Angelo Bracco was recently selected as one of five California Teachers of the Year and is a special education teacher at Solano Middle School in Vallejo, CA, a California GEAR UP School. We are proud Ang is on the GEAR UP leadership team at Solano and was gracious enough to take the time to participate in an interview.
Please tell us about your award and what it means to you
I was recently selected as one of five teacher of the year for the State of California. This was quite an honor since California has over 400,000 teachers. The award was significant to me for a number of reasons. First of all, as I contemplate retirement, this completes a journey that began nearly forty years ago as a law enforcement officer and has culminated as Calif. teacher of the year.
As a Special Education teacher and working with the most challenging of students, this award has brought hope to parents, our district, and our County of Solano. The City of Vallejo has soaring unemployment, is lacking in resources, and crime is high. Students at our school and in my class are proud that one of their teachers is on “You tube”, on T.V., and on the front page of our local newspaper. They are proud of my accomplishments.
The ward has also brought recognition from the Law enforcement community. At a recent retirement dinner for one of my former squad members, I was mentioned prominently not for my service in law enforcement but my recognition as a teacher.
Tell us a little about the community and school.
Vallejo is considered part of the immediate Bay area. Up until 1992, the economy was propelled by a naval shipyard, Mare Island. Many of Vallejo residents worked at the base. When the base closed, there was an immediate impact on the community. Many of the residents left the city in search of work else ware. Businesses also took a huge hit. Many closed up shop and left permanently. With the exit of jobs from the area, crime, especially in the inner city climbed dramatically. With the tax base slowly eroding, police officers and fireman lost their jobs. Police and fire stations closed.
Schools that were once vibrant also felt the economic impact. With the tax base eroded, funding was cut drastically which eventually led to the closing of several schools in the city, including middle and a high school.
Solano Middle School where I teach has a student population of 720. This is down considerably from just two years ago when Solano Middle had over 900 students. The drop in attendance is attributed to many factors. Some are economic, other include newer schools being built just north of Vallejo in a city named American Canyon. Also another huge factor was the inception of charter Schools in Vallejo. There are currently three charter schools that are fully functional in our city. This has taken away from the population of schools such as ours.
Solano Middle school’s population consists of 38% African American, 35% Asian, 22% Hispanic, and 4% Caucasian, and 1% “other”. Our API score hovers just under 700 points. Until recently, we were on state probation for failure to achieve our academic target goals. We also had financial issues which resulted in a state “take-over” of our fiscal responsibilities. We have since exited this “take over” by the state and once again on solid footing.
Why special education?
I chose to teach special Education for a number of reasons. As a law enforcement officer for 27 years in both San Francisco and Concord California, I felt my impact on youth would be better served working with special needs students. When I use the word “Special Needs”, this can be defined from being physically challenged, intellectually or emotionally challenged. Not only did I feel my talents could best be used in this capacity but I also wanted to work in a community that was in need of a person like myself that could that could make a difference in a person’s life. Special education offered this opportunity for me. In a number of my presentations, I often refer to “Special Education” as the emergency room for education. As Special Education teachers we are charged with “leveling the playing field” so that our students can compete in an ever-changing world.
You used to be a law enforcement officer. How does this inform your teaching?
I believe my service as a law-enforcement officer has benefitted me as a teacher. The teaching profession was not totally new to me. As a law enforcement officer, I trained new recruits who were new to law enforcement. I also taught “In service training” at our department. I also was very active in working in the community both in San Francisco and Concord. In fact, while working in Concord, I was recognized by Senator Barbara Boxer for my intervention in the Latino community in helping to prevent the negative gang influence that was so prevalent in their daily lives.
My previous background actually has been a plus for me in the classroom. It has run the gamete of “no body will mess with us because Mr. B. use to be a cop”, to don’t act out with Mr.B., he was a real cop…..and of course I’m asked constantly to tell stories which I kindly decline to share.
What are some challenges your school community faces.
Probably the biggest concern I have is parent involvement in their adolescent’s education. It’s extremely frustrating when we call for a parent night and a handful of parents participate. I realize parents work and our population of single parents is huge. We also, like so many districts, are strapped financially. With all of this being said, were hopeful the Governors new financial formula will benefit schools like ours who endure insurmountable economic odds.
Why is getting students to think about college in middle school important?
For many, college is their ticket out of poverty. If given a clear path to pursue, the road to a better life, a sense of direction. By preparing students on what classes to consider (A/G requirements), they have a purpose and know even during the early academic years of their lives, they began preparing for the future.
How do adults work together to prepare all students to be successful?
The general answer is making sure you prepare your students both emotionally and academically for the educational road ahead. It’s imperative that teachers communicate from early elementary through Middle and finally high school. The key I have found is knowing who your students are. What is it that they respond to, what is their learning style; all of these questions must be answered to have a truly successful student.
