Nearly nine months and counting — that’s how long more than 1 million L.A. County students have been out of school. It’s only a guess when campuses will reopen amid the alarming surge in coronavirus cases. But talk to educators, parents and students and they invariably know someone who has made a difference. Someone who identified a pain point with distance learning, attempted to fix it and moved schooling forward during this unprecedented disruption to education.
They are brothers, worried mothers, creative teachers and college professors inventing new ways to teach familiar lessons. They are community builders who motivate students isolated behind computer screens.
These are some of their stories.
This PE teacher’s assignments have nothing to do with sit-ups
Alfredo Crossman-Chávez Jr. is a problem solver — and this physical education teacher and athletic director at KIPP Corazón Academy has plenty of challenges that have nothing to do with sit-ups.
How does he teach hand-eye coordination when his kids don’t have the right equipment at home? Crunch paper into balls. How does he deal with bad internet connections when so much of their exercise needs to take place outside twice a week? Record four sessions, doubling students’ chances to log on.
Crossman-Chávez finds ways to meet students where they want to be — and it’s not on Zoom.
He and a colleague at the South Gate school make strategic use of social media. There’s the “KCA Upper School P.E.” YouTube channel with yoga and high-intensity exercises. He launched the “kippcorazon_athletics” Instagram page, where he livestreams teacher vs. student athletic challenges that sometimes culminate with him drenched in ice water.
Determined to launch a cross-country team, he used Zoom, Google Classroom and the Nike Run Club App to virtually train and keep track of the runners’ progress.
“Coach Chávez is always pushing, always wants the best from us,” said seventh-grader Nathan Rodarte, who is team captain.
Among his other teaching duties? Crossman-Chávez guides students through nutritious meal preparation. And for fun he hosts the “Anime Club,” because the biggest problem he’s solving is to keep isolated adolescents engaged.
“This can’t be all work — especially not on the computer,” he said.
Why Luis Hernandez left college
Education didn’t come easy to Luis Hernandez, 21. His parents’ schooling was limited. Growing up in Boyle Heights, he helped his dad sell candies after school to make ends meet.
Still, he persisted, graduated from high school and enrolled at a community college hoping to study business. But when schools shut down, he saw his siblings, Rafael, 15, and Ruby, 11, and his nieces and nephews struggle — and he could relate. Hernandez put his own education on hold to prevent his young family members from getting lost in the crisis.
“It’s my responsibility,” he said. “I want to make sure they succeed.”
At one point in the spring, Hernandez helped care for six children, ages 7 to 15. Now, he mostly helps Ruby and Rafael, who suffered a stroke as a baby that resulted in physical and learning disabilities. One challenge, Hernandez said, has been knowing how to teach someone who learns differently than he does.
He bought a white board and relearned geometry to help with math problems. He began printing out two copies of each homework assignment, one for himself to figure out the answers first. He makes it a point to attend parent-teacher conferences.
Alexis Delgado, Rafael’s special education math teacher at Mendez High School in Boyle Heights, said she often gets messages from Hernandez, asking whether he’s done a problem correctly, so that he can teach Rafael, which has helped the boy’s understanding.
“I teach them as much as I can,” Hernandez said. “I’m not an A student. I’m not a B student. But I do my best because education is important.”
In the spring, Hernandez said he hopes to go back to school himself.
A mother of five is a relentless at-home provider
Before the pandemic, Zulema Camacho, a mother of five, ran diabetes prevention workshops at school sites for the Clínica Monseñor Óscar A. Romero facility. But when schools shut down, her work dried up.
In August, Camacho’s family hardships worsened. Her daughter’s clavicle was broken during childbirth, requiring special care. Then the Vernon textile company where her husband, Mario, worked closed for months. The company has reopened, and Mario is working six days a week as the family clings to stay in their Boyle Heights apartment.
