OAKLAND — Just two years in, and biology teacher Andy Kwok is already joking about feeling "old."
Kwok, 24 — whose difficult first year of teaching was chronicled in the Tribune — is now a mentor to some of the school's rookies.
"Everyone has bad days here," Kwok said on a recent afternoon, after his last-period class had ended. "But you learn how to recover from it. You learn how to respond to it."
Kathy Lee, 23, remembers running to Kwok for help in the fall when one of her students threw a chair and began to scream at her. "He came in and covered for me while I gathered myself," Lee said.
She added, "He's so calm about everything. It's like he's been here forever."
Tess Lantos, another first-year teacher, said Kwok quickly appeared in her room one day after school after she posted a stressed-out instant message that read, "I want to quit my job."
While others have given Lantos instructional tips, Kwok helped her sort through larger questions, such as: "What am I doing here? How do I get through this? How do I learn to let it go when days are bad?"
"It feels so personal when it's a bad day," Lantos added. "This school gets a lot of young, impressive teachers, but with teaching, you don't always feel impressive."
EXCEL High School, a product of Oakland's small schools movement, opened on West Oakland's McClymonds high school campus in 2005. EXCEL was designed to instill a college focus among its predominantly low-income, African-American students, and it has been staffed since its inception with young, enthusiastic and close-knit teachers. Like many Oakland schools, it struggles with teacher turnover.
When Kwok came to EXCEL in the fall of 2007, he was fresh out of college, a biology major from the University of Michigan with only weeks of teacher training. While some of his students put forth effort, others acted out or didn't show up for class.
But Kwok returned for a second year, and he has signed on for a third. He says he wants to see the class of 2010 graduate.
Late last month, Kwok's classroom smelled of Formaldehyde and rubber gloves.
"A sheep's brain is just like a human brain, but a lot smaller," Kwok explained, as he handed each student a tray containing the gray, deeply ridged organ.
"I didn't think it would actually look like that," said David McNeal, 16. "I thought it was just sort of a caricature."
With their gloved hands, the students felt and squeezed the brain, sketched it and then labeled it with pins before slicing it open with a scalpel. Khyile Abner, 15, looked up. "Are these baby sheep? Sheep from the slaughterhouse, or sheep that died from disease? Sheep that fell off a cliff?"
Kwok laughed, but Khyile had another question before he could respond to the first: "Could you live if any of these was damaged, these lobes?"
"Could you live? Yeah, you could."
It was the last period of the day, and each student received plenty of individual attention. More than 15 students are on the roster, Kwok said, but just five came that day. Kwok said his typical attendance for that class is seven or eight.
He expects that only 50 percent to 65 percent of his students will pass this year, at most.
Some students — such as Travon Adkins, whom the Tribune featured last year in the series about Kwok — have all but stopped coming to school, despite the staff's efforts to keep them on track, Kwok said.
As hard as it is to see those students "going backward," Kwok said, he is heartened by those who have stayed on track, such as Sunshine Mapp Parker, now 16, who was also profiled in the series.
David, one of the few who attended the sheep's brain laboratory, said he thought Kwok was an effective teacher because he focuses on the material and doesn't lose his focus or his cool, no matter what happens.
"I learn all the time," he said. "To be honest, I think Mr. Kwok was born to do this."
Andy Kwok, 24, is returning in the fall for a third year of teaching at EXCEL High School.
Sunshine Mapp Parker, 16, has earned high marks this year, though she said it was "a struggle" in some classes. She rejoined the junior varsity basketball team.
Brandon Stewart, 16, has continued to pour his energy into school and sports.
Travon Adkins, 16, rarely comes to school.