How has the school changed with GEAR UP?
GEAR UP has been such a positive force at our school. Student success has many key components attributed to GEAR UP, including academic support, professional development, and family programming to encourage a college culture from middle to high school. The GEAR UP presence has been especially positive here at Solano Middle School. We’ve instituted the PIQE program which is under the GEAR UP umbrella. We’ve completed these programs in both English and Spanish. We’ve had strong parental involvement throughout these sessions. The Education Trust Awards has also been well received by our staff and students. The Professional Development, conferences, all had to the positivity of our ongoing college culture here at Solano Middle School. Our staff acknowledges without GEAR UP support and the influence GEAR UP has on our campus, we would not be nearly as successful without their support.
What does it mean to be a GEAR UP school?
GEAR UP is constantly changing to meet the needs of our students. We know as a staff as a GEAR UP school, we can obtain the latest innovative job skills to further enhance the education of our students. We also know the GEAR UP foundation is steadfast in their approach to reach our target population, low income; First Generation College bound students that require engagement of school leaders, families, and communities. With GEAR UP as a partner, we have the courage and the opportunity to form a strong bound that will benefit all of our students in the middle school and beyond.
What efforts and resources best support creation of a college-going culture?
Many of our students come from a home that education was not paramount in their lives. Although many may have dreamed of attending college, they really didn’t know or have any idea where to start. With GEAR UP providing awareness and guidance to both staff and students, we now feel the pathway is clear and the directional signs are clear. We recently held a job fair where students were exposed to different occupations in the job market. We have a classroom that is solely dedicated to college culture and how to pursue colleges and Universities that students might be interested in.
Other efforts include the Parent Institute for Quality Education, the Latino Family Literacy Project, Family and Schools together (F.A.S.T.) GEAR UP has given us the foundation to expand our horizons to truly create a college culture on our campus.
What can teachers do in any school to best help ALL students succeed?
I don’t want to sound simplistic in this answer, but as we know, I was chosen one of five California Teachers of the Year. I feel I am a very good teacher, not a great teacher that when you walk away from one of my lessons your so awe struck your unable to speak. No, that’s not me. But what I can tell you as a mentor and coach, if you are able to form a bond between you and your students, and they feel you are that person they can trust and look up to, the battle to higher education has been won. Although I am a Special Education teacher, my class is filled with students of all walks of life who come to visit me throughout the day. Forming relationships with students who have been unsuccessful in all of their academic endeavors, find a home where optimism and positivity thrive. The fact that students know you’re genuine and care, opens doors that were previously iron clad shut.
How does your school prepare students for and to succeed in college/career?
With the advent of STEAM (Science-Technology-English-Art-and Math). Wall to Wall Academics at the High School level, Project Based Learning, and now with the introduction of the Common Core State standards, we feel our students are being prepared for the next level. We are now teaching Geometry at the middle school level which in the past would have been either a 9th or 10th grade course. As mentioned earlier, we have job/technology fairs and other extra-curricular activities that keep students interest at a high level.
Why is an educated workforce important for strong communities?
A workforce with talent brings jobs and the marketplace to the city in which you live. Without an educated workforce, businesses look outside your realm and either go elsewhere or recruit outside talent. All one has to do is reflect on the success of Silicon Valley. Businesses flock to the San Jose/San Francisco Bay Area knowing there is a pool of talent there that they can draw from. An educated work force is the key to a community success.
How do teachers ensure access to high quality academics?
Many of our teachers are constantly being exposed to all types of “In service training”. As part of Common Core, we’ve just introduced Project Based Learning, a key component to the common Core. Our teachers at Solano Middle School are committed to the success of our students. We have tireless workers who spend countless hours on their own time to ensure this success of our students. Our teachers participate in the decision making of new adaptions for our district. We’re on the ground floor for higher academics. Our teachers collaborate not just monthly, but weekly and yes even daily to provide the best opportunities for our student’s success.
What are some of the challenges in preparing all students for career/college?
There are many challenges when you’re faced with low-income, poverty, and sometimes a family structure that is not supportive. Once our students get past that all may not be the next NFL running back, the next NBA Super Star, or the next Hot Rapper, and then reality sets in. You never want to lose sight of attaining those goals, but let’s have a back-up plan if were not quite there to meet those challenges. Another challenge that we face in our students is “why is college important, we in our family survived without it”. And that’s the whole focus, why do you just have to exist or “survive”? Why not have a meaningful productive life for you and your family?
Anything else you would like to tell about yourself, your school, or your students?
I personally want to thank the GEAR-UP team for all the support they have given our school. I especially want to thank Michele Molitor, our school service coach. Ms. Molitor is a tireless worker and is always there when we request her services. She visits our school on a frequent basis and is there for special events, for instance at our career fair last week. Having Ms. Molitor as our service coach has been invaluable and provides the foundation for our success here at Solano Middle School.