Now Camacho, like so many mothers, is a caretaker, teacher, housekeeper, cook and homework monitor, determined to get her family through the crisis. Her children will learn. She will keep them on task. She will nourish and support her family.
She is a stickler for schedules. By the time her 7-, 12- and 14-year-old daughters gather at the kitchen table for school on weekday mornings, Camacho has their toast and smoothies ready.
When her daughters need to speak in class, she ushers them to the building stairwell for space, quiet and fresh air. When their computers stop working, she literally runs over to nearby Euclid Avenue Elementary School, for IT help, infant and toddler in tow.
“My girls know that before they sit in front of their tablets they need to be bathed, combed and properly dressed — just like in regular school. None of this pajama nonsense,” she said.
On Saturdays, Camacho makes and sells balloon decorations for drive-through parties, “anything to make a little money and help out my husband,” she said.
The one respite she allows herself is outdoor, socially distant prayer at La Voz del Pueblo, a local Christian church. “It’s just five of us and we always wear masks,” she said. “My husband worries about it, but he knows I need this to renew myself, so I can be strong for all of us.”
Science teacher uses art to engage students
Jeremy Zwang-Weissman teaches eighth-grade science at Virgil Middle School. But he has long known that it’s athletics, music and art that keeps students coming to class.
In the classroom, he pushes his students to grasp the principles of science through interactive simulations. And he does his best to keep them interacting with one another through team projects and daily check-ins.
But with students isolated behind their computer screens, he feels it’s crucial to keep extracurricular activities alive.
In the spring, Zwang-Weissman was desperate to keep the popular drum line group but was not authorized to give drums, sticks and pads to his students at home. So he decided they would drum on books and pillows over Zoom.
This semester, he and the school’s first music teacher in many years turned to GarageBand and other popular apps for music instruction. It’s not the thrill of deep-thumping drums, but better than pillow pounding.
“My hope is that when things are starting to open up, we’ll have students who’ve had some musical training and will be interested in joining the drum line,” he said.
Once a week, the science teacher meets with eight students over Zoom for conditioning.
“It instills work ethic, grit,” Zwang-Weissman said. “If you can go out and run three miles, you can definitely sit down and do your science homework.”
Straight A’s and college bound despite the odds
When she started her senior year at Roosevelt High School this fall, Carolina, 17, worried she wouldn’t find the motivation for online learning.
A teenager in foster care, she felt she had a home on the Roosevelt campus, where she formed tight bonds with teachers and was a leader among her peers. Online learning stripped away much of the in-person support she relied on.
“I felt like I needed to be face-to-face with someone and have those connections right there in the classroom just to feel motivated to do my work,” she said.
But Carolina has wanted to go to college since she was a little girl: “I’ll be the first in my family,” she said. So she persevered, even when her internet cut out again and again. She is now getting straight A’s and is also working as a school ambassador, helping encourage middle school students as they prepare to start high school.
“She lives by these values of wanting to give back,” said Jorge Lopez, Carolina’s teacher at Roosevelt, which is one of 19 historically underserved L.A. schools managed by the nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.
The Times is not publishing Carolina’s last name to protect her privacy as a minor in foster care.
Three months into the school year, Carolina said, “I feel really accomplished.” She has turned in her college applications and hopes to go to UCLA and possibly become a child psychologist.
“Being a leader is what I strive to be,” she said.
She turned seminar notes into a worldwide chat group
Mia Young-Adeyeba started her Facebook group on a whim.
The Hamilton High School English teacher had just completed webinar training hosted by Stanford Online High School and thought it would be great to create a space where she and the hundreds of educators who participated could share tips for distance learning.
Young-Adeyeba asked a friend she met through the Stanford training, South Gate High School English teacher Michelle Touceda, to help.
That was in July. Within a week, the group had over 1,000 members. The next week, 5,000. Teachers worldwide, from Argentina to Israel to the Philippines, had discovered the group, which hit 22,000 members last month.
