Anthony Yom: A Tale of Synchronicity—and Magic

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An L.A. teacher wins a prestigious education award, and where it takes him is both unexpected and amazing.

“Read me a fairy tale, Daddy.”

At bedtimes around this nation, every evening, parents and kids curl up with magical stories of heroes and castles, of monsters vanquished, of impossible odds overcome, of endings filled with happily ever after.

But when the final words are spoken and the book covers closed, moms and dads leave the wizardry behind and return to the real world — a place of taxes, corporate downsizing, inexorable aging, and the uncertainties of tomorrow.

Fairy tales. As if.

Which is why what follows boggles the imagination.

It’s the kind of story that defies the gloomy headlines, offering hope that anything imagined is possible, synchronicity is real, and those disconnected puzzle pieces of life sometimes assemble to make a beautiful picture.

You could almost call it a fairy tale — a public school fairy tale, but a fairy tale nonetheless.

The magic begins a long time ago, in a down-and-out place, with a brusque gnome of a man.

Jaime Escalante, a Bolivian immigrant, came to Garfield High School in East Los Angeles to teach math in 1974. By any stretch, his students were lucky if they could add. Escalante wanted more. He demanded they dig deep inside themselves and find what he called ganas, that desire to rise up and excel.

And like some stories too wild to believe, the story of Escalante and that class of once-woeful students found its way to film. The outcome truly was magic. Those students found ganas, and made headlines, acing the crazy-hard AP Calculus exam.

The film is Stand & Deliver. You may have seen it.

But no one could have seen this…

Jaime Escalante didn’t just inspire a class of students. He inspired a nation. And he inspired TheBestSchools.org to found a K–12 education award, the Escalante–Gradillas Prize for Best in Education, which celebrated outstanding educators working with some of the country’s neediest students.

We sought to showcase the kind of magic that great teachers, like Jaime Escalante, and great administrators, like Escalante’s principal Henry Gradillas, can accomplish. From 2011 through 2017, we did just that.

In 2016, a math teacher at Lincoln High School in a tough area of Los Angeles helped coach one of his students to a perfect score on the AP Calculus test. This is how Anthony Yom got our attention.

As the months flew by, our staff talked, and our prize panel deliberated, the stars aligned, illuminating Anthony as the one teacher in the nation that year who most embodied the spirit of Garfield High School’s Jaime Escalante and Henry Gradillas. In December 2016, we presented him with the Escalante–Gradillas Prize, along with $10,000 for himself and $10,000 for his school.

You can’t keep magic in a bottle, though. Or in this case, a crystal trophy. Some of it always leaks out and spreads the miraculous.

For Anthony, something else was in the works that would tie it all up in a wondrous bow.

He shares that tale today, talking with Dan Edelen, marketing director of TheBestSchools.org (TBS), and the man honored to present Anthony with his award. We catch up with Anthony, who is also on our Academic Advisory Board, and hear where his talent and the Escalante–Gradillas Prize transported him …

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TBS: Anthony, we’re touching base because you have something to share that we were amazed to hear. Seems you’re no longer teaching math but have taken a new step in your career.

YOM: Expanding my career to an administrator role is something I’ve thought about for a long time. I earned my administrator credentials back in 2009. I had planned to move into this after teaching five years, but at that time there was a recession, with a lot of positions getting cut and teachers getting laid off. Not a good time. I felt like I lost out on opportunities, so I focused on teaching. It was always in the back of my mind, but I didn’t know how to pursue it. After working hard in my class, and earning some recognition, I was contacted by many sources about different positions. Winning the Escalante–Gradillas Prize gave me a boost to look into the admin role to which I had aspired.

TBS: Were schools coming after you because of your past notoriety? Or were you pursuing them?

YOM: It was a combination of both. I had been contacted before, but the award put my name out there. Many schools, including charter and private — even across the country — contacted me with job opportunities and relocation offers. It was surreal. I’ve even been contacted by private companies rooted in education. It was amazing the opportunities that came to me after the award.

Again, I had a clear direction in my mind. I was very happy where I was at Lincoln High School, and I had fun and was contributing to the school and to the community. My career blossomed there, and I owe Lincoln a lot. I always told my students and colleagues I would not leave for a different teaching position. It would be for something else, but not for a teaching position.

TBS: Any unusual or remarkable offers?

