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.