Educators query the group: How do they adjust grading scales to reflect these exceptional times? Which home-office setups are the most ergonomically sound? How do they deal with the myriad technological issues with Zoom?
“Before the pandemic hit I felt like I was tech savvy, that I could do this,” Young-Adeyeba said. “But once I had to do it, I needed so much support.”
Young-Adeyeba said learning from group members has improved her own teaching. “It has really made me realize that collaboration is the most important asset that a school can provide for teachers, especially during this time.”
Without chalk, she built a DIY lightboard
Emily Nix, a microeconomics professor at USC, relies heavily on “chalk and talk” teaching — lecturing at a board, in educator parlance. It’s necessary for her math-heavy course, in which students solve problems using equations and graphs.
Nix wasn’t teaching in the spring when the pandemic hit, but when it became clear classes would remain online into the fall, she realized she had to find a replacement for her whiteboard. She turned to Google.
What she found was a lightboard — an illuminated glass chalkboard she could place in front of her and write on. Using a wood frame, a sheet of plexiglass and LED lights she bought at a hardware store, she built a 2-foot-by-3-foot prototype. Then she taught herself how to use a broadcasting software that flipped her writing.
Her tweets with videos of the setup went viral, viewed tens of thousands of times.
“The one thing that totally shocked me [was] I actually had far higher participation this year than I had in previous years,” she said.
Maya Sabbaghian, a freshman, said she felt Nix worked hard to adapt her course online, even “stopping by” breakout rooms where small groups of students worked on problems.
Creating her setup took Nix less than three days.
She offered a suggestion for other teachers: “Think about what you do really well in person, focus on a few small features, and then think about how you could translate it.”
Rigorous course loads make for better tutors
Richard Reynoso, a senior at Marco Antonio Firebaugh High School in Lynwood, has plenty to deal with — a tough course load, college applications and family obligations that include watching his younger siblings while his mother works.
Yet he agreed to add one responsibility to his work list: taking a leadership role running student-led tutoring in the Lynwood Unified School District.
“I really like the experience of being able to share some knowledge and help some struggling students,” said Richard, a co-leader of the effort.
He helps assess the needs of students who show up online for help Monday through Friday from 1 to 5 p.m. He also joins about 20 other honors students in the tutoring effort.
So far, they are working with 40 to 50 mostly younger students in their rapidly growing project. Education experts say this type of one-on-one tutoring is most effective to address the struggles of distance learning. They try to match students with a high schooler who attended the same elementary school because making a connection is key to tutoring success.
Alexa Escamilla, an advanced calculus student, worked recently with a fifth-grader, who wanted to become more confident in math and was happy to receive help from another girl.
“I really love it because the smile and the look on the kid’s face when they get it right is so amazing,” she said.
Times staff writers Nina Agrawal and Howard Blume contributed to this report.
Paloma Esquivel is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She was on the team that won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for public service for investigating corruption in the city of Bell and the team that won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for coverage of the San Bernardino terror attack. Prior to joining The Times in 2007, she was a freelance writer, worked in Spanish-language radio and was an occasional substitute teacher. A Southern California native, she graduated from UC Berkeley and has a master’s in journalism from Syracuse University.
Julia Barajas is a former Los Angeles Times reporter. Before joining The Times in 2019, she covered the impact of changing drug policies in California and Latin America for Cannabis Wire. Her work has also appeared in La Opinión, La Prensa Gráfica and the Columbia Journalism Review. After graduating from the University of Chicago, she earned a master’s in education from Cal State Long Beach, as well as a master’s in journalism from Columbia University.
Laura Newberry is a reporter with the mental health initiative at the Los Angeles Times and writes Group Therapy, a weekly newsletter. She previously worked on The Times’ education team and was a staff reporter at both the Reading Eagle in Eastern Pennsylvania and MassLive in Western Massachusetts. She graduated from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2018 and is currently pursuing her master of social work.