Kayla Conklin currently serves as the department head of the English department at Esperanza Academy Charter High School in West Hunting Park. That title is just one of many she holds at the school, mainly comprised of minority students in the surrounding neighborhoods. Between the hours of 8:50 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Conklin is either teaching 9th grade English, working with students on the school’s newspaper or mentoring students looking for someone to confide in.
What groups and organizations are you involved in at Esperanza?
I do the school newspaper. It’s a journalism class and we win a good amount of awards every year. I do student government, which is sort of what are issues in the school, what are issues you see in your community and what do you want to do about them. That’s a very slow moving thing, but it’s just trying to get them to see how to change things in their society and how slow moving it is sometimes. How you have to call an organization then everybody has to agree on a date and like that’s the sort of stuff we do in there it’s like the nitty gritty nuts and bolts stuff of setting up how you do a volunteer opportunity.
Tell us about your mentoring program with students.
We have a mentoring program that’s funded by a grant from the Department of Justice because mentoring programs keep kids from entering the corrections system, so we have money from them to do programs. So we have a Valentine’s Day thing coming up on Monday where we are going to make crafts and have hot chocolate, have girl talk and things like that. That’s the official component. And then the unofficial component is the relationships I have with my female students that aren’t necessarily my mentees. I have four mentees right now. Most teachers have several mentees at this school. It’s a really big, a really successful program. It can happen organically like you become really close with someone and make it official like define the relationship and become their official mentee.
How do you and other teachers collaborate in helping troubled students?
We have something called the 9th grade consortium. It is sort of a catch them before they fall through the cracks. The freshman teachers come together to talk about, “Well you know this kid has been absent a lot in my class and they’re not catching up. Are they struggling in yours?'” And just trying to either find a solution to a problem. “No, they’re not struggling in my class. They are actually doing really well and what I can do differently so they succeed like they’re succeeding in your class?” Or kind of start the process of getting them help for whatever issue they might need help for. I think our kids really feel like this is a second home to them and I think that both of those programs show them that adults care and adults notice.
Can you talk about what it is like teaching at a mostly Latin-American school with the current political climate?
I can’t comfort them because I don’t know what’s going to happen. All of this is so unprecedented. Anything we can do to make kids feel more supported and more grounded and more like the future that we see for them is their future is even more important now in this political climate we’re living in.
What impact do you want to have on your students?
As an English teacher, I want them to have analytic skills and strong writing skills, which we focus on a ton in my class. As a human, my class is called Perspectives in Latino and African American Literature, so I want them to really develop a sense of empathy and a sense of identity through my class. We talk about those issues a lot, understanding people who are different than you and understanding yourself at the same time and where you come from and what your people have been through.
Text and images by Diamond Jones and Mackenzie Dougherty.