Leandro Gonzales teaches a student how to fly a grant supplied drone at Whittier Middle School. Photo by Scott Ball.
Leandro Gonzales teaches a student how to fly a grant-supplied drone. Photo by Scott Ball.

Leandro Gonzales, a middle school math teacher at Whittier Health Sciences Academy in the San Antonio Independent School District, is the kind of public school teacher who, years from now, will be remembered by students for changing the trajectory of their education and, indeed, their lives.

Gonzales takes algebra and geometry, subjects that can stop middle school students dead in their tracks and turn them off to staying in school, and brings math to life. He makes it float. He even makes it fly.

A surprise delegation led by SAISD Superintendent Dr. Sylvester Perez, SAISD Foundation CEO Judy Geelhoed, and SAISD Trustee Olga Hernandez burst into Gonzales’ mid-morning class Thursday to surprise him and his students with a $5,000 grant to pursue a project he and fellow teacher Winslow Phillips call Project Seaquest. Students are using PVC pipe, foam and other basic materials to construct remotely operated underwater vehicles. In the process, the students are learning how math concepts are used in the real world.

Wislow Phillips and Leandro Gonzales hold grant winner signage. Photo by Scott Ball.
Wislow Phillips (center) and Leandro Gonzales (right) hold grant winner signage. Photo by Scott Ball.

“We are making math more than a piece of paper, more than a handout or worksheet,” Gonzales told me as he led a group of his students to the gymnasium for a demonstration of a remote-controlled drone lifting and then transporting  an egg in what he described as a simulated Amazon.com product delivery.

“We are competing with a lot of distractions out there for the kids’ attention, so we work to find ways to get the kids excited about learning, excited about coming to school,” he said.

With television cameras and others trailing, members of the SAISD Foundation made their way into the gym and watched Gonzales and his students demonstrate the drone experiment (see top photo).

“Companies like Amazon are experimenting with drones to move products, and we are learning how drones work, how to build them, fly them and we are learning new technology skills,” Gonzales said. “And, at the same time, I am teaching them algebra: equations, problem solving, understanding coefficients, Euclidic theorems…”

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Gonzales can hardly contain his excitement, and the students, wearing colorful protective goggles for the drone flight, respond with attention and interest. What makes the story even better is that Gonzales, who grew up on San Antonio’s Westside, dropped out of Memorial High School in the Edgewood Independent School District.

“I wish now I had walked across that Memorial stage for my degree, but I was a troubled student,” he said wistfully.

A couple of four-year stints in the U.S. Navy Seabees gave Gonzales the chance to turn around his life, earn a GED, and discover his love of math, engineering and teaching on his way to earning undergraduate and graduate degrees. Phillips, his fellow STEM teacher, is an Air Force veteran, and together the two said they are taking lessons learned in the military and bringing them into their middle school classroom.

Whittier is an in-district charter school focusing on the health sciences in partnership with the UT-Health Sciences Center and as a prep school for nearby Edison High School’s Health Professions Magnet School. Students enjoy the opportunity both at school and on field trips to interact with professors, physicians and scientists.  Educators believe these kinds of real-world interactions spark young imaginations and can change lives, especially for disadvantaged students whose parents and siblings fell short in their own education attainment.

An SAISD Foundation check for innovative grants is presented at Whittier Middle School. Photo by Scott Ball.
An SAISD Foundation check for innovative grants is presented at Whittier Middle School. Photo by Scott Ball.

Only about 50 of Whittier’s 856 middle school students come from outside the neighborhood, according to Principal Janet Perez, but the learning example they set as highly motivated, college-bound students has a positive influence on their entire student body. Before coming to Whittier several years ago, Perez served as the principal at Bonham Academy in Southtown, another in-district charter.

“It’s important that we get the word out on all the good things we are doing in the district and here at Whittier,” Superintendent Perez said Thursday. “You are sitting in a national demonstration model school for AVID, Advancement Via Individual Determination.”

AVID is a global nonprofit organization whose central principle is to hold K-12 students and then higher education students accountable to the highest standards, with individualized academic and social support, to help students develop critical thinking, literacy, and math skills. The aim is to have every student graduate from high school college-ready.

Perez was joined by Geelhoed, SAISD Foundation Chairman Bob Raymond and Grants Chairman Kim Harle, an H-E-B executive.

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Raymond said more than $1.5 million in SAISD Foundation Innovative Grants have been awarded since 2007, and he praised Dr. Perez for his leadership of the district over the last three years as Perez prepares to retire in June. Harle announced more than $140,000 in new innovative grants for teachers throughout the district that will be awarded throughout the 2015-16 academic year.

After Gonzales and Phillips and their students were surprised, the visitors made their way down another hallways to visit the music room where Hector Treviño was conducting student musicians in a movement from a Harry Potter film score. Treviño was awarded $4,414 for his proposal to enhance classical music instruction through the use of technology, including a Harmony Director, a high-tech keyboard that teachers use to show students how individual notes fit into complete chords. Treviño led the students back through a brief closing of the piece, first through a C note and then a B-flat note.

Studies show that students who play an instrument in the school band or orchestra have some of the highest college attendance and graduation rates among all public school students. Then it was on to the drone exhibition before the delegation departed Whittier Middle School, home of the Mighty Hawks.

The SAISD Foundation raises private funds from local businesses, foundations and individuals and supplements district funds by awarding classroom grants and scholarships to enhance student education opportunities and outcomes. Its mission is to support SAISD to become one of the nation’s leading urban school districts through education excellence and innovation. Robert Rivard is a member for the Foundation board. Click here to donate.

*Featured/top image: Leandro Gonzales teaches a student how to fly a grant-supplied drone.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.