To understand why Carolina Feria (San Diego '15) is one of the top teachers at Charter School of San Diego, it helps to know where she started.
Carolina grew up in North County, on a street adjacent to gang territory. She attended an elementary school ranked three on a 10-point scale, and her middle school peers served detentions in a fenced cube with a security guard at the door.Motivated to do better, she enrolled in a high school with an impressive graduation rate and focused on earning good grades. She was accepted at the University of California, Santa Barbara and was ready to leave Escondido and not look back.
College was an awakening. Carolina studied three times as hard, but in her first year got lower marks than classmates from more privileged communities. “I had to teach myself how to critique, analyze and interpret content like the rest of my peers from more affluent parts of California,” she said. “When I learned how to do this my grades shifted and I rose to the Dean’s List for the last two years of my undergraduate career.”
“In my mind, my community could not be remedied. It needed a hero or an agent of social change, and at the time I didn’t feel like I could contribute that.”
Carolina reflected on her educational experience and the way it was informed by residential segregation and the school-to-prison pipeline. She felt a pull toward those in her neighborhood who did not access the resources she had to keep her life on track. “I found a bigger purpose. I definitely felt a moral and a social obligation to my community to contribute,” she said.
She joined Teach For America San Diego and came back. Carolina joins our more than 40 corps members in San Diego who are diverse as the students we teach. About 70 percent of our corps identifies as people of color and, like Carolina, nearly two-thirds grew up or went to college in the San Diego region.
Carolina has a roster of 40 students at Charter School of San Diego, a small instruction, academic intervention school for grades 7-12. She provides direct instruction to individual students and facilitates content to small, rotating cohorts two to three times a week.
After her first year, Carolina’s performance evaluation was the second highest among staff. Her supervisor has tapped her to train other teachers on documenting lesson interventions, tracking credit completion and building relationships with students.
“Ms. Feria has been an excellent addition to our team and is a role model for other teachers. Several of her graduating students told me that ‘Ms. Feria is the reason I am finishing high school.’ They shared that Carolina’s high expectations, constant support, and genuine belief in their ability to succeed inspired them to hold themselves more accountable than ever before.”Hayley BeaupreInstructional LeadCentral Region at Charter School of San Diego
Carolina says building relationships with students makes all the difference. She points to Sergio as one student she knows best.
Sergio, 15, was supposed to be in eighth grade when she met him, but was held back due to credit deficiency in English and math. She focused on getting to know him, asking him what his life looked like when he wasn’t at school.
His insight was valuable, and a home visit expanded her vision. He lived in a modest home, with older siblings, other relatives, and children demanding his attention. “We speak about that all the time, I’m very conscious of his life,” she said. “At the same time, I am helping him realize what’s possible.”Carolina and Sergio confronted his doubts, talked about his future and tailored his assignments around his other responsibilities. In a matter of months, he finished eighth grade, and he is nearing the completion of ninth.
“Especially in high school, she’s the best teacher I’ve ever had. She’s been there through thick and thin and educationally. I see her more as a mentor. We share a strong bond that I’ve never had with another teacher.”
At this pace, Sergio should graduate on time and prepared for his goal: to attend Cal State East Bay and join the police academy in partnership with Alameda County. He wants to improve the policing and reduce the violence in his community.
Carolina said this is a dramatic shift in the way Sergio approaches his education. Where he used to see work piling up, he sees steps toward a goal. No longer is she setting expectations for him. He’s setting the expectations for himself.
“My student is thinking about how to be an active agent of change—because I showed him what one looked like,” she said.