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Class of 2015

A look at graduating students and dedicated educators who build success

Public education is riding out a rough storm. A system of “test, blame, and punish” continues to dominate educators, schools, and students while perceptions of a system broken beyond repair fuel education’s harshest critics. But we met a guidance counselor and a youth services director, a group of high school students, and two teachers who defy public education’s detractors. And there are countless others like them in the nation’s public schools.

We met high school seniors Makeda Gayle (Los Angeles, Calif.), Justin Johnson (Silver Spring, Md.), Xander Luciano (Anaheim, Calif.), and Beatriz Tamames (Miami, Fla.). Together, they represent so much that is right with public education. In June, these students will graduate in the Class of 2015. They credit their teachers, guidance counselors, and public schools for helping nurture their aspirations, smoothing out uncertainties about life after high school, and readying them to be college bound. Among them are a future biologist, business owner, inventor, childcare worker, and entrepreneur.

Just as these smart, spirited, driven, and innovative students prepare to say farewell to their public schools and climb higher, a future teacher from Minnesota waits eagerly to start her dream job. But when NEA Student Program member Jaci Runksmeier enters a Minnesota classroom this fall, she suspects her excitement will be tempered by what she calls one of her “biggest concerns”—all the student testing. And for Bob Brown , a veteran high school teacher in Connecticut, rampant over testing was the tipping point. At the end of the school year, Brown will retire, but find a new outlet for his love of the profession.

Education support professional Lakilia Bedeau isn’t looking to leave the students who seek out her support at the Tornado Alley Youth Services Center inside Kentucky’s Paducah Tilghman High School. Bedeau says she’s finally getting the chance to give deserving, struggling students what her school counselors couldn’t give her—a way forward.

—B. Denise Hawkins

Full Speed Ahead!


Two years ago, Xander Luciano was asked to substitute teach a computer and design software class to school district employees and industry employees. He was just 16.

Scanning the room, he guessed his students were in their 30s with well-established careers. “They’re paying me to be here to teach,” he thought. Based on some students’ expressions, they were thinking the same thing.

Today, Luciano is a month shy of graduation. “You don’t expect someone so young to be teaching, but I was comfortable with it. I gave them a few minutes to get over it and we got into the lesson,” he says confidently.

Some of Luciano’s confidence comes from his experiences at Esperanza High School where the Anaheim, Calif., senior has immersed himself in high-end career and technical programs that incorporate heavy doses of academics, including math, writing, and public speaking.

Luciano dreams of being an inventor and business owner. “I’ve always had this little nag inside of me to create,” says the teen who was accepted into California Polytechnic State University in Pomona.

Luciano has been interested in all things mechanical since childhood. By the time he saw Esperanza’s manufacturing shop, he knew he wanted to enroll.

“It was astonishing!” he exclaims. “I walked in and thought, ‘Wow, this school has equipment I’ve seen on TV, most of it state-of-the-art,” he says, explaining that four years ago 3-D printers were on the cusp of new technology and the school had two of them.
Luciano says the manufacturing program helped him digest upper level math concepts, such as three-dimensional coordinate systems and planes or unparalleled lines and vectors. When it was time for him to attend AP physics and chemistry classes, he already had a deep understanding of the material.

Teachers have helped to shape his academic experience, too. Referring to many public school learning environments that require teaching to the test without giving students a core understanding of the material, Luciano says of Esperanza, “It’s not a plug and chug mentality where you use these numbers to get this equation and you use that equation to get this answer. You can use any equation, but sometimes one might require an additional step. If you have a core understanding of the material you can solve any problem with different answers.”

Luciano credits AP physics teacher Robert Proctor for being one of the educators who helped him during high school. Proctor says that today’s learning environment requires students to learn mostly about concepts.

“We have a whole generation of students who think that teaching to the test is normal,” says the 18-year teacher. “Curiosity has been thrown in the trash and it’s a one-size-fits-all, teach to the test mentality.” Proctor longs for the return of critical thinking, content, and application. But for Luciano, Proctor says he’s a ball of fire. “He’s driven by the challenge of learning and gets excited about everything we do!”

 —Brenda Álvarez

Fulfilling a Dream


Approximately 100,000 new teachers will enter classrooms this fall. If recent trends continue, 40 to 50 percent of them will leave the profession within five years. One out of 10 will leave before their first year is complete.