YOM: A few textbook companies. I had not thought about these. I would have led a team to come up with a common core-based textbook, something revolutionary. But my answer was no. A testing company specializing in nursing tests wanted to expand into high school education — SAT, AP tests — so they wondered if I would lead the math portion. But the direction I wanted to go was different. When I asked how they found out about me, they mentioned the Escalante–Gradillas Prize specifically.

This was last summer [ed., 2018], but it’s like a ripple effect, it’s still happening. They’re contacting me here. One of the unexpected things was a parent from India contacting me for tutoring online for her child. She mentioned the award, so she trusted me.

TBS: You knew the history of Jaime Escalante and Henry Gradillas at Garfield High School, but when did it begin to intersect with your plans?

YOM: It was around early May 2018. That’s when my kids were taking AP exams. It was my seventh AP class. We had a class meeting, and I realized I had seven picture frames on my class wall. I told myself I wanted to teach seven years, so I took a class picture every year, and I knew after this class that my seventh frame was going to be filled. This was it. I gave myself a deadline, and I told my kids, “You may be my last AP class.” They were not expecting that.

The emotion was high, and word got out quickly. My principal knew I was interested in an admin position, since I was already holding a role as a magnet coordinator. (Lincoln has a magnet program, and I was responsible for running it. It was a group of roughly 240 kids, a school within a school. I took care of everything from parent communications to academics to discipline. My principal gave me a chance to run the school.) The word got out, and I forced myself to look into different opportunities. Many teachers didn’t take it seriously because I had talked about it before, but some of them knew I held an admin credential.

I worked in the East Region of the L.A. district. I wanted to stay in the area where I was known. I quickly came up with the possible schools I was interested in, and Garfield was at the top of my list. When school ends, the district puts up what schools are available. I knew that if I got an offer from one of them, I was willing to take a job from them, and then when I got an offer from Garfield, it was my first choice.

You can imagine why it was my first choice.

TBS: Beyond the Escalante & Gradillas connection, what else attracted you to Garfield?

YOM: Escalante is one of the reasons, but since I have been here about a half year. Garfield is considered the heart of East L.A., and we set examples for many other schools to follow. We not only have an excellent math program but also science and academic decathlon. It’s like the all-around school, a great school to put myself in an admin role. We’re one of the largest schools in the district, with about 2,700 students. At Lincoln, there were about 1,000 students. I wanted to work where I could impact more students, and what better opportunity than Garfield.

Personally, I felt like it had been a while since Mr. Escalante had taught in Garfield, and the recognition had decreased. I wanted to light the fire again. I’m working with a few math teachers who were actually students of Escalante, and some of the pictures in the movie posters are here. They tell me all about it. I set high expectations, so I’m not too happy with the AP Math program. More kids should be taking AP. But again, those take time, but that’s my direction.

TBS: What was happening with you when you got the word from Garfield?

YOM: At the end of June 2018, I was notified. It was one of the toughest times of my life. When school ended in early June, I aggravated a herniated disc in my back. I was one of the AP graders, so I went to Kansas City for a week, and the plane ride aggravated it. When I got back, I couldn’t even move. I had to take the highest tolerance medicines just to get through the day. I even considered surgery.

Keep in mind I had just submitted my résumé to Garfield. The process was still rolling, but I wasn’t mentally prepared to think about what to do. When I landed the job, I was so excited, but I was in such pain, that I didn’t know what to do. They wanted me to show up the following week, on July 1, to introduce myself, but I couldn’t really move. I kept asking, what do I do? I put on the back support, but I couldn’t drive, so I had to take an Über over to meet the principal, Mr. Favela, who is also new. (It was nice not to be the only new person coming in.) Even though I was in pain on the drive over, once I got there, the adrenaline kicked in, and it’s like sports, when the game is at stake. You don’t even think about the injury. I wasn’t thinking about my pain. I was just excited to check out the school.

It was summer time so there was not a lot of staff around, but I still got to talk with the front office staff, the security guards, and some of the students. I never went through a thorough school tour besides Lincoln, and the school was definitely bigger.

Anthony Yom Interview

TBS: Was Lincoln all you had known?

YOM: I spent my entire education career before Garfield at Lincoln, for 13 years. I started my teaching career there and ended it there. I’m proud of that.

TBS: How did friends and family react?

