We’re delighted to announce the winner of the 2016 Escalante–Gradillas $20,000 Prize for Best in Education:
Math teacher at Abraham Lincoln High School in Los Angeles, California
For 2016, finalists were all primary and secondary schoolteachers, nominated by peers, parents, and students. These dedicated educators bring a staggering array of gifts, experiences, and goals into their classrooms, challenging students to reach higher. Every one of them did more with less, overcame obstacles, boosted achievement levels, and raised the standard of excellence for their schools and districts.
Anthony Yom wins a $10,000 cash prize for himself, and another $10,000 for his school.
Our second place honoree is Jose Octavio Rivas Jr. of Lennox Math, Science & Technology Academy in Lennox, California, whose school will receive $5,000 in recognition of Rivas’ excellence. Our third place honoree is Michael Kosko of Al Raby School for Community and Environment in Chicago, which will receive $3,000 to celebrate Kosko’s accomplishments. We’ll be featuring their stories later on as well, so be sure to subscribe to our newsletter for updates.
Author William Arthur Ward wrote, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” The three we celebrate here exemplify great teachers, standing with the next generation and guiding them toward new horizons.
Calculus. The term alone can inspire an uneasy shudder, and for those of us who are intimately familiar with the subject, it can trigger flashbacks of all-too-recent restless nights spent tossing and turning, in a cold sweat, running from nightmares of the frontline: the dreaded AP Calculus exam.
Even for those who never took it, the Calculus exam is a familiar and notorious specter to anyone who saw the 1988 film Stand and Deliver, which focuses on teacher Jaime Escalante (whose achievements this award honors), and his quest for his students to conquer the exam.
Escalante succeeded, of course, and many of his students bested the exam, though everyone involved faced trials along the way. Who else would wish this grueling test of computation, of skill, and of determination on anyone, let alone high school students, and what is more, with many of them coming from underprivileged and difficult situations? Enter Anthony Yom, the winner of the 2016 Best in Education Prize.
Believe the hype (of which there is plenty): Yom is a teaching dynamo. A simple Internet search will bring up numerous results, including articles and interviews, detailing and celebrating the success and inspiration that Yom has fostered in his students. Most of the sources will focus on the fact that, for the last four years, an unprecedented 100 percent of Yom’s AP Calculus students have passed the infamous exam. All of them will mention, at some point, that one of Yom’s students, Cedrick Argueta, actually passed the exam with a perfect score, making him one of only 12 students in the world to do so, a feat which Yom humbly admits he is not sure he could accomplish himself. And though Yom has noted that in the 2015–16 year his class average score was a 4.96 on a scale of 5, he will be the first to tell you, “It’s not about the scores all the time.”
Certainly Yom’s great success with AP Calculus alone is remarkable, but there is more to it than that. Anyone who talks about Yom, be they reporters, his colleagues, or his students like Argueta, all comment on the strength of Yom’s character and his dedication to the growth of his students. It’s not just the success we can see in the exam scores that makes Yom the Best in Education, it’s where the success comes from, a place of empathy and caring, a place of humility and deep, honest concern for his students—and clearly it is working. But what is the secret? Yom will tell you, “It’s not like I have a secret strategy. It’s just about creating the right environment where students can ultimately take ownership of a class and help one another become a team.”
Yom wants his students to know that it’s not about him. It’s not about a paycheck, nor about fame. It’s not about any individual. It’s about everyone; they’re all a team, and they’re all going to get through it together. None will be left behind. The goal is the success of all, not the success of one.
Argueta, in his letter of recommendation, tells us “Yom is a ‘teacher’ unlike any other.” Argueta puts quotation marks around the word teacher because, as he explains, Yom is more than that. The metaphor of a team is appropriate, and Yom is coach. As hard as the students may study, Yom is there with them, studying just as hard, putting in extra hours over lunch and after school alongside his students. Just as they do their homework to be the best students possible, he does his homework to be the best teacher.
Camaraderie is key in this AP Calculus classroom, and though at the end of the day Yom is ultimately the figure of authority, he doesn’t like to emphasize that, and instead aims for being relatable, and meeting the students on their level, while constantly helping them elevate that level.