Jaci Runksmeier, a newly certified teacher in elementary and early childhood education from Minnesota, plans to stay. It’s not that she’s unaware of challenges faced by teachers—especially those who are new: classroom management, narrowing of curriculum, snide comments from others about “bad teachers,” and deep budget cuts that stretch public schools beyond their limit.

“I know this is what I was meant to do,” says Runksmeier, adding, “I can’t wait to get into the classroom.”
A native of Jackson—a southern Minnesota farming community—Runksmeier inherited her love of teaching from her grandmother, mother, and aunt, who were all in the classroom. As a second-grade student, Runksmeier wrote ‘I Want to be a Teacher’ on a poster, and pinned it on her wall. Growing up, she reveled in the stories relatives swapped about their classroom adventures.

Last year, she received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education/early childhood education from Southwest Minnesota State University. This year, she received her teaching license, and Runksmeier says her teacher education prepared her well for the classroom.

“I was able to attend many workshops in which I was able to listen to different points of view about education and classroom practice,” Runksmeier recalls. “Talking to a lot of people in education, listening to their experiences was invaluable. And I spent a lot of time with teachers and got to see how they manage their classrooms. Student teaching can be a bad experience. For me, it was just the opposite. I had a great mentor.”

The support will pay off. Research shows that new teachers cite lack of support and few professional development opportunities as their top reasons for leaving the profession. Challenges are compounded by a toxic outlook toward public education that blames teachers first, and is perpetuated by the media, lawmakers, and relentless budget cuts that cripple school systems across the country.

Then, there is the testing.

“That’s probably my biggest concern as I begin teaching. Kids are just tested too much,” Runksmeier says. “Public education is not going in the right direction if teachers can only teach to the test. We need assessments to help us evaluate student progress but not everything needs to be about the test.

Runksmeier is frustrated that too many people don’t recognize teaching as a difficult task, and remain quick to single out the profession for all that ails public schools. It’s a climate that neither Runksmeier’s family members had to navigate—at least not at today’s level—when they were in the classroom.

Still, Runksmeier remains optimistic while waiting for fall classes to begin.

“I can block all that negative stuff out,” she insists. “Teaching is hard and people need to know that and I’ll tell them, but right now I’m just excited to start being a creative and successful teacher. I can’t wait to have my own classroom and be the one the kids will turn to lead their learning.”

—Tim Walker

The Support of Village


In addition to excellent teachers, parental involvement has made a difference for Makeda Gayle who will graduate in June from The California Academy of Mathematics and Science (CAMS), an elite public school in Carson, Calif. The achievement will represent the crowning achievement of Gayle’s high school career and the culmination of her father’s, diligence, commitment, and nudging.

It was Christopher Gayle’s foresight that first placed his nine-year-old fraternal twins Makeda and Maya on a STEM path, exposing the girls to engineers, robotics competitions, neuroscience camps, computer coding, and biology lectures. Even then, he saw his daughters’ potential and STEM’s bright promise to reward with jobs and boundless opportunity, to those who were prepared.

Makeda, an honor student, had schools that recognized, nurtured, and rewarded her academic ability. But she first learned at home that her education and smarts had the power to transform and take her places.

“Growing up, my dad wasn’t very education focused, but he realizes that education can lead to many doors and so many opportunities. And I believe that, too,” says the teen who credits her father for helping to get her into a difficult and award-winning high school.

For Christopher Gayle, a college degree represents the way forward. And he’s counting on it taking his girls “further in life” than he was able to go. The Gayle sisters will be heading to college in the fall—Makeda to study biology and Maya to pursue a nursing degree.

Nurturing “high achievers,” says Makeda, has been a family affair. Her mother is her ardent “supporter and cheerleader” and an “auntie in Maryland” is the school advisor who dispatches wisdom and scholarship information to her nieces on the West Coast.

For many students and their families, earning a spot at CAMS is unquestionably a badge of honor. Makeda knows it as a rigorous high school where learning happens, and opportunities abound.

“At CAMS, students enter smart and gifted, then our teachers train us to be analytical thinkers. It can be a very difficult process, especially in physics and chemistry classes, but with their help, it’s up to us to figure out the answers.”

This is the CAMS way, says Gene Almeida who teaches government and economics. “The analysis and problem-solving skills they’re learning here will pay off for them in college.”

