What's your education story?

One small but diverse school prepared him well for all that came after

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Andrew Pillow teaches fifth grade social studies at KIPP Indianapolis.

Chalkbeat journalists ask the people we come across in our work to tell us about their education stories and how learning shaped who they are today. Learn more about this series, and read other installments, here.

Andrew Pillow is a fifth-grade social studies teacher at KIPP Indianapolis, a charter school where he has taught since 2011. He grew up in Louisville and graduated from the J. Graham Brown School, which bills itself as “a classic liberal arts experience in a small learning community.” It was Kentucky’s first magnet school when it opened in 1972. Today it serves about 650 students in grades K-12 and its magnet theme is “self-directed learning.” Pillow studied political science and journalism at the University of Kentucky and earned a masters degree in teaching from Marian University. He came to Indianapolis through Teach For America. We met him at the showcase for projects by Teach Plus fellows earlier this month.

Here’s his story:

I went to a public school in in Louisville in (Jefferson County Public Schools), which has very good public schools. And I took that for granted. People back home say “this school is terrible,” and I say, “No, you don’t understand. Our worst school would probably be one of the best schools in Indianapolis.”

I went to a magnet school, The Brown School. It was a K-12 school. I went through the whole school. I was there the whole time. Then I went to the University of Kentucky. It worried people, who thought I wouldn’t be able to adjust to such a big atmosphere. I only graduated with 35 people. But it was fine.

The honest truth is that you do gain a lot of insight going to school with the same people for 12 years. The school had people from every zip code. So when you know people from different parts of the city for 12 years, you really gain an insight about diversity that most people just don’t have. I feel like if I went to a traditional inner-city school I might have difficulty interacting with white folks. I’ve never had trouble interacting with different people.

It was a really good high school, and I didn’t realize it until I got to college. College was really easy for me. I got a better GPA than I did in high school. I knew something was up. I didn’t always get great grades in high school, but I got great grades in college.

I was worried about finding a job so I found out about Teach For America on the web. I fell in love with teaching. Louisville and Indianapolis are very similar — they both kind of feel like small towns. I see people I know all the time. I thought it would feel a lot bigger. But it is, a lot of it, the same.

What's Your Education Story?

The story of Black Santa: How creative discipline tactics got this student from disruptive to most improved

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Black Santa rests on a folding chair at a Teacher Story Slam event last month.

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Dozens of educators gathered to tell stories about the challenges and joys of teaching at Ash & Elm Cider Co. The event was organized by teacher Ronak Shah and his organization, Teachers Lounge Indy. In the coming weeks, Chalkbeat will share a few of our favorites, edited for clarity.

Anita Saunders works with programs for young children at Indianapolis Public Schools. This story takes place during her time teaching at Tindley Preparatory Academy. For more stories about Indianapolis educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

I was placed at an all-boys middle school. So in the year 2015, it’s my second year there. They decided to add fifth grade to the all-boys school, and they decided to make me the special education teacher.

I was given my own classroom, affectionately known as Room 402, and my own pupils. Now one student, he was known as Double D, was a fifth-grader. He had to stay with me all day.

So Double D and I spent our days together learning fifth-grade curriculum. Usually he was patient, he would do his work. Whatever I put in front of him, he’d try his best at it. I could send him to the office with a note, and I didn’t have to worry about him playing around in the restroom — stuff like that.

Anita Saunders poses for a photo after telling her story at the Teacher Story Slam last month.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Anita Saunders poses for a photo after telling her story at a Teacher Story Slam.

But as teachers know, every student has a honeymoon, and that honeymoon usually lasts from August/September to October/November.

Double D was soon to come to the end of his honeymoon.

I had been lulled into this false sense of complacency. The next thing I know, Double D is refusing to work. He’s falling asleep, he’s talking back, he’s yelling at me.

I need to figure out how to get my sweet Double D back because I miss him, and he was making progress when he was cool and laid back and listening. He wasn’t making any progress talking back and yelling.

So one day we get to school, and he’s just pacing the classroom. Pacing and refusing to work.

I said, “Double D, you know it’s almost holiday time. If you don’t get to work, Santa’s not going to bring you something.”

He was like, “That ain’t real.”

I was like, “What do you mean Santa’s not real? What are you talking about? … I know where you’re mistaken. You’re thinking about that puffy white guy that’s on TV. That’s not the one I’m talking about. I’m talking about Black Santa.”

