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First-year teacher Andy Kwok (right) helps 15-year-old Brandon Stewart finish his work June 13, the day after most EXCEL High School students began their summer vacation. (Jane Tyska/The Oakland Tribune)

OAKLAND — June 13 marked the last day of Andy Kwok's first year at West Oakland's EXCEL High School. The milestone came as a relief to the 23-year-old science teacher — and, most likely, to his students. Roughly three-quarters of them left for summer vacation with a passing grade in biology.

The students' grades improved dramatically over the course of the year. After the first marking period, Kwok recalled, some of the pages in his gradebook had "F's" all the way down the line.

The turnaround may have resulted from students' redoubled efforts, or from better teaching. But another factor — the difficulty of the work — was also at play.

At the beginning of the school year, Kwok was troubled that so many of his students were failing. He wanted to bridge the distance between what they knew and what they were expected to grasp. But as a rookie, he didn't know where to start. So he handled the situation as best he knew how: He made the work easier.

The worksheets that came with the biology curriculum seemed to be over many of his students' heads, so he stopped assigning them. He reasoned that with fewer and less demanding assignments, his students "wouldn't get discouraged."

"I felt like if I really kept up with it, I could have progressed them along," Kwok said. "But it would have been a struggle all the way through."

Kwok was one of hundreds of first-year teachers to start his career in Oakland last year. And, experts say, he was one of countless novices throughout the country asked to do exceptionally complex, vitally important work with little to no experience.

Kate Walsh, president of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group the National Council on Teacher Quality, said "watering down" the curriculum is a common coping strategy for overwhelmed teachers, particularly beginners.

"To expect him to bring those students up to the level you might have in a more affluent school is absolutely unrealistic," Walsh said.

Walsh said teachers become far more effective in their second and third years on the job. But as they gain experience, she noted, they tend to take on less demanding positions.

"We tend to give the highest-need classroom to the newest teacher," she said.

As emotionally draining as that first year might be for beginning teachers, Walsh added, "The students are going to suffer a lot more than the teacher ever will."

Kwok grew up in a diverse, middle-class area of St. Louis, Mo., attended good public schools and went on to study biology at the University of Michigan. When he arrived at EXCEL at age 22, with almost no educational training or teaching experience, he was astonished by the shaky academic foundation many of his ninth- and 10th-grade students possessed.

At times, Kwok said, he struggled to reconcile the differences between the biology course he took as a high school student and the one he was teaching. Too overwhelmed to coordinate regular experiments, and without a set of microscopes strong enough even for cell structure observations, Kwok knew he wasn't exposing his students to the same variety of scientific procedures seen in more established, better-equipped biology classrooms.

Instead of looking at phases of cell division under a microscope, for example, his students watched videos on mitosis and drew diagrams on poster board. They also finished the year without the quintessential experience of dissecting a small animal.

"I rarely do actual science labs," Kwok said. Next year, he said, he plans to set up experiments on a more regular basis.

EXCEL High School opened in 2005 as part of Oakland's small schools movement, funded largely by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It was designed to prepare students in the predominantly low-income, African-American area for college, but not all of Kwok's students embraced the school's ideals. Some habitually showed up late, unprepared, or shouted at each other in class, derailing the lesson plan and causing endless frustration to those who wanted to learn.

On any given day, a third of Kwok's class might be absent.

"I think, in this environment, half of my job is educating the students in terms of content," Kwok said. "The other half is educating them in how to become students."

Kwok soon learned that his students preferred "hands-on" activities to lectures and videos. So he assigned projects: a board game on chemical properties, for example, or a family tree tracing a particular genetic trait.

The more independently his students worked, the more mellow his classroom became. Suddenly, his classes no longer hinged on his ability to hold the interest of 20 teenagers for an hour. Those moments of relative calm were a godsend during some of the rougher periods, and they might have given Kwok the energy to press on.

Some of the assignments appeared relatively challenging. Others were much simpler, involving glue sticks, markers and scissors. On one such worksheet, students colored base pairs to recreate strands of DNA.

"It could be harder, but I like it the way it is," said Deshondre Higginbotham, 15, who was working on one such worksheet, titled "Build your own brain."

Kwok's students took a standardized test mid-year to measure what they had learned. The results caught the new teacher by surprise.

"My kids did terribly on that, and I realized from that that I needed to step it up as a teacher," Kwok said. "I had to re-evaluate my teaching and my class, and how I reached my students."

For all of his early setbacks and disappointments, Kwok's skills seemed to improve as the year wore on. His once dry teaching style became more relaxed and creative. The look of fear in his eyes disappeared, replaced by a paternal blend of weariness and amusement.

"He don't take no nonsense, but he's not as stuck up as I thought he would be," said Robert Brigham, 16, who said Kwok had become one of his favorite teachers. "It seemed like he opened up more as he got to know us and our personalities."

"He used to put slides on a projector," Brigham added, describing Kwok's evolution as a teacher.

Kwok also made inroads with his students by tutoring them after school and organizing college tours. Those moments allowed him to spend time with the teenagers outside the classroom.

Robbin Rae McCulloch, a media studies teacher whose classroom is across the hall, said such breakthroughs are critical to a teacher's success at EXCEL. "In our school, our students really put you through a yearlong trial," she said. "They want to know if you're here to stay."

In her three years at the high school, McCulloch has watched numerous teachers cycle through, each time starting that yearlong trial from scratch. She's now a friend and a mentor to Kwok, whom she once worried would become yet another teaching casualty.

"I was kind of scared for the first month, like 'I don't know. I don't know if he's going to stay,'" McCulloch recalled.

When Kwok returns in the fall, he will teach environmental science and advanced biology (EXCEL will no longer offer ninth-grade biology). With a year of experience behind him, he expects to start the year differently.

"I think I'm better equipped to handle the students and to avoid truly difficult days," Kwok said. "I hope that as every year progresses, I'll test them and challenge them more."

But the cycle of new teachers EXCEL has experienced won't stop with Kwok's decision to stay. In the fall, two new hires will replace seasoned teachers who have found new positions, or new careers, elsewhere.

And, like Kwok, they will have to learn how to teach.

Reach Reporter Katy Murphy at 510-208-6424 or kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read her Oakland schools blog and post comments at www.ibabuzz.com/education.

Editor's Note
Oakland schools reporter Katy Murphy followed first-year teacher Andy Kwok this year. This is the last installment in an occasional series. Read all the stories and see video on Kwok's first year at OaklandTribune.com.