Difference Makers

by Shannon Linton ’07

In Baldwin Park, a fourth grader jumps in the air, “Yes!” She sports a huge grin as she waves her math test score.

“Dr. Hurst! How’s it going?” High school students in Wildomar, 51 miles away, high-five their principal as he walks through the courtyard during break.

At Tierra del Sol Middle School, eighth grade students cheer as their classmate rounds the final curve on the track. He crosses the finish line, his eyes lighting up as he sees the clock. “That’s a personal record!”

For three APU alumni, moments like these capture the impact they strive for as educators. Each recognizes that, whether as a teacher, coach, or principal, they have an opportunity to make a lasting difference in the lives of their students.

“I want to instill in my students a confidence in their ability to learn,” said Beverly Gonzalez, M.A. ’99, a fourth grade teacher at Santa Fe Elementary in Baldwin Park. “I want to work myself out of a job every year, so that they don’t need me, but will continue to do great in every grade no matter who is teaching them.”

Darin Curtis, M.A. ’95, shared a similar vision for his physical education students at Lakeside’s Tierra del Sol Middle School. “My goal is to equip my students with the knowledge and experience they need to create healthy habits and make better decisions long after they leave my class.”

For Gonzalez and Curtis, their commitment to students’ growth and development, along with the innovative teaching strategies they employ, garnered statewide recognition as both were named one of five 2011 California Teachers of the Year.

“It’s an incredible honor to be recognized in this way, especially in the field of physical education,” said Curtis, who explained that he sees the biggest impact when students set goals for themselves. “Instead of grading them on how well they can play a sport or how fast they can run, we approach it as an experiment. What happens when we run every day and change our fitness habits? It gives students a chance to see the experiment unfold in front of them as they reach their fitness goals.”

Jon Hurst, M.A. ’99, Ed.D. ’10, also received recognition this year as Elsinore High School’s 2011 California Secondary Principal of the Year. He earned the honor for helping transform his campus. “We created a peer counseling program six years ago that inspired positive change,” Hurst said. “We’ve shown students that although we all have differences, we are all pretty similar as people. Since the start of this program, we’ve done away with any kind of group conflict or racially motivated problems at this school.”

Cameron Lymon, a counselor at Elsinore High, attested to the change on campus. “You see so much more inclusion instead of division,” he said. “I know that’s because Jon believes that what we do every day has an impact on this campus. The students respect him because they know he genuinely cares about them and how they are doing.”

Hurst pairs his focus on campus unity with efforts toward academic success. In his six years as principal, Elsinore High has become a California Distinguished School, an AVID National Demonstration School, and a Riverside County High School Model of Excellence for both its special education and peer counseling programs. “We’re working hard to turn this school into a college-going culture,” Hurst said. “This is a huge step for our students. We want to offer them every chance for success.”

Curtis wants to offer his students the same. In an effort to get more equipment for his PE classes, he began writing grant proposals. Several grants later, his school now includes a fitness room, weight room, a cardio room with a rock climbing wall, and a dance studio. His plans now include a physiology lab equipped with heart-rate monitors and treadmills. “I made finding this equipment a priority so my students would have more opportunities,” he said. “I’m committed to offering them the best program I possibly can.”

For Gonzalez, this means using fun and creative learning activities. A student favorite is cowboy math, a challenge to find the fastest draw as students solve math problems on mini white boards. “Many of my students come from English-language-learner families, or are learning English themselves,” Gonzalez said. “Most wouldn’t expect them to perform at, or near, the top of the state, but they do. That’s something no one can take away from them.”

Gonzalez recently received an email from a former student. “She told me, ‘I’m going to earn my degree and become a teacher, so I can make a difference just like you did for me,’” Gonzalez said. “That makes every day I do this so worthwhile. I’m here to mold and shape these students. This is my passion, and I’m running with it.”

Shannon Linton ’07 is a freelance writer and editor living in Covina, California. shannonlinton2286@gmail.com