Makeda and her CAMS classmates are among public school’s best, “representing the top 1 percent of high school students in the state of California and the top 10 percent of middle schoolers,” adds Almeida, who was recently CAMS’ dean of students. They are also students “who beat the odds, performing better than statistically expected for their level of poverty,” concluded a 2014 Newsweek ranking of standout high schools in the nation.

Located on the campus of California State University at Dominguez Hills, CAMS offers students a bridge to higher education and a preview of what college has to offer. College-going is high among CAMS graduates: Last year, 96 percent of its seniors moved on to a four-year university, with the remaining students entering community college, says CAMS Principal Christopher Brown.

But come June 10, graduation day, Makeda can exhale.

“When I look back,” says Makeda, “I can say that graduation was hard won. CAMS is probably one of the toughest schools to go to.”

—B. Denise Hawkins

Building Tomorrow


When high school youth services director Lakilia Bedeau looks back to her days as a 1999 graduate of Missouri’s New Madrid County Central High School, she says she “dreamed big” about the future. “I wanted to go to college, travel, and have a career,” Bedeau says today.

She told herself back then: “When I make it out of here I’m going to give back by helping students find the resources they need to prosper.”

But she was the eldest of seven children in a low-income rural family, unsure about how to pay for college or even what to study, and her guidance counselor didn’t offer much help. Still, Bedeau went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in mass communications.

Today, as director of the Tornado Alley Youth Services Center (TAYSC) at Paducah Tilghman High School in Paducah, Ky., Bedeau works with counselors and the TAYSC advisory council to develop educational programs, identify learning barriers, and help students transition into higher education, the military, or a career.

The center also distributes school supplies and provides other services, including those related to mental health. Students in crisis—including those related to family, thoughts of suicide, unplanned pregnancies, or bullying often contact Bedeau, whose director job title falls under the category of education support professional (ESP).

“We want to make sure students have the means and life skills to not only graduate but to be successful,” she says.

Nearly 180 of the school’s approximately 800 students are seniors. Bedeau calls them “go-getters who are more open minded than past graduates. They are not content with just finishing high school and getting a job. They are self-starters. Entrepreneurial. They will design their own college curriculum and challenge the status quo. ”

Understanding that her students will encounter peers who are equally smart, ambitious, and brimming with cutting edge ideas, Bedeau says, “Hopefully, the life skills and academic foundation they developed in public school will keep them competitive.”

Retired Senior Chief Petty Officer Donald Myers and retired Lt. Cmdr. Donald Taylor operate Tilghman’s Navy Junior ROTC program. Says Myers, “We promote self-confidence, self-discipline, and attention to detail...traits they will need in their adult life.”

Bedeau says four years of JROTC usually gives students a sense of structure and purpose in their lives—one they often do not get at home. “JROTC changes how they behave,” she says, “how they carry themselves, how they interact with people.”

Adds Bedeau: “We strive to give students the tools they need to be successful. We get [students] ready to change the world.”

—John Rosales

From Senior Year to Brave New World


Helping students change the world is also on the mind of Daryl C. Howard, Ph.D., a counselor at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md. The start of the spring semester is days away, and senior Justin Johnson has seized the moment to brag, just a little, to Howard about the inroads he’s making on at least one college application.

Howard barely raises an eyebrow as he peers at Johnson through brown horn-rimmed glasses. It’s that time of year, he says, for counselors to hear the familiar: meandering plans and the anticipation of seniors who have a mashup of commencement, college, and course concerns on their minds. Still, Howard listens before dispensing marching orders to Johnson that in seconds seem to erase his ready smile. Howard’s slim fingers tick off tasks Johnson needs to complete if he is going to be a serious contender in the college admissions race before it winds up—essays to write, letters of recommendation to gather, financial aid forms to complete, and on and on.

“Wow, really?” is the only response the 18-year-old musters. But Howard, one of the school’s 11 counselors, is prepared to prod and aide Johnson and the wave of seniors just like him.

“I definitely support his endeavors,” adds Howard. “I’ll probably have to sit on him to get some of these things done.”

If he can get Johnson to finish the process and into college, Howard says, “I’m confident that Justin will be successful and do just fine.”
Even for kids who are raised to aspire to attend college, the nudging into the complex application process can be challenging. For seniors intent on meeting early admissions deadlines, the span between September and December is pivotal. It marks a frenetic race. Howard says it’s when Blair’s highly motivated and persistent students rush in, eager to get what they need.

