Upward bound

Eagle Rock teacher goes the extra mile to get more students enrolled in college

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 2/21/2013

It takes dedication to be an effective teacher, and Eagle Rock High School's Susan Ward-Roncalli has that in spades. The 26-year Eagle Rock veteran wants to see as many students as possible go to an institution of higher learning. That's why, when the federal grant for the GEAR UP program recently ran out after 10 years, she committed time out of her already busy schedule to keep the mentoring component of the program alive.

The GEAR UP program was designed to encourage more students to attend post-secondary institutions. Out of that program, Ward-Roncalli has maintained a group of about 100 juniors and seniors who go into seventh-grade classrooms and teach mentoring lessons, strategies for academics and how to avoid bullying, among other topics. With her help, a small group designs the lessons, which they then share with the larger group.

"For seventh-graders, it's starting that process of eventually going to college," Ward-Roncalli says. "They see that these juniors and seniors are academically oriented and they talk to the seventh-graders about how important it is to get involved with academics and sports and to keep their grades up. Having it come from other teenagers has a bigger impact than just adults telling them again and again."

Under Ward-Roncalli, a service learning coordinator, students learn content objectives by performing a service for their community, she explains. All seniors must complete a service learning project, and with roughly 500 kids, that can be quite a task.

"For example, if they were learning about nutrition, they could put together a food basket for the homeless that would meet nutritional guidelines, versus making a poster where they show their knowledge," says Ward-Roncalli, adding that it's sometimes difficult to get outside agencies to participate. "We've had partnerships with Habitat for Humanity, through our woodshop class, through our gardening and horticulture class; we do some LA Food Bank stuff and Cell Phones for Soldiers through US History classes when they're talking about different wars. We try to have some connections, but it's kind of challenging because of the time limitations."

She said students are not enthusiastic about these community service-based projects until they actually do them and realize the good they're doing.

"They moan and groan and then they get out there and actually see a live person that they're helping and think, 'Oh, this isn't so bad,'" she says.

Students also work closely with LA County and the city of Los Angeles as poll workers. Registrars recruit high school students to work for the elections--they get their service learning project done, get paid and are more likely to vote afterward, the teacher says.

Ward-Roncalli turned an American literature class into an advanced placement class for juniors, including students who never thought they'd take an AP class. In order to convince them to move on to the senior AP class, she made a bargain that she would go with them. more than 85 percent of the students stayed with her.

"So they'll have two AP classes under their belt when they go to college," says Ward-Roncalli, who tied with fellow Eagle Rock High teacher Laurie Bollman-Little for Teacher of the Year in Pasadena Weekly's annual Best of Pasadena contest in 2011. "They haven't had much exposure to rich literature or the opportunity to do a lot of writing. We have to sort of supplement. We'll sit here as long as it takes to make up work so they will get college credit, and it takes all of both of our energy to have them write essays that are good enough, but they're willing to stay and do it. They're sort of connected now, they're a team here, but it does take a lot of energy to build that team."