Dos Pueblos High School math teacher Kelly Choi has been selected as Santa Barbara County’s 2013-2014 Teacher of the Year.
After the selection committee spent numerous hours reviewing applications and visiting classrooms, they settled upon Choi out 20 county teachers. “As a representative of all teachers, being selected as Teacher of the Year is one of education’s greatest honors and is also one of its highest responsibilities,” remarked Bill Cirone, Santa Barbara County Superintendent of Schools, during his speech at a Thursday afternoon press conference in the education office’s board room.
An emotional Choi stood in front of colleagues, friends, and family as she conveyed her passion for teaching. “I am so honored that SBCEO and the selection committee want to recognize and appreciate the work that my team and I do for helping to reverse the cycle of failure for the most at-risk students,” she said.
Choi, who is beloved by her students and highly revered by her colleagues, was recognized for her pioneering work in integrating technology into the classroom. Perhaps more importantly, though, she was lauded for directing and cofounding The Academy at Dos Pueblos High School, a program that identifies the most at-risk ninth graders and gives them intensive support for success in school and after graduation.
The Academy identifies first-year high school students who are most vulnerable for dropping out based on low GPAs and frequent disciplinary issues. Once identified, the students enter the program in the 10th grade and remain with the same group of teachers for the subsequent three years, eliminating the stress of new expectations from new teachers and providing a strong basis of support and continuity, something Choi deems integral to the students’ personal and academic accomplishment. “I believe student success begins with the relationship with the teacher,” she expressed. “My strength is creating a relationship with my students built on honesty, trust, and respect. But mostly, I just kill them with kindness.”
In Choi’s eyes, the need for The Academy became apparent four years ago when, as a new teacher at Dos Pueblos, she was given a demanding schedule involving a large English Learner (EL) population with many challenges. While she and other staff were working one-on-one with at-risk students, they observed student success within their own classrooms, but not others. Choi soon took it upon herself to collaborate with like-minded colleagues to engender an organized environment with individualized attention for these students, a place where they could each receive comprehensive personal and academic support.
The numbers speak for themselves: 100 percent of Choi’s first batch of 30 ninth graders graduated last year, discipline referrals for Academy students fell from 221 to 56, and average student GPAs increased from 1.41 to 2.49. The groups of students remain tight-knit with each other and their teachers post-graduation, staying in contact with one another on a weekly basis.
Since public education funding continues to grow bleaker and bleaker, ensuring that the program stay alive has required a lot of championing and resoluteness: It is Choi’s “steadfast commitment to serving students and their interests above all else” that is the lifeblood of The Academy, said Dos Pueblos Principal Shawn Carey.