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Beyond the classroom: Teachers of immigrant and poor children play double role


“We are their second parents, sometimes even closer”

Teachers at the Johnnie Cochran Middle School go the extra mile. They have to. They often work beyond the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. school schedule to establish a relationship of trust and comfort with their students, many of them immigrants or the children of immigrants, helping them cope with their educational and emotional issues, from helping them to fill high school applications to educating about birth control. Meet two teachers who work at Johnnie Cochran in South Los Angeles and whose dedication makes a difference in the lives of their students.

Inna kopelevich describes the present education system as
"below grade level," indicating the need for mandatory support
groups for struggling students.

Inna Kopelevich

Math and music have always been the love of Inna Kopelevich’s life. They are the only two things she says she ever wanted to do. Dressed in gray sweatpants and jacket, her hair pulled behind with a colorful headband, Kopelevich sits high on a chair with a projector running behind her explaining to her class of 25 students the nuances of algebra. She has had the good fortune of having lived through her first dream of working in the music industry as a promoter, publisher and manager of a recording studio. She has now returned to fulfill the second one: teaching math.

As an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, Kopelevich and her parents came to U.S. in late 1978 to pursue the American dream. Kopelevich’s parents stressed education, and they made sure nothing came in between their kids and schooling. She feels she needs to do the same for her students. And she has left no stone unturned in this pursuit, for which her students can vouch.

The biggest gift for a child is the gift of education, and she wants the best of it for her students. Kopelevich and Sara Hernandez, another teacher at the school, have spearheaded a non-profit organization called Independent Support System (ISSS) designed to help their low-income students attend top private schools in Los Angeles. For students at the Johnnie Cochran Middle School studying at a private school is like a dream. But Kopelevich’s unrelenting spirit and devotion has proved that this is possible. Heven Ambaye, Joel Argueta and Francisco Sanchez were this year’s top three students from Cochran who won admission to private schools on full scholarships. And this is just the beginning. Around the school, Kopelevich is always looking for students whose lives she can help better.

Angela Asij, a petite 13-year-old eighth grader who gets straight A’s in all her subjects, remembers that the only subject she ever had trouble with was sixth grade math. “My earlier teacher would leave at 3 p.m. and would not stay back to help me with extra counseling or guidance,” she says. Her face lights up while talking about her present math teacher, Kopelevich. “I had lot of family issues sometime back, I felt that I was being ignored and not loved by my parents,” says Angela. Miss Kopelevich then explained to me that since I had been the only child for a long time, that’s why I felt like that and that my parents needed to look after my sisters as they were very small and needed more attention.”

Kopelevich also helps students, like Angela, with their application for the high schools. “They get a ‘choices’ brochure where they get one choice for a magnet school and I help them make the decision of where to apply along with their parents,” says Kopelevich. Her efforts are not restricted to only potential students; she pushes all her students to apply to the magnet schools.

“Some of these kids don’t have parental support. They live in foster care, with one parent, or parents work two jobs, so we play the role of teachers as well as parents. We don’t just teach, come in the morning and leave at 3 p.m., we mold and mentor,” she says, watching the students in her class, namely Kevin, who has turned around completely in his desk to talk a classmate. “Kevin are you working or are you dreaming about after school?” Kopelevich asks sharply with mild admonishment. He is quickly reminded of an important fact that teachers have eyes even at the back of their heads.

Asked if there is anything about the present education pattern she would like to change, she says it would be the school system. “It is below grade level. I would love to have kids that are very low in math to have extra support, in fact mandatory support, because we do have support groups, but children don’t show up,” says Kopelevich, who has taught at Cochran for 4 ½ years. Better prepared students, she says, are important because standardized tests to gauge achievement have become more important. “The thing that is hard is when we get students in the middle of the semester and most of the time these students have low level, and don’t have the skills to learn algebra.” Miguel Zaragoza is one of her new students who joined her class a month back. He was kicked out of his previous school for vandalism, which he cites was a case of mistaken identity. Luckily for Kopelevich, the only subject Miguel seems to like is math. He gives full credit to his math teacher for making the subject interesting. “She is good,” he says. “She knows how to teach.”

Katrina Castellano feels standardized tests are biased, catering
to Midwestern white people rather than urban poor students.

Katrina Castellano

One day, Katrina Castellano, a Cochran teacher, got a frantic call from another teacher managing a homeroom group. “Ms. Castellano can you come over and help me out, there is a girl who is very upset”. That was the first time Katrina met Rosa (whose name has been changed for this story to protect her privacy). Within minutes of talking with each other, they had formed a bond. The bond was cemented further in the last two years after Rosa left for high school. Castellano recently heard from Rosa that she had undergone an abortion. “Her mother’s heart is broken because her daughter got an abortion, whereas my mother’s heart would break if I got pregnant,” says Castellano.

For Rosa, Castellano is her second mom, even closer. “She always feels she can tell me things that she can’t even tell her mom. You know like they can’t possibly ask their parents about birth control. The parents will freak out, but I can educate them on that,” says Castellano, stressing the cultural differences that alienates immigrant parents from their American-born children. Castellano gives her students lot of tips about high school, college and boys. She is quite surprised to see the immigrant children, especially girls, getting serious and thinking about long term relationships when they are in 10 or 11- years-old.

Castellano, who has been teaching at the school for four years, encourages her students to think about high school and college. She gets them interested in the idea by sharing her own experiences at the college. She tells them about college life, professors and academic pressures. She has noticed that over the period of time, more and more students think about going to college and some even know which college they would like to attend.

During her homeroom classes, she talks to the students casually. Like Inna Kopelevich, she believes it is very important. “It is good for them to converse with an adult who grew up here, so they hear how things are said. Sometimes the only adults they converse with are their parents and most of the time their parents have broken English, so they hear things wrong,” Castellano said.

Castellano tries to make her class interesting by using examples from the student’s life. For instance, she will sometimes use current movies, rock stars, actors in order to teach characterization. She plays charades with her class in which the students write several character traits of one character from a book or movie, then come in front of the class and act out those traits. She makes a point to keep her students minds engaged in some activities if they finish the class work early. “We use word processors, electronic dictionaries and computers for the activity. My laptop is the central point to all of my lesson planning and lessons”, she says.

“I sometimes throw in big words as teasers,” she said. “Like if they are being bad, I will say ‘please don’t be vindictive,’ so they don’t know what I am saying, but they understand the context. But in terms of testing them, I use simplified language. Talking about the testing pattern she says that they had been using ‘character and traits’ for the last so many years and last year the testers switched to ‘character and qualities’, so it becomes more of a vocabulary test instead of testing student’s knowledge. I feel so bad for my kids. I tell them in classes - Ok guys this is how they trick you. The sad thing, however, is that the most of the special needs children don’t test well. They get anxious, and some of them are English language learners or they don’t even understand the words. She believes that the test is socio-economically biased. “Meads (honey liquor) was one of the words listed in one of the tests. These are kind of the words that only rich kids will know,” she says with a hint of agitation in her voice. Castellano feels standardized tests should be more culturally relevant; one cannot compare the urban immigrant kids with Midwestern white people.

So, do you have any white students? I ask. The question just pops out. “One. And I don’t know what do with her. I have never taught any white kids” comes her prompt reply followed by a laugh.

So, what keeps her going? Her face instantly transforms. “My students,” she said, with a big smile. “I love teaching. You can never master it, and so you are always learning more and going like ‘oh, I did that so much better than yesterday,’” she said, rolling her light brown eyes back and forth, her hands rising instantly and moving freely in the air as if to explain the complexity of teaching different students differently but also the daily introspection of your performance.