When students are searching for an adult at school they can relate to, they don’t often head to the principal’s office.
That’s not true at Montalvin Manor Elementary School in Richmond, where Latina principal Katherine Acosta-Verprauskus is an immigrant who learned English as a second language, much like many of her students.
Acosta-Verprauskus gets the rock star treatment from the children she passes on her campus. Both teachers and parents seem invested in the principal’s lofty goals and also compelled to confide in her about their children’s futures.
The passionate principal is a product of Teach For America, the national organization that recruits college graduates and people in career transitions and trains and supports them to teach in low-income communities. While Teach For America teachers make an initial two-year commitment to the classroom, the majority pursue careers in education long-term, according to program officials.
Acosta-Verprauskus is a success story for Teach For America, which has been making efforts to place newly-trained educators in schools where they can relate to students.
More than 50-percent of teachers entering Teach for America are of color, said Tyler Hester, senior managing director for Teach For America in West County.
That compares to only 17 percent at schools nationwide, Hester said. Statewide, the number was pegged at about 33 percent.
“We’ve made it a priority, and so the composition of our corps has shifted substantially,” Hester said. “We have a core that is increasingly reflecting the social-economic background of our kids.”
In West County, more than 125 full-time Teach For America alums are in schools, and many can relate to the backgrounds of their students, Hester said. In response to a teacher shortage, another $100,000 was recently approved by West Contra Costa Unified School District trustees to recruit and support another 20 teachers next school year.
Teach For America officials credit Chevron for partnering with the program to add more high-quality teachers to the Bay Area’s struggling school systems. Since 2009, the company contributed more than $2 million to the program.
“Thanks in part to Chevron’s generous and sustained partnership, we have been able to recruit, train, and support 220 teachers to teach in public schools serving West County children,” Hester said.
Acosta-Verprauskus’ path to Montalvin:
For Acosta-Verprauskus, the decision to join Teach For America came after a journey to discover how low-income immigrants like herself could be given the tools to rise from poverty. Like many modern crusaders for the poor, Acosta-Verprauskus took a job at a nonprofit in Kansas, where she was raised, and afterward headed to UC Santa Barbara to start a doctoral program examining avenues out of the cycle of poverty.
Her studies kept reiterating the same lesson: Education is key.
“I needed to get into the classroom,” she decided.
She applied to Teach For America, which trained her and then placed her at Lincoln Elementary School in special education. After three years there, she entered a program that trains teachers to be school leaders. That sent her to Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, a high performing charter school where she could see first-hand how success can be achieved.
“It was very different, coming from a turnaround school in Richmond and it was great to see the dichotomy,” Acosta-Verprauskus said. “But I knew all along I wanted to come back to Richmond. That was really where my heart was.”
Acosta-Verprauskus said she felt lucky to be placed at Montalvin Manor, where students are low-income, with many learning English as a second language. Her tenure has thus far been a success, as students and teachers are feeling more engaged in higher quality lessons through instruction that is often data-driven.
“I believe principals need to be good teachers as well, because I feel like my primary duty as a school leader is to support my teachers, and support them in improving their instruction,” she said. “I can’t do that if I don’t know instruction well. Teach For America trained me to be a methodical, purposeful teacher.”
And that doesn’t just involve planning classroom instruction but also shifting school culture where Acosta-Verprauskus strives for students, teachers and families to be treated with civility and respect.
“I don’t think there’s a magic potion,” she said. “Teachers should be trained to diagnose gaps and focus on those gaps.”
Acosta-Verprauskus acknowledges that her background and appearance play a part in her success.
“I look and have a storyline very much like my students,” she said. “We’ve had a spike in parent participation [helped by] the fact that I speak Spanish, that they can come and communicate with me directly.”
Acosta-Verprauskus can also go home and bounce ideas off her husband, Eric Acosta-Verprauskus, another Teach for America alum who is now a first-year principal at Verde Elementary in North Richmond.
Hester touted Katherine Acosta-Verprauskus as an “incredible leader” who is the embodiment of what Teach for America is trying to achieve in low-income schools in West County and beyond.