Building early learning communities: The Educators

By Connie K. Ho

“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”

These are the words of Malala Yousafzai, a young activist who penned her story in the tome I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. Yousafzai is indicative of the power of education. Those who teach can impact the next generation, and many students recall the influence that their teachers had on them at a young age.

PBS SoCal recently spoke with three educators who have been involved with the organization’s early learning program at Stephen G. Foster Elementary School in Compton. They shared how they bring technology and innovative ideas into their classroom, and hopefully—in the long run— impress upon their students the joy and excitement of learning.

Jessicka Meirs

“Technology is very important because we want to give students the opportunity to explore their information, to explore how to create a problem or how to solve a problem.”

Jessicka Meirs is the principal of Foster Elementary School in the Compton Unified School District. During her senior year of high school, Meirs decided that she wanted to become an educator. She went on to study liberal studies and earned her teaching credential.

“I wanted to become a teacher so that I could impact society in a positive way,” said Meirs. “As a principal, I can impact hundreds of kids and families and communities.”

Growing up, Meirs had a positive experience with school and enjoyed academics.

She grew up in Inglewood and attended Inglewood Unified School District schools from elementary through 12th grade. After graduating from college, she returned to Inglewood where she served as a teacher, assistant principal and a principal, and then moved onto a position in Compton Unified School District.

“I came to Compton because I was looking for students that I could personally identify with and that could also identify with me,” Meirs said. “I feel like I’m a role model for the students and I want them to understand that I grew up in a similar demographics as them and if I’m able to have an education and be successful then they too have an opportunity to be whatever it is that they want to be.”

Meirs credits partnerships as a support for students, families, and staff.

“Through our partnership with PBS SoCal, we’re able to support our scholars,” Meirs said. “It supports early literacy on campus, it lets them know it’s important but it also gives them resources so that they can practice and develop their literacy.”

Meirs also believes that the support assists parents.

“Having workshops that include both parents and students is very important because as a working parent myself, you need to have that interaction with your child. And sometimes when you are not an educator, you don’t know how to connect to your child under their educational umbrella or their educational career,” Meirs said.

With the support of partners like PBS SoCal, there has also been an increase in technology available on campus.

“Technology is very important because we want to give students the opportunity to explore their information, to explore how to create a problem or how to solve a problem. And with additional technology, it assists the students with their exploration,” Meirs said.

“The benefit of having PBS SoCal as a partner is there’s no defined partnership so we get to sit down and plan our needs, our wants, our thoughts with PBS SoCal and we develop a plan each year or annually to support the school,” said Meirs, who mentioned support activities like a Teacher Appreciation Week to thank teachers for the job that they do.

In addition, PBS SoCal has donated iPads, books and instructional materials. Educators at Foster also have access to online resources that are free of charge, which they are able to use in the classroom to help increase the rigor of lessons that they develop. Meirs’ vision as principal of Foster Elementary is to create successful citizens.

“My hope for students of Southern California is that they all develop a love of learning,” Meirs said. “If they’re able to find their niche and develop it and to grow with it, I believe that they’ll be successful beings.”

Learn more about Jessika Meirs here.

Barbara Leake

“My vision as an educator is to facilitate their own learning.”

Barbara Leake is a teacher at Foster Elementary. Her pursuit of a career in education stems from a hope to make a difference in children’s lives. She works to inspire students in the ways that her own teachers inspired her.

“I really enjoyed school when I was younger,” Leake said. “I enjoyed math and science, I enjoyed collaborating and learning.”

Her father was an engineer and Leake grew up with the opportunity to create and build things. She found that she connected with the science lessons and that connection drew her to teaching. One of her fondest memories is taking science classes with Sister Rosemary – she liked how the classes were hands-on and allowed her to build things.

Leake sees how the shift to 21st-century learning calls for technological resources in the classroom and hopes that her students will have the same opportunities as others.

“Technology is an issue—not always having enough and just the lack of resources that we have so the kids can create, ” Leake said. “We have basic tools but kids want to do more. And the more you have, the more that they can do, so a lot of times I have to pay for my own stuff so that they can have the right tools that I need for that lesson.”