YOM: My family knew I was interested in administration, so they were positive. My parents felt this was a huge promotion, moving into a bigger role for me and they were excited for me.

My dad told me something I think will stick with me the rest of my life: “Son, I’m excited for you and glad you will be working with a different school and students. Because you are an assistant principal, don’t think you are above somebody. You’re there to serve them, not to direct them, but rather guide them.”

You know how people can feel now they have all this authority and they are above somebody? But even before I started, my dad held me to the ground and reminded me why I was there.

From my teacher friends, there was some resistance, and there were some concerns. They worried my personality was more suited for teaching, not admin. Some said, “You’re not going to last in admin. We have a feeling you will be coming back to teaching.” So there was a mix of blessing and concern. This is a tough job.

TBS: Teachers and administrators both talk of friction existing between the two groups. Now that you are on the “other team,” how do you see the situation?

YOM: That will always be the case, the tension. I’m lucky that the 30 teachers I work with directly are aware that I am new, but they also know I was a teacher until last year. They don’t see me as “just an admin.” They feel like I am one of them.

Winning the Escalante–Gradillas Prize certified me as showing I know what I’m doing with regard to teaching. Some admins meet minimum years of teaching, and here they are trying to lead a teacher who has been in the classroom for 25 years — it’s kind of tough. I don’t know what I was thinking; I thought five years was enough. But now I want to recommend to anyone who wants to move into administration that they probably need seven to 10 years minimally to claim they know what’s going on in the classroom.

The credibility from the Escalante–Gradillas Prize and other recognition has helped me to “break the wall” and they are more receptive, because they know I know their role, I’m more of a listener, and I offer guidance. I don’t want to be viewed as someone directing them to what they should be doing. It’s more collaborative. I have yet to witness any friction, minus the strike we went through, but that was whole-district tension. [ed., L.A. School District teachers were on strike Jan. 14–21, 2019.]

Here at Garfield it has been very good so far. That had not been the case before, but with the new admin team, while we are not perfect, I’d say we are moving in the right direction. Recently, we were identified as an eligible school to apply for the California Distinguished Schools Program, so we just submitted the application. Those are the kinds of things you can’t achieve without collaboration between the admins and the teachers. That’s just a small example of the relationship we have with community, parents, teachers, and students.

TBS: What did you do to celebrate after getting the job?

YOM: My parents have always been a big part of my life. I took them out to a dinner, and that’s when I broke the news.

“I’m leaving Lincoln.”

“What do you mean you’re leaving?”

“To a new school to teach.”

I didn’t want to give it away, but later on I explained. They didn’t go to school in the States, so they are not aware of what Jaime Escalante did for our children, but when I won the Prize, I explained what it meant to me, and when I told them I would be working at the same school where he worked, it struck them that it was a big deal.

The influence of Mr. Escalante has been a big factor in this community. I still run into a lot of people coming by who say, “Hey, I used to work with Mr. Escalante,” and they will tell me all these stories, which helps me to understand the culture surrounding the school and the whole community.

TBS: Now that you’ve been assistant principal a few months, what are your specific goals for your position? And what might the future hold?

YOM: First, I am very happy where I’m at. I’m more of a Year One-, Year Three-, and Year Five-goal person. When it comes to the admin role, it’s not solely controlled by me. If the district wants me to go somewhere else, that’s its choice. But I hope they understand it takes a few years for me to make an impact on any school. My goal is to stay here at least three years, because I’m very happy, and I think it will take at least three years to show some sort of difference we’re working on.

After three-to-five years, I would like to take over a school. Instruction is my strength, but I want to learn about special ed. I also want to learn about working with the community and parents. I need to learn about budgets and discipline. Within the next three years, I want to gain as much info as possible and take that to another school where I can make a difference. I would want to go to a school where I am really needed.

Now that I’m in an admin position, I’m expanding my view. I’ve thought about working at a middle school. It’s a great place to make an impact. A few years down the line, I would like to be a principal if given a chance. I would take over a school and work with our admin team and teachers to turn it around. After that, who knows? That’s far in the future for me.

TBS: Now that you’re in an admin position, what do you see at the national level in education that must be addressed?