With the second round of deadlines for regular college admissions at most institutions falling between January and February, ramping up for this phase can also be hectic. It’s where about “50 percent” of Howard’s students land in the process. Johnson, a lanky, 6-foot-3-inch basketball player, is one of them. But Johnson says he’s making progress, estimating that his college plans are somewhere between doing and dreaming.
Still, the “C” student—who excels at business planning and running the new T-shirt enterprise he launched this year with three classmates, has a passion for horticulture, and a smile as bright and warm as his personality—declares he’s never wavered about his destination.
“Since I was about six years old, I knew that I was going to college, no matter what,” says Johnson.

He is determined to follow in the footsteps of his three brothers. They were among Johnson’s earliest and most important teachers. At home, they taught him to read, do math, when to open a door for a lady, how to be a man.

But it’s Howard who Johnson thanks for providing the roadmap that he hopes will lead him to higher education.

“Dr. Howard has brought me closer to my dream, because I didn’t know how much went into applying for college. He’s making the process easier to understand,” says Johnson. “Dr. Howard’s definitely been there for me.”

—B. Denise Hawkins

A Head Start


Toddlers led Beatriz Tamames to her post-high school plans when she spotted a group of them on the grounds of Miami’s Hialeah Senior High School in Miami, Fla. “I don’t know what they were doing,” she says today. I think they were hunting for eggs because it was around Easter. All I knew was it looked fun and I wanted in!”

The children were part of the early childhood education center in Hialeah’s education academy, which provides students with hands-on training and certification to enter the profession. When she graduates in 2015, Tamames will receive a Child Development Associate credential, making her eligible for a job immediately following graduation.

Tamames serves as the childcare provider for cousins ages 12 and 5, and says they were her “inspiration to teach smaller kids.” When the high school senior saw the toddlers at Hialeah, she was able to connect the dots to the enjoyment she experiences caring for her young relatives.

“I didn’t know early education was offered at Hialeah High, but I took advantage of it the very next year,” says Tamames, who plans to enroll at Miami Dade Community College and sign up for its early childhood education program. Ultimately, she hopes to own her own childcare center.

Neither current nor accurate data exists on the number of centers in public schools. However, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2012 that elementary and secondary schools employed 11 percent of the 1.3 million childcare workers.

Hialeah has offered childcare service to area residents since 2002. The program was created for students interested in pursuing a career in education.

The school’s principal, Heriberto Sánchez, says it’s about having options. “We want to provide our students with a diverse curriculum so that there’s something for everyone.”

The program has grown, too. Ten years ago, six students completed the program. Today, there are 20 students who will be ready to work at an early childhood education center.

Tamames says programs like these benefit the entire school community: “Children get a jump-start on their education. Parents have peace of mind after noticing how much better their child does on social and educational levels. And students—like me—get a head start on their careers.”

—Brenda Álvarez

‘Teachers Don’t Brag Enough’


As public schools continue to succeed despite growing odds, soon-to-be retired teacher Bob Brown is leaving the profession dismayed by rampant over testing, unrealistic pressures placed on educators, and the scapegoating of schools by politicians and the media. “It’s taken the joy and creativity out of teaching,” he explains. “And I don’t think students enjoy school as much as they used to. My kids are not numbers. They are not data points.”

Brown admits that he thinks about returning to teach in the fall, but says the stress of the job is too much. This year, 25 teachers will retire from his district. “That’s just unheard of,” he says.

Brown says he believes it’s healthy to work in a demanding profession. But he draws the line when it comes to stress. “The bar has been raised on our profession,” he says. “That’s tough because it is driving out some people. We have to take the stress out, but expecting more of teachers, generally, is a good thing.”

He is encouraged by improved collaboration among teachers, and the constructive conversations between teachers and principals. Though new evaluation policies have been the driving factor behind the changes, in Brown’s view, more conversation is a plus.
Of the students he will leave behind, Brown says, “They’re just always great. The ones I’ve taught this year are the greatest bunch I’ve ever had.”

Ten years ago, Brown created a Wall of Honor at the school to spotlight students who have done well professionally, and one of his retirement goals is to turn their successes into a book.

Asked about his colleagues, Brown says, “Teachers don’t brag enough. There are so many wonderful things our teachers are doing, and the public never hears about them. I want to help publicize our successes.”

—Tim Walker


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