California

Martha Infante

Position: Seventh Grade World History Teacher / GATE Coordinator

School: Los Angeles Academy Middle School

School District: Los Angeles Unified School District

City, State: Los Angeles, California

About the Nominee: Martha Infante was nominated by a colleague, Jennifer Mickey.

Many would describe Ms. Infante as a Life Changer for the work she has done at her school. They might cite how she has created the most prosperous Gifted Program in all of South Central L.A, or how she has helped generations of students obtain numerous educational experiences such as scholarships for attendance to private school, or to travel to China and Japan on education exchanges. They might even cite her own magic as a classroom teacher who brings Medieval World History to life and whose students eagerly rush to class to learn their next lesson.

Ms. Infante is a LifeChanger because she literally embodies what it means to change a school and a community. Los Angeles Academy Middle School would be very different had she not been a teacher there.

Through relentless and unceasing efforts, Ms. Infante has fought to change the image of what it means to be a student in South Central L.A. In a place that is often known for its gang violence, she has encouraged and succeeded in helping students from varying backgrounds find the scholar in them. She is someone who sees past the outer reflections of an environment to see the value and potential of each individual student. Students who were reluctant learners have transformed into ambitious and voracious learners due to the many programs and initiatives she started in the school, such as:

-the New Teacher Roundtable, which reduced teacher turnover -Professional Development for teachers, which placed the most able educators in front of high need students -the School for Advanced Studies, a renowned program of accelerated learning that students from all over the district seek to attend -the Student Travel Program, which takes students to domestic and international locations each summer

It would not be enough to improve her school without improving the wider community, however. Ms. Infante:

-conducts numerous parent trainings in both English and Spanish -has led electronic waste collection efforts to remove dangerous items from streets and alleys -obtained numerous grants for education projects -helped students and parents obtain citizenship -convinced runaways to come home to their parents -mentored teachers throughout the state of California and beyond

The number of individual lives she has changed are too numerous to list. There is one anecdote, however, that represents how Ms. Infante is a LifeChanger on a regular basis. There was a student whose parents were separating, which forced the mother and her children to live in a homeless shelter. The student's attendance and school performance were sporadic. As soon as she found out the cause, Ms. Infante went into commando mode and called as many contacts as she could to find a way to help the family. She was able to obtain a full scholarship so the student could attend a Cal Arts summer residential program. This relieved the mother from the stress of taking care of three children while homeless, and it gave the bright, but underachieving student a glimpse into a different world. The student is now a working artist, and the entire family found their way shortly thereafter.

There is no doubt that if Ms. Infante received a Life Changer of the Year award, she would invest any funds into continuing to improve her school, and to cement its role as a ray of hope and sunshine for many students.

Todd Higashi

Position: Science/PE Teacher

School: Alameda Science & Technology Institute

School District: Alameda Unified School District

City, State: Alameda, California

About the Nominee: Todd Higashi lives, breathes and walks “LifeChanger” every day; he is the eyes, ears, and heart of Alameda Science and Technology Institute (ASTI), and his impact on students, inside and outside the classroom, is remarkable. At ASTI, which has only 9 staff members total, Mr. Higashi wears many hats. He teaches Biology, Media Studies, Physical Education and Current Life, and he also serves as the school’s Safe Schools Site Coordinator, Yearbook Advisor and founder of ASTI’s community garden. Mr. Higashi embraces ASTI’s Early College High School mission and vision to make college a viable option to all students, particularly low-income, first generation students of color. He is often the last person to leave ASTI in the evening, and can be found on many weekends and over school breaks helping students work on the yearbook and tend to the garden. Mr. Higashi cares deeply about his students and goes above and beyond to provide them with learning opportunities that extend beyond the classroom.

He embeds his talents and passion for his subjects into his curriculum, engaging students and making learning matter. In Media Studies, he shares his love for photography and gives students a space to cultivate their own creativity. He brings latent talents alive in students. For example, a series of photography assignments led Mr. Higashi to discover the incredible talent of one of his 12th grade students, whose photographs now grace official school postcards used to send positive notes home to parents.

In PE, his lessons thoughtfully engage students of all athletic abilities. For the dance final, 9th & 10th graders are grouped and given a dance rubric, although they get to choose what song they dance to and the choreography style. The final culminates in a dance showcase that empowers even the shyest and most uncoordinated students. Students care deeply about this final project, spending countless hours practicing their routines in the quad after school and over Thanksgiving break.

Mr. Higashi’s greatest contribution to ASTI is the school garden. Years ago, he had a vision to take a piece of land next to school and turn it into a community garden. This took over a year of planning, grant writing and partnering with community members. Mr. Higashi and his students worked tirelessly during the year to create a beautiful, seasonal, organic garden that the students in his Green Club oversee. From building planter boxes to teaching students about different types of soil, seeds, and ways of organic farming, Mr. Higashi has created an outdoor classroom where students have the opportunity to learn about hands-on gardening, the environment and nutrition. Students work into the evening, watering plants, pulling weeds and harvesting fruits and vegetables. Mr. Higashi works the garden into his biology curriculum, giving students the opportunity to plant crops of their choice and test hypotheses about factors impacting the growth of their plant. Being around Mr. Higashi inspires colleagues to examine their own work and think about how they can do more do address the needs of ASTI students.

Students tending the garden include quieter ones who are typically more comfortable on the sidelines. If a student is going through stress and hardship at home, they use the garden as a peaceful place of refuge from the difficulties of their personal lives. All kinds of students tend to the garden, from those who struggle academically to those who have a hard time fitting in with their peers socially. Mr. Higashi created a space where all students feel welcomed and valued, and has given an opportunity to all students to contribute positively to their school community. He is also changing the way students think about food, nutrition, farming and their impact on the environment. One afternoon, a student walked away with a turnip saying she had never tasted it before and did not know how to prepare it. Mr. Higashi taught her how to roast the vegetable she had just pulled from the garden, expecting her to let him know how it tasted the next day.

He cares deeply for each student’s socio-emotional well-being. Students describe him as patient, kind and encouraging. He creates relationships of trust with all his students. He listens to them, and they feel comfortable discussing difficult personal topics in his presence. Mr. Higashi is often the first person whom a student has ever opened up to. Many counseling meetings about personal student concerns are a direct result of his referrals. He provides an emotional safety net for students.