YOM: We are at a crisis point. Our kids are not ready. Kids graduate high school, but are they ready for the 21st century? I would say no. We tell teachers you’ve got to work hard and bring standards and expectations up, but when I visit my classrooms at least once a day, four to five times a week, it’s all about giving teachers actionable feedback — not just, “You’re doing a great job,” but pointing out one or two things we can work on as a team to discuss and come up with a plan. I don’t give 10 different [bits of] feedback. I like to work on one or two things this teacher could work on that would come down to our students.

Regarding that friction between admins and teachers, across the nation we should both understand that at the end of the day we are in this together as a team, and we should work to create a system where the admin coming into the classroom is not there to come after the teachers but to provide realistic feedback they could use both to grow professionally as a teacher and to help us move forward.

TBS: What would you like to do to achieve your goals at Garfield?

YOM: My major focus has been the theme of equity. With us living in the 21st century, people may think it’s already happening across the nation, but it’s not. There is a systematic bias, in my opinion, that prevents our kids from accessing the equitable education they deserve.

We’ve been in a long cycle of students and teachers in a deficit mindset: we’re behind, we can’t meet the standards. Not everyone, but there’s this attitude I want to shift. Changing the mindset of how we serve our kids will not solve everything, but we can address more equity.

TBS: How do you make the system more equitable?

YOM: You can’t lower expectations on students and teachers. Once you lower it, you’re accepting they won’t be up to standards. For example, you get tested in college, right? Do they lower the bar or language so you can pass? If you try to get a degree, do they lower the expectations? So lowering the bar because students are not ready is not the way to go.

A quick example as a math teacher…

Some teachers — when students walk into the classroom at the beginning of the year, and the teachers notice they are not performing at grade level — what do they do? They start at a lower standard. “Since you are not ready for geometry or algebra II, I will teach you at a lower-level standard.” The teacher has good intentions, but if you spend a month or two catching up, reviewing material from last year or the year before, you have less time to cover this year’s material. You’re not being equitable with the kids. It creates a bad cycle, where kids are not fully mastering the content in the next year.

Instead, you should not start with the remedial content but start with the standard right away and identify what’s missing for the kids in this particular unit. Touch up on that and still push through. This idea makes sense so long as you know what you’re doing. As long as you can identify what’s missing, you don’t need to review everything.

Yes, we do need to supplement and meet the prerequisite, but we want to teach to the standards. Lowering the bar creates an illusion that students and teachers are achieving something, but they are achieving 7th grade level when they should be working on 10th grade. So holding a higher expectation but also providing the right support at the right time — this is what I want to hold my entire school to.

TBS: Regarding your role so far, what has surprised you most?

YOM: As a whole, we have come far in education; we are making big changes, but it’s not enough. Systemically, it’s not equitable. I’m noticing that in our AP programs, special ed, females — it shocks me as an admin. But at the same time, holding a high expectation. Those are the two pieces.

TBS: On top of all this wonderful news of your coming to Garfield and following in the footsteps of Escalante and Gradillas, we also hear you’re getting married. Congratulations! Details?

YOM: Still working on the dates. Summer, though. Since my fiancée’s family is in Korea, there’s a chance I will be flying to Korea and getting married there.

TBS: Did you meet in Korea?

YOM: No, she’s a CPA here, and one of my best friends worked at the same company, and he introduced us. We’ve known each other about a year and a half.

I will be flying my family there. I prefer a small type of wedding.

TBS: Doing the traditional Korean wedding first and then a more Western wedding?

YOM: Funny, you know more than me! Yes. I didn’t know that there’s some traditional aspect — which is a nonnegotiable. {Laughs.}

TBS: Final thoughts?

YOM: I never went into teaching to get recognized. No one really does. They want to influence kids. But the opportunities I received after winning this award have been beyond my imagination. I’m forever thankful for winning the Escalante–Gradillas Prize. It’s a good pressure, because now I have to live up to my expectation. Because I know what that prize means to many people and to education. I want to thank everyone who made me who I am right now. I will continue to live the best way I can to set an example for educators to follow and fulfill.

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Fairy tales can come true. It happened to Anthony Yom, now assistant principal at the very school where math magician Escalante and principal prestidigitator Gradillas roamed the halls many years ago. We wish him the best as he continues to write this amazing tale of an educator working to make magic happen in the lives of students.

To find out how you can help students achieve their very best, either as an educator or an administrator, check out Education: From College to Career.

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