Yom’s background helps with this. When he was 12, his family immigrated from Korea to Koreatown in Los Angeles, California. His mother ran a Chinese restaurant, and his father worked at an upholstery shop. In addition to the typical struggles of a teenager living in the city, including busing, Yom struggled with linguistic and cultural differences, buth mathematics trascends such boundaries, and he found he was good at it. He worked his way through high school and college, eventually earning an M.Ed. from UCLA. Now entering his 12th year teaching, Yom looks a youthful 36, and, adding to this, he often dresses in the same brands of clothes as his students, creating a space of commonality between them, rather than distance and hierarchy.
It is not hard to draw comparisons between Yom and Escalante: both taught the same course to underprivileged students, and each achieved notable success.
When Yom began teaching at Abraham Lincoln High School, he was 24, and encountered difficulty and opposition, enough to make him reconsider his career choice. Yet as he continued to push, he learned how to connect with his students. By earning their respect and trust, he would in turn be able to help them succeed. Lincoln High School is in Lincoln Heights, a neighborhood in LA characterized by a high poverty rate and a significant number of immigrant families. At Lincoln High School alone, the poverty rate of the student body is nearly 91 percent.
When he first got to Lincoln High, Yom was intimidated by the school’s tough culture. In a challenge, one student thrust his face inches from Yom’s own and then walked out of class. Yom regularly met with another rookie teacher, herself in tears, and they shared their experience, frustration, and disappointment. But Yom turned that around and began fostering trust with his students by fashioning himself as more of a caring big brother, assisted by his age and appearance. He made connections with his students and their families, and he tutored after hours, on weekends, and on vacation. He showed his charges, through being a living example, that he was in it with them. Eventually, Yom convinced that same student who walked out to stay in class, and he even passed with a D, to which Yom says, “I told him I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
Even as things got better, of course, struggles continued. Yom’s classes see themselves as a team, and sometimes, teammates worry that they will let the others down. Recently, Yom had a student come to him in the middle of the school year, upset that he was struggling, concerned that he was holding the team back. He wanted to quit, but Yom wouldn’t let him give up so easily. It took Yom more than a week to convince him. “I told him, ‘Listen, we don’t think about not passing here. We’re going to finish this course together.’ I wanted him to know that it’s okay to not pass—let’s just give this everything we’ve got.” The team would pull through, and the student was part of that team and would not be left behind. He went on to pass the exam with the rest of his teammates, with a score of 3. When Yom later ran into that student, he gave him a big hug.
As Yom notes, “Sometimes, [the students] have bigger issues than learning algebra or calculus.” Sometimes, they have hard home lives: both parents work long hours, struggling to support their families. Sometimes, it is only one parent. Cars break down and they have trouble getting where they need to be. People get sick. People get hungry. People get evicted. And yet, the students work hard, they achieve, they care, because they know Yom cares, because they know that he is invested in their success, not just as students, but as people.
“I’m trying to accomplish more than teaching math. I want to teach [each student] to persevere, to become a good human being who contributes to society.” No matter their backgrounds, whether their parents clean houses and hotel rooms, work at factories or gas stations, Yom wants them to dream big, and to be able to achieve that dream; to become great engineers, scientists, doctors, to find great success, and to use that success to give back, to inspire and help others the way he has inspired and helped them.
Yom is truly a model educator, not just because of his success with the AP Calculus exam, for which he says, “Most of the credit should go to the kids,” but also because of his tireless dedication to his students as people and to their well-being. The world needs more educators like him, who can make such a profound difference in the lives of others. TheBestSchools.org is proud to award the Escalante-Gradillas Prize for the Best in Education to Anthony Yom. We anticipate that this prize will encourage him to continue to inspire and equip the next generation of leaders.
With the growing push for students to study and enter STEM fields, Jose Octavio Rivas Jr. has answered the call. Relying on his engineering background, Rivas approaches teaching with an engineer’s dedication to simplicity and efficiency, focusing on the most important aspects of the task to ensure the greatest result. He describes this methodology as every student, every day. “All my students know that I am 100 percent there for them, and their success is my top priority. They know when they walk into my classroom that they are going to learn, they will have fun, and no one will be left behind.”