Leake faces a language skills gap in her students. One challenge is finding adequate time to cover all the lessons her students need. She found that some of her students came to the classroom with less proficient reading skills.

Leake believes it’s important for her students to learn, discover and explore their interests.

“I think I can best help my students achieve by just being the facilitator and watching them grow and create on their own but yet also having them have the freedom to kind of learn and it’s fun that way.”

Leake sees the potential in her young students and hopes that they can overcome some of the struggles found in their environment.

“My hope for the youth in Southern California, and education as a whole is that they get these opportunities to learn and create and become their best selves and be the best students they can be,” Leake said. “It’s unfair sometimes that other places have better tools and resources and that some of the kids, and especially this area, are disadvantaged and they don’t have those opportunities to learn like others.”

Leake also sees the benefits of the school’s partnership with PBS SoCal.

“I think that PBS SoCal can help achieve the goals that we need through education, just giving us the resources to follow through in our classroom,” Leake said.

Last June, Leake participated in a workshop with PBS SoCal where she took part in interactive activities. The workshop highlighted topics such as adventures in space and engineering a playground.

“It was very fun – we got to be creative, we got to build and see how the lesson plans went with the end result,” Leake said. “It’s definitely started in my mind, kind of working and seeing how I’m going to implement it this year in my classroom.”

Leake also had the chance to experiment with different apps that students could use. One app worked on developing critical thinking skills and solving problems. Another one featured phonics and reading letters.

“I think the students will really enjoy that and retain what they’ve learned and be excited about school,” Leake said.

Leake found the workshop helpful in terms of introducing her to different resources that she could use as a teacher.

“There’s lesson plans and there’s websites that I can definitely review again before we start school. I definitely think that the kids are really going to enjoy these activities because they get to build and they get to engineer,” Leake said. “I think the students will be impacted by the resources and all the new tools because they’ll be able to create and they’ll retain what they’re learning and they’ll be excited about coming and learning. And I think it will make it fun but it also will be an experience for them that they wouldn’t have had before.”

Camille Evans

“I relate to the kids because I am from the city and I still live in the city. And I went through a lot of things that they go through. You can achieve, you can make it – look at me, I’m a living example, sometimes they don’t have that example.”

Camille Evans, a special education teacher for grades three through five, grew up in an education-focused household—her grandmother taught. Growing up in Compton, she went to both elementary and middle school in the area.

“I always enjoyed school,” Evans said. “I loved going to school, especially elementary because we got to bring home animals during the summertime and I always brought an animal home.”

Evans teaches students with a range of disabilities from autism to ADHD to orthopedic impairment, and one of her favorite parts of teaching is seeing her students’ progress.

“I love seeing the reaction from parents when they always hear they can’t do it and then they’re able to do it,” Evans said.

For Evans, a challenge is the lack of parent involvement as she believes it’s integral to help students learn.

“They don’t expose their kids to enough things outside of school,” said Evans, who pressed that parent involvement can help students make connections in the curriculum. “It requires so much prior knowledge and the kids don’t have that. And so that hinders their learning ability. You have to go back and teach it which makes it difficult because you can’t give anybody prior knowledge.”

Evans wants to motivate her students, just as her teachers inspired her.

“I can best help my students to make sure that they are successful at anything they want to be and they have a drive to be successful,” Evans said. “Now they like just skating through life and that’s not acceptable for me.”

Evans hopes that her students will become fluent readers. She believes that PBS SoCal’s programming offers many benefits for young readers.

“PBS has always been my go-to with my children and it’s a wonderful format for an early learning education because it does touch on those early literacy skills that sometimes kids may not get at home,” Evans said.

Having participated in the PBS SoCal summer workshop, Evans plans on encouraging her students through coding lessons as it’s a format that is engaging.

“That’s something that the kids love even though they think it is a game, they are learning at the same time,” Evans said.

Evans remarked on the importance of STEM skills in the classroom.

“Coding is now a big thing – everybody wants to know how the computer works,” Evans said. “Coding introduces another technology thing that we really don’t do in school, another common core experience that the school really doesn’t provide.”

Evans noted that her school doesn’t currently have coding classes.

