Although the afternoon dismissal bell has rung at Torrance Elementary School, principal Gerardo Yepez (Class of ’93, liberal studies; ’96, teaching credential) isn’t finished working. He can be seen at the school’s entrance, greeting parents and saying goodbye to students for the day.
Yepez, a Los Angeles native, taught for many years in the Lennox and San Mateo-Foster City school districts before becoming an administrator. During his eight years as principal at Torrance Elementary, the school has consistently earned high marks on real estate sites such as redfin.com and trulia.com for its high level of service to the community, a population that Yepez regards as his “customers.”
Dateline visited Yepez in his office, where his door is always open to all at the school. The former Toros soccer midfielder discussed meeting fiscal challenges in education, parental involvement in education, and the importance of teamwork in and out of the classroom.
Dateline: What inspired you to enter education?
Gerardo Yepez: I attended El Camino College after graduating from Hawthorne High School in 1986. During that time, I played soccer there.
My younger brother was a senior [in high school] during my first year at El Camino College, so I went back to help him out [he played soccer] with some techniques that I had learned. Pretty soon, it turned from just coaching my brother to coaching the team. I was offered a position so I coached there for five years and realized that it was teaching. When I entered Dominguez Hills, I had the intention of becoming a teacher.
Dateline: What led you to move to school administration?
GY: At the time I graduated, [there was] what they called an emergency credential. I basically went from having a bachelor’s degree to jumping into teaching because they needed teachers. I taught fourth and fifth grade at Moffett Elementary School for five years in the Lennox School District. Then I moved up north and taught in the San Mateo-Foster City School District for two-and-a-half years. [There,] I walked into a school that had a lot of components missing that prevented kids from being successful. I felt frustrated, I felt frustrated for the kids. That was the reason I entered administration.
Dateline: What are some of the current challenges facing you as a school administrator besides budget cuts?
GY: Over the last two years, we lost six amazing teachers [due to budget cuts]. Class sizes have gone up. But we’ve gone from a 789 to an 850 in our API (Academic Performance Index http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/ac/ap/ ) score in the last five years, based on STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) results. We’ve been able to address a lot of the needs of the students.
We are one of three Title One schools [in Torrance], which basically identifies us as a high-poverty school. Students come here with needs that other schools in the Torrance area don’t have. We have a staff that identifies the needs and looks at data and instruction. Those things are challenges but we [meet] the kids’ needs, whether they are academic or social. We’re committed to that at our school.
We have a number of English language learners, about 159 out of 500 students. We [increased by] 29 points this past year on our API for our subgroup of English learners. We brought in some intervention teachers and new programs. Again, it goes back to the idea that we looked at the data to find what we needed.
Dateline: Why and how has the need for parental involvement risen in schools?
GY: Going back to budget cuts, we don’t have instructional assistants in the classrooms anymore. If you have a teacher who has 30 kids in the first grade, it’s very helpful when you have parents who can come in to correct papers, to run a [study] group, or to help in any way.
From talking to other principals at other Torrance schools, it is a challenge in terms of not being able to [get] parents to participate. We’ve been able to establish a culture where we make it easy for parents to [participate].
For kids to see their parents at school, I think they value that. ‘My mom is here, my dad is here,’ they think. ‘School must be important.’ Also, I think that parents have a better idea of what we are doing to teach their kids. A percentage of that is work and learning that goes home. We have parents reinforce the learning. It helps us make sure the kids are really grasping the instruction and content we provide for them.
There are a number of layers as to why parental involvement is important. But the key is that the kids benefit.
Dateline: As a student at CSU Dominguez Hills, what prepared you the most for your career as a teacher and administrator?
GY: When I was an undergraduate, I had a couple of English classes, one in particular that was very useful for me as a writer. I felt at the time that it was an area where I lacked the skills. When I went through the credential program, there were very good classes that helped me. There are so many components to teaching, but I felt an awareness of what a well-rounded teacher should be like.
There was good diversity. I felt that the interaction that I had with my classmates was very positive. I think that was important for me because I was able to interact with not just one group of students but various ethnic groups that I felt I benefited from, whether in the classroom or the soccer field.
Dateline: How do you think CSU Dominguez Hills has established and maintained its reputation as a school that prepares future teachers and administrators?
GY: I think that [the university] has done a great job of preparing students for this profession. It’s demanding. The bottom line is that if we want kids to be successful, we need to bring in teachers who have the skills and the knowledge that [they can] transfer to the kids. It makes it easy for us as administrators, knowing that [new teachers] have the skills and quality to provide great classroom instruction.
Dateline: How would you encourage students to best prepare themselves for careers in education?
GY: I would tell them in addition to taking courses, to be volunteers at schools. I feel when they get into a school as a volunteer they get a true sense of what’s going on.
The first three teachers that I hired were here volunteering. I got to know that they were committed to teaching and to the kids. Actually, one of them started when she came straight out of high school. She volunteered for seven years, went to junior college, university, and did her student teaching here.
One of the things that I look at when I hire teachers is to make sure that they’re strong educators. Based on their resume, we kind of get a sense [if they are]. But what is important for me and my interview team to see is the idea of [an applicant] being flexible and able to work with others.
It used to be that you put yourself in the classroom [and just taught]. It doesn’t work that way anymore. It’s very important because so much of what schools are doing is about collaboration. If you don’t have that skill, work on getting it.
Dateline: How do you influence students at Torrance Elementary to earn their college degrees?
GY: I talk to kids a lot about making sure that what they’re doing now is going to prepare them for the future, whether they’re going to be teachers, lawyers, doctors. I speak to them in the broad aspect of professions and that they can achieve whatever they like. If they ask me, I speak about my experiences as an educator and that might create some curiosity or inclinations toward that. But it’s more about telling them that the possibilities are out there.
Dateline: What is the secret of your success as a principal?
GY: My goal is to provide the kids here with the best education possible. I tell parents that if I know the kids are happy, I know [the parents] will be happy. I build relationships with parents and am constantly trying to find out what they need, how I can help them. They respect that, and for me, that’s important. They are our customers and I want to give them the best service.
I just like people. I feel that when you respect people and provide honest services and talk to them, [they know] you have their best interests at heart.