Rivas grew up in Lennox, California, and was fascinated by science, thanks in part to science-fiction TV shows and movies, which led him to earn a BS in mechanical engineering from Loyola Marymount University, and to pursue a career in engineering, working for companies such as Northrup, Raytheon, Hughes, and Boeing, where he was a team lead on spacecraft design. However, Rivas felt he had a strong obligation to give back to his community, and so, while still an engineer, he began mentoring at Lennox Middle School, and was even elected to the Lennox School Board.
Eventually, Rivas left his engineering career to teach full-time, beginning at Roosevelt High before taking a position at Lennox Math, Science & Technology Academy, where he currently teaches grades 9–12. He went on to earn an MA in secondary education through Loyola Marymount as well. He is also is a certified teacher in the national Project Lead The Way, and teaches such courses as engineering design & development and aerospace engineering.
“That first year teaching was harder than anything I have ever done in my entire life,” says Rivas. He knuckled down, though, taking what he knew from engineering and assessing the situation. His previous job required he find solutions to difficult problems, and teaching required the same. Rivas applied what he knew about the design process to teaching and redeveloped his approach, coming up with projects and plans that would get the students excited and engaged in engineering.
He showed them how lessons could be applied to real-world scenarios and situations they already understood, even if some of those situations were drawn from popular movies or TV shows. In that light, Rivas also organizes the school’s anime club, in addition to several STEM-focused extracurricular groups.
Rivas says that when he first enters the classroom for the year, he tells the students that his goal is to make them all into engineers. He doesn’t just want them to pass; he wants them to excel. He doesn’t just want them to have degrees; he wants them to have rewarding, enriched lives. For his efforts, Rivas’ school has developed a strong connection to its community, and he has secured over $150,000 dollars in grant money, received numerous awards, including the National Science Teachers Association Shell Science Teacher Award in 2015, and many of his students have found success as engineers at cutting-edge companies and as educators at colleges. Rivas is dedicated to the community of Lennox and to his students, and for this we recognize his achievements.
At Al Raby High School in Chicago, 98.6 percent of the student population is low-income, and little funding exists for teachers. Despite those challenges, Michael Kosko has been instrumental in expanding the school into a wall-to-wall CTE (Careers in Technical Education) school, securing over $50,000 in grant money, and developing some of the most high-tech, integrated, and groundbreaking classrooms in the state.
Kosko teaches STEM classes through a distinctive, hands-on approach that has seen his students using a class set of Chromebooks (acquired through grant funding), designing mazes for mice, using an Xbox Kinect to scan and then 3D print their heads, and growing and studying vegetables in the school’s aquaponics lab (also constructed thanks to grant money). Kosko earned a BS from the University of Michigan in anthropology-zoology and Spanish, and that background’s variety strengthens his approach to pedagogy.
As the CTE Coordinator at Al Raby, as well as the Science Chair, Kosko is dedicated to ensuring his students get the highest quality science education possible, one that includes variety and engaging projects.
Kosko’s dedication extends beyond the walls of his school, however, as he seeks to improve and enrich the community as well. He is the Service Learning Coordinator for the school and has worked with Junior Achievement of Chicago to train Al Raby’s students in the High School Heroes program, which allows older students to visit elementary schools to mentor and teach financial literacy to younger students. Kosko tells us this service day is his favorite day of the year. More than just a science educator, he is personally invested in the growth and success of his students, helping them secure internships and find and apply for colleges through his involvement in the Senior Leadership team and the Postsecondary team.
Kosko has presented to fellow educators at conferences and has set a new standard for the innovative integration of technology in the classroom. Through a creative approach, he has not only gotten his students engaged in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, but in the pursuit of a stronger community, exposing them to ideas and experiences ordinarily outside their means, and encouraging them to explore, both onward and inward. This summer, Toshiba selected Kosko for its TOMODACHI Toshiba Science & Technology Leadership Academy partnership program in Japan, and as he will work with other educators in Tokyo, we can only expect he will continue to hone his innovative approach to teaching back in Chicago.
The Escalante–Gradillas Prize for Best in Education is an annual award that alternates years between teachers and school administrators. The 2017 Prize will recognize school administrators.
Do you know any school administrators who are heroes to the teachers and students they serve? Nominate them for the 2017 Prize! It’s a life-changing award that spotlights the work of a dedicated educator.
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