“They may do it after school but it’s not a California state curriculum as of yet,” Evans said. “But PBS SoCal addresses that because they see the importance of it and it’s very beneficial for the kids.”

She plans to incorporate the coding she took from the PBS SoCal workshop for her special education students.

“In special education, the vast majority of my students are boys and they love the video games,” Evans said. “And so this way they get to learn how these video games move through the coding program.”

Evans is interested in using the PBS KIDS Scratch Jr. app to show her students how coding can be done.

“I’ve always wanted to introduce it into the classroom,” Evans said. “Other programs are too difficult for my kids at the reading level and the Scratch Jr. app is perfect because it’s at their reading level. It changed my perspective to where my kids didn’t have to be this super proficient reader in order to code because a lot of times they’re intimidated because when you think of coding, you think of an adult, you think of someone really smart. With the Scratch Jr. app, they can do it.”

The workshop changed her perspective not just about who can code, but why her students should.

“I thought it was for really super geeks like in Silicon Valley but it’s not, everybody can do it,” Evans said. “Doing that would impact my students because it would create critical thinking skills that addresses something at their level.”

Mireya Garcia

“One of the things that’s happening more and more is that our kids are coming to school sometimes stressed out because of the environment at home. And that’s always a challenge because you always want them to do their best but you also have to be considerate to what’s going on at home.”

Mireya Garcia loves working with kids. She initially enrolled at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as a pre-law student and majored in political science. One of her first forays into education was working at a nonprofit organization as an after school program coordinator and then a coordinator for cultural enrichment programs.

“I never thought I would become a teacher, it was never even in my mindset to become a teacher but I really loved seeing the kids … Eventually, I decided to go into the classroom because when you work for a nonprofit you’re working with different kids all the time, you have to think about the numbers and how many kids you’re serving,” Garcia said. “And I really wanted to be in the classroom and just teach one set of kids for a full year.”

Garcia pursued a graduate degree in education with an emphasis on social justice so that she could provide equal opportunities for students.

“I loved going to school, I was always challenging myself and I had great opportunities in school, but I did notice that it was always like the same 30 kids taking the same classes – the honors classes and things like that,” said Garcia, who is originally from the City of Commerce. “When I started getting more into education I wanted other students that didn’t have the same opportunities that I had to also have it because everybody has a different talent or different ways of learning but unfortunately I felt that the school systems failed those students just because they weren’t performing well.”

Garcia, a first- and second-grade teacher, likes to do hands-on activities with her students.

“They’re willing to learn and they want to learn,” Garcia said.

She considers the mixed levels of students in classrooms as an obstacle for educators.

“Sometimes one student might need more attention than another, so sometimes that can be a challenge too because if you have more than one student, then you have to become 10 different people in a way so that you’re servicing all your students in a way that you should,” Garcia said.

She believes that more resources could be of service to the community, including academic support for parents (technological tools or outreach), and accessibility for students.

“My hope for students in Southern California is for them to have access to technology, access to academics that they’re learning through technology, that they have the opportunity to learn and apply what they learn in different routes and education, access to apply what they’re learning in school and their lives,” Garcia said.

She praised the PBS SoCal workshops provided for the community.

“I think PBS SoCal can help by providing access to parents. I know that they do workshops for parents and they are bilingual so parents that are Spanish-speaking parents also have access,” Garcia said. “And the fact that they’re teaching the parents and the students how to use the iPad and providing iPads for schools and the different games and programs that are on there and they are all learning programs.”

She also advocated for providing resources like educational videos.

“I attended the playful learning for educators workshop and I thought it was a great experience because it really taught about building on student skills, their natural skills, and having them be creative,” Garcia said. “That probably was my favorite part that it gives the students an opportunity for them to be creative and use what they know already.”

PBS SoCal donated iPads to her school and hers was one of the classrooms has access to the iPads. Her students got creative with language art apps, math apps, and phonics apps.

“We use them every Monday and it was definitely a great experience for them because they don’t have iPads at home and so they were exposed to the iPad. They were allowed to explore and use all the different apps and resources that came with the iPad,” Garcia said.

For more information about PBS SoCal’s Early Education initiatives, click here.