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Academic Decathlon coach draws on her own life to inspire students

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Fremont High Academic Decathlon coach draws on her own life to inspire students
Former high school dropout is Academic Decathlon coach of the year
Only 25% of Fremont High students are at grade level in English and 8% are at grade level in math

Fremont High history teacher Kenia Gomez didn't have much of a summer break. Neither did her students on the school's Academic Decathlon team. They spent three days a week on the South Los Angeles campus, prepping for next year's competition.

Last spring, the squad finished in 13th place in the Los Angeles Unified contest — just out of the running for a spot in the state finals. That's not bad for a team that placed 47th three years ago.

At the contest finale, Gomez was voted coach of the year by teachers supervising the district's other decathlon teams. "My kids; they're the ones who did the work," Gomez said. "They made me look good."

I thought of Gomez and her students when I read about Supt. John Deasy's back-to-school speech at Garfield High last week. He called on principals, counselors and teachers to go the extra mile for struggling students to keep them from dropping out.

Taped to every seat in the auditorium that day was the name of a high school student that an administrator is supposed to mentor until graduation. The students singled out for special attention have been truant or in trouble. Most are failing classes. Many are still learning English. Some live in foster homes or have disabilities that impede their progress.

Those attributes fit many students at Fremont High, which had performed so poorly for so long that it was shut down by the district four years ago and reopened with a new staff, new money and new plans.

Since then, attendance, test scores and graduation rates have risen every year. But improvement is a work in progress; only 25% of Fremont students are at grade level in English and 8% are at grade level in math.

Deasy has planned an early morning visit to the campus Tuesday as students return for the fall term. "It's a school that has seriously focused on changing the narrative for students," the superintendent said. Teachers such as Gomez are "rock stars" in his view.

Gomez has spent all four years of her teaching career at Fremont, and she sees support for the decathlon as a sign of success. The principal found money in the budget to keep the campus open during winter break so the team could gather to cram. Calculus and literature teachers volunteered to help her students study for those subjects on the grueling, 10-subject exam. Co-coach Leslie Hayden made sure every student got personal attention.

Gomez didn't need a note taped to her chair to recognize how important that is.

Twenty years ago, the district's best decathlon coach was one of those troubled students.

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Gomez grew up in Bell — where she still lives — with a single mother who worked long hours and a grandmother who couldn't keep up with an adventurous teenager.

"I was free to roam and hung out with a bad crowd," Gomez admitted. "I was one of those kids who wasn't really connected to school; I just went through the motions." She dropped out in ninth grade, and by the time she went back she was two years behind.

Three things kept her on track to graduation: soccer, band and the encouragement of a middle school counselor with whom she's still in touch.

At 35, she shares her life lessons with Fremont students. "I tell them I'm not a genius, I just work hard.... You've got to make them feel like they belong to something, and help them take pride in that."

The Academic Decathlon team is a testament to that. Fremont used to struggle to field a team. Now dozens of students compete for the nine spots. "We have to get the kids to buy into it," she said. "It has to feel like fun."

So Gomez lets the decathlon students eat lunch in her classroom and play Super Nintendo while they cram. Team members get special hoodies each year, which they help design. "Kids want to join for the hoodies," she joked. "People see how close we are.... We pull them in, then we torture them with all the work that's required."

And they rise to the challenge, she said. "I gave them summer reading and they did it. They tweet about things they need to study when I'm not around. They start to hold each other accountable."

That makes their teachers proud.

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Some students, she said, are off-the-charts smart. "But the hard work and the discipline is just as important as having that big brain. They have to realize it's going to hurt a little bit, they have to struggle."

Gomez struggles too. Most days, she gets to school by 7 a.m. and doesn't leave until after 5 p.m. "I'm not going to lie to you, at the end of the day I'm wiped out," she said. "But at the end of the day I'm always able to find something to feel good about. You have to look for the positive and just go with that."

Even when that "positive" is an 800-mile round trip to deposit a carload of students at UC Davis for a summer enrichment program. She and coach Hayden drove back up to retrieve them at the program's end.

"These kids, they totally deserve it," Gomez said. "They're the ones going above and beyond."

And she's just one of the teachers in their corner.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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