And because Double D was a fifth-grader, he had not yet lost his sense of wonder.

At Target I found this Black Santa. And he had a list, and this list contained the names of some of the very boys in our school that Double D knew.

“Are you on this list?”

He looks the list up and down.

“No, I’m not on that list.”

I said, “Well what do you think you need to do to get on Black Santa’s list?”

“Well you’ve got to text him and tell him put me on there!”

I said, “Hey, I cannot lie to Black Santa. He will want to know if you’ve been doing your work and following the rules at home and at school.”

That afternoon, he was great. It was like sweet Double D was coming back. I put black Santa high up on the shelf on top of the smart board where the video camera is, way up there. I told him this is how Black Santa monitors us, and I’m texting him and emailing him — that’s how you know he’s real.

So our days go on like this, and he’s gaining back my trust. At the end of the day, we check back in with Black Santa. And you know, I’m thinking, “Yes! we’re going to make it to winter break. It’s going to be OK.”

The magic of Black Santa stuck for quite awhile.

So it’s the day before winter break and we have what’s called a community meeting where we gather the entire school together and we have a nice inspirational speech from our principal.

On this particular day, the principal has an announcement to make. They have found two boys in this school who have improved the most academically and behaviorally, and they are going to get extra gifts.

So I said, “Well, it can’t be my 402 boys. No one pays attention to my 402 boys.”

And then the next thing I know, the principal said, “…and from the fifth grade, as most improved, our very own Double D! Come on down!”

And I’m jumping up, cheering.

I’m helping him take his armload of presents out to his mom’s car. We get to the car, and as his mom is getting ready to drive away, I said “Yo, Double D — I guess you made the list”

He’s smiling.

What's your education story?

This educator sees ‘the power in being bilingual’ — and she wants her students to see it, too

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Liset Gonzalez-Acosta is a the director of dual language at Global Prep Academy.

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Chalkbeat journalists ask the people we come across in our work to tell us about their education stories and how learning shaped who they are today. Learn more about this series, and read other installments, here.

Liset Gonzalez-Acosta is a the director of dual language at Global Prep Academy, an innovation school housed at IPS Riverside School 44. She is part of the first round of local fellows selected to participate in a principal training program run by Relay Graduate School of Education.

I’ve been an educator now for 20 years. I was born in Cuba, and that’s where I got my bachelor’s degree. After that, I moved to Africa. My mom is a doctor, she’s a psychiatrist, and she was sent there for two years. I saw the opportunity to teach in a different place. I met my husband there, and we were married in Cape Verde, and I taught there for six years.

In a poor country like Cape Verde it was really hard for me to continue my studies because there wasn’t a university. So I started looking outside the country, and I was really fortunate to find a university in Vermont where part of their goal is to find international students who wanted to study there and were able to bring that cultural awareness to the rest of of the school.

It was an incredible experience because it was so diverse and you were able to work with people from all over the world. After that, I started looking for a (job). A school in Oregon was looking forof bilingual teachers … and that’s how I got involved in dual language, and it’s been my passion forever.

I see the power in being bilingual, and I want students to recognize you are very powerful when you can speak, write and read correctly in two languages — it’s an advantage for you.

That led me to find Mariama (Carson) by accident. We went to a conference, and I met her. She talked about this project (Global Prep Academy), and it was very interesting. Well, you know how it happens at a conference, you meet people, you say goodbye to people.

I went back to Oregon and forgot about it, and it was kind of … meant to be. I came back to a second conference, and the first person I saw was her. The last day of the conference, I called her, we sat down and talked.

So I came with my family (to Indianapolis). I really loved that the project was in the beginning because it was an opportunity to start something from the beginning. I never saw a new (dual language program) from the ground up.

One of the things that really caught my attention is how different urban education is. The real challenge started when I met the kids. They are so smart, all of them, but they come with so much baggage. It requires a lot of patience, a lot of commitment — believing that they can do it.

I would like to be more in an administrator role, with more administrator responsibilities in that sense because I see the need we have in the school. We have great teachers, but we have teachers who need to be switching their minds around to meet the needs of the kids.

I see education as the greatest equalizer for any student. It doesn’t matter where you are coming from, but if you have an education, you can achieve.

I don’t have all the answers. I have a lot of experience, but I still need to continue learning and growing as an educator. I see myself in 20 years continuing in this career path, but with more experience so that the people that I work with can reach whatever they want to reach — not just the students, but also the educators.