Kelly Choi has been chosen as Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year for her work in The Academy at Dos Pueblos High School, which caters to students at risk of dropping out.
The Academy gives students individualized attention and they move, as a class, through high school with the same English, math, history and science teachers. The school also connects students with mentors and internship opportunities in the community.
In 2012, the class of 30 had a 100 percent graduation rate and every student is working, going to school or both.
Choi and the other Academy teachers have a batch of sophomores this year, and they hope to add more students in future years, she said. For each of the past four years, 30 ninth-graders have been identified as the most at-risk of dropping out because of truancy rates, disciplinary issues and low grades.
Principal Shawn Carey, who was a teacher for The Academy before becoming an administrator, said it has been challenging to keep the program with the funding structure “looking bleaker and bleaker and bleaker.” She said it needs “steadfastness and heart and championing” not only to stay alive, but to do well.
“We hope to institutionalize it so we don’t wonder if it will survive year to year,” Carey said. “The transformation that happens for the students year to year is palpable.”
When Choi learned she was selected as the county’s Teacher of the Year, “I just started crying immediately,” she said.
She said she has always wanted to be a teacher, and the recognition is a huge validation of her work.
Choi has taught at Dos Pueblos for 15 of her 17 years teaching, and in addition to being a co-founder of The Academy, she works as a technology coach helping other faculty integrate new methods into the classroom, is a member of the school Improvement Leadership Team and had served in the past on its Intervention Committee, Textbook Adoption Committee and Faculty Senate and was an adviser for the leadership class and senior class.
She also volunteers at Brandon Elementary School in Goleta.
As well as embracing technology, Choi is “flipping the classroom”: She has her math students watch video lectures at home, then they work on homework problems together in class.
“My strength is creating a relationship with my students built on honesty, trust and respect. But mostly, I just kill them with kindness,” Choi said. “My expectations are high, my curriculum is rigorous, and my students’ success rate is excellent. All this happens because everything I do is rooted in being kind and encouraging. When students believe that I am genuinely invested in their success, and every action I make is based on that belief, the most at-risk student will rise to the occasion. Simply put, I believe that student success begins with the relationship they have with their teacher.”
Even though Choi’s selection as Teacher of the Year was a secret until Thursday afternoon, the word was spreading and she had received a lot of texts of congratulations from current and former students. She keeps in touch with all of her past students and hears from several every week.
“We kind of joke that once you’re in The Academy, you’re always in The Academy,” she said.
Choi will now compete in the California Teacher of the Year competition, and the winner of that will go on to the 2014 National Teacher of the Year competition, according to the County Education Office.
She has lived in the South Coast area for about 15 years and celebrated Thursday with her husband, Dan, and their two young daughters.
Carey said Choi’s success comes from her commitment to her students.
“She knows all of her students as individuals, and she is consistently the calm voice at the table reminding everyone of the student perspective,” Carey said. “Through her efforts to inspire a group of dedicated teachers, challenge the status quo of traditional school structures such as funding models and master schedules, rally the resources of a community, and insist on never ever giving up on students, Dos Pueblos has graduated dozens of students who were otherwise slated for failed educational and personal outcomes.”
Bill Woodard, assistant principal at Dos Pueblos, said she is a “fabulous math teacher” in addition to her work with The Academy.
“Kelly sank her heart and soul into developing The Academy, and her work has been a remarkable success story,” he said. “For example, in the 2009-10 school year, discipline referrals for Academy students fell from 221 to 56, and the average GPA went from 1.41 to 2.39. Students who would have had little to no chance to graduate without this support network proudly walked across the stage last year at graduation.”
Dos Pueblos colleague Heather Magner called Choi “the most graciously relentless person I know.”
“Because of her steely determination combined with her trademark sincerity and warmth, we were able to start a new Academy at our school and, solely because of her leadership, able to keep it not just running but constantly improving for the last four years,” she said. “Working with Kelly has been one of the most inspiring experiences of my career. She is an unparalleled team player, a tireless worker and an invaluable problem solver.”
The County Education Office said Choi is available to speak countywide as Teacher of the Year. She can be reached at 805.968.2541 or through the county’s Steve Keithley at 805.964.4710 x5281.