My journey in education started in 2010 when I graduated from college. I went to Columbia University and Teach for America recruited me in my junior year of college. They presented me with the option of teaching at low-income communities throughout the country. I selected the region of Houston. I moved from New York City to Houston in 2010, and have not left. I was an eighth-grade science teacher for five years with the Houston Independent School District. There I fell in love with being able to immediately transform lives and having children every day tell me, for the first time “I like doing homework” and “I want to come to school every day because of you Ms. Urena”. It just made me feel so special. I felt like that’s what I was supposed to be doing with my life.
Seeing the significant gaps my students had reminded me of the gaps that I had environmentally, but I was blessed to have mentors throughout my career that were able to give me and expose me to the academic rigor that I needed to be successful. Then I went to coach teachers in the same region where I taught. It was different teaching adults compared to teaching children, but you just want to pass on to other adults the impact that you have made, and now you have a wider impact.
I then joined the Building Excellent Schools Fellowship, where they train us to lead high-performing charter schools throughout the country. Now I’m the principal at Etoile Academy, a school that was birthed through the fellowship with Building Excellent Schools.
When I was at Columbia, I majored in psychology, so mental health was something that I was interested in college. I didn’t realize that I was going to become a teacher and actually practice helping children cope with mental health challenges. I now apply what I learned in my psych classes, such as trauma-informed practices, environmental challenges, and also the malleability of brains to be able to learn.
Kayleigh Colombero is the lead founder of Etoile Academy. I’ve been with Etoile since the very first student ever walked through our doors, the very first class. Kayleigh and I built a strong relationship because we have a very aligned mission and vision about what we think students of color and students of low-income communities need in order to be successful. We both have a very aligned mindset around structure and discipline, joy, being strict, and also just having high expectations of both students and adults. We are so calibrated in how we think and how we approach coaching teachers. This is a place that I want to grow and be a part of for a long time.
I was the Lead ELA teacher last year while being the Dean of Students, and the ESL Coordinator, amongst other roles. We were a very lean staff, so we wore multiple hats. Kayleigh is the principal, superintendent, and coach. We’re now in year two, which is really exciting because we’re still a baby school, but the things that we are doing now is just leaps and bounds from where we were in year one.
Many of the issues happening in low performing schools is not kid-based, it’s adult culture. Teaching is just as hard if not harder as being a doctor or lawyer. A teacher is making 100 decisions per hour. You have multiple students with all different kinds of learning styles. Keeping in mind the learning, the safety, the culture, it’s a lot. When I was able to transfer skills to adults, that’s when I said, I think I can lead a school.
The number one indicator of student performance is a high performing teacher. So, the gap is not doing more for the kids, it’s doing more for the adults so they can impact kids. The best way to do that is to lead a school. A lot of young educators think about writing curriculum or writing books about teaching, but the gap is teaching other adults that have successfully navigated the challenges themselves, so they can then impact more kids.
School choice for me means that a family has the ability to navigate all options regardless of their financial means. So me for example, I grew up in New York City, our public school system varies widely in terms of where the excellent schools are located. They can be right in your neighborhood or they can be an hour away. I was able to explore school choice, not with charter schools, but with a private school. I was accepted into a program called the Oliver Scholars program when I was in middle school. They prepare low-income students in middle school to gain access to prep high schools.
When I got accepted into the private school, my mom said I could go, even though it was an hour away on the subway. If she would not have allowed me to go to that school, I would not have gone to the college that I went to. The school costs about $50,000 per year and I had to be on a full scholarship in order to access it. In my mind, everyone should have access to an excellent school for free. That’s what this country is grounded on, but it’s not the reality.
“School choice to me means that a family, regardless of the language barrier, financial barrier, housing barrier, should be able to access an excellent school.”
Some schools are doing well, whether it’s charter or traditional public schools, but unfortunately, students who don’t come from affluent communities, don’t have as much access to these high performing schools. Their parents want them to go to good schools, but don’t know how to navigate the systems, the applications, the right people, etc. School choice to me means that a family, regardless of the language barrier, financial barrier, housing barrier, should be able to access an excellent school. Families Empowered, for example, has done a great job of bringing together one place where all families in Houston, if they know about the website, can access all the great schools in one place. That has been transformational for Houston.
Our country still has a long way to go to combat the academic inequities that exist. I thought, at this point in my life, I would be happy with the opportunities children of color have, or low-income communities have, but the reality is that we’re in 2020 and not much has changed in the last couple of decades. Although that’s disheartening, it just means that we have a lot more work to do. I do think that more attention has to be given to education, federally, state-wide, city-wide, but I think as long as we continue to keep those who have the passion and knowledge around education, then we’ll be able to do some great things.
Charter schools are heading in the right direction by holding all schools accountable for what’s happening on a daily basis. There are a lot of leaders in schools who are doing a really great job and raising the bar. We need to highlight those schools and those leaders more because learning from one another will allow more children to benefit and sit in a seat where they are receiving an excellent education