Kaylie Gomez is surrounded by her students from Wisdom Academy for Young… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
I don't know what her students' test scores are like, or what her principal thinks. But I do know that if I had a child in third grade, I'd want someone like Kaylie Gomez to teach her.
Gomez is a rookie teacher at a tiny charter school in South Los Angeles. She's got 23 students in her class at Wisdom Academy for Young Scientists. I met them this spring on a field trip they took to Cal State Northridge.
I'd received a personal invitation in the mail, handwritten and decorated by Gomez's students. The teacher followed up with endless emails, imploring me to join them on campus.
I showed up because I admired her persistence. She wanted to teach her students not just about college, but that someone, beyond their parents and teacher, cares about their prospects.
Gomez, a Cal State Northridge alum, enlisted the provost, the dean of education and her favorite professors to host classes and lead a tour of the dorms, athletic center and library.
The kids were like third-graders everywhere: The girls whispered and giggled. The boys kicked each other's chairs. But they also struck me as whip smart and unfailingly polite.
They didn't need the science professor to instruct them on the phases of the moon. They'd learned that watching the moon from their yards, just as their teacher taught them.
And they were unimpressed by the journalist following them around. They're professional writers too, you know. The book their teacher helped them write, "Wacky Stories From Wisdom Academy for Young Scientists," is available at Amazon.com.
The proceeds it earns will go to their school, but the pride accrues to these students.
Gomez, who was born in Spain, has always wanted to be a teacher. But when she got her credential two years ago, she couldn't find a full-time job. So she ran an after-school program in Aliso Viejo until Wisdom Academy came calling.
Like a lot of inner-city charter schools, the Wisdom Academy campus is a shoestring operation: eight classrooms, separated by folding doors, in an old church on a haggard stretch of Manchester Avenue.
The days are long and the challenges large. Most students come from poor families; many struggle with academic deficits and behavior problems. In Gomez's third-grade class, three children couldn't read at the beginning of the year, while others tested at fourth-grade level.
But the principal is supportive, the senior teachers helpful, "and the school as a whole is really trying to plant the seed of college," Gomez said.
"It's a word we throw around a lot," she said. "These kids think college is just more school. I wanted them to see it's a community, it's where you live, where you make your friends." And where a child who sleeps on a sofa at home sees a bed in a dorm as a luxury.
Gomez understands that her role is bigger than science or reading or math. She's trying to teach her students to be good citizens, to handle their emotions, to imagine lives beyond the limitations of low expectations and poverty.
The teacher's own life has taught her that motivation matters more than test scores. "When you come from tough circumstances, that's what matters. It's not a matter of what they're capable of, it's whether they're going to do it."
Many of her students are being raised by single mothers. Gomez grew up without a father too. "They want to use that as an excuse. I don't know where they hear it, but it doesn't work with me," she said.
Her classroom is an excuse-free zone: "When they do something wrong, they just say 'I'm sorry. I did something wrong.'"
She tells them that life isn't fair, that it's tougher for some people. "That's just the way it is. That's why you have to work harder," she said.
"I try to make it sound like knowledge is this thing that nobody can take away from you. And the smarter you are, the easier life is going to be, because you'll be able to handle things better."
Miss Gomez got the news she wanted on Monday: She'll be back at Wisdom Academy as a third-grade teacher this fall. She'll also be studying for her master's degree in curriculum and instruction.
"There's still a lot I have to learn," she said. "My students have been very patient with me. We call ourselves a family."
I think this rookie teacher already gets what many veterans don't: Children don't care what you know until they know that you care.
Gomez doesn't coddle her kids, but she does make learning fun. I visited her class on the semester's last day, and almost every child had a story to share about something they enjoyed:
Reading parties, where the teacher serves cocoa and the students wear pajamas. Music lessons on Miss Gomez's keyboard. Yoga sessions. Zumba classes. Science projects that use jump-ropes and marbles to make "anti-gravity" real. Even the journals she makes them keep, and the letters she writes to students every week.
"You know what I like best about Miss Gomez?," asked Keshanna Harris, bouncing in her seat. "Just being a good person.... She's Mama Bear."
I can feel that influence in her classroom. The children raise their hands, applaud their classmates, encourage a child who's too shy to speak.
Those aren't the skills measured on achievement tests. But they are a measure of self-respect.