“What makes my students so special? They just have the most amazing hearts,” says Sheila Garcia, a religious studies teacher at Cristo Rey De La Salle East Bay High School in Oakland.
“They are so in tune with how they feel and they know how to express those feelings.”
It’s a level of social-emotional maturity that Sheila wasn’t necessarily expecting among her ninth graders at Cristo Rey De La Salle, a Catholic school that opened in 2019 serving low-income students.
But the students’ social-emotional skills helped ease Sheila’s own transition into the classroom setting – Cristo Rey De La Salle’s inaugural year also marked Sheila’s first as a teacher.
A Bay Area native, Sheila previously worked as Director of Campus Ministry at De La Salle Christian Brothers Schools in Boca Raton, Fla. and El Paso, Tex. before returning home to Oakland.
She holds the same ministerial position at her new school, splitting those responsibilities with her duties in the classroom.
“It’s more hands on than I have ever been. And it’s been such a fun ride,” Sheila says.
“As a campus minister, my role is more about educating the kids with real-world examples of how they can live out their faith outside of the classroom.”
In school, “we really want our students to reflect on and identify their own individual faith experience and what their religious or spiritual life looks for them,” she adds.
Cristo Rey De La Salle educates students on the importance of building an inclusive community, social justice, respect for all persons, concern for the poor, quality education and having faith in the presence of God.
“We ask them, ‘What does service mean and how are you called with your unique individual talents and gifts to serve our community?”
Those religious studies complement the academic course work and Cristo Rey De La Salle’s signature Corporate Work Study Program, which places students in entry-level, job-sharing positions at local businesses, nonprofits or government agencies.
Money earned offsets their tuition costs.
“The idea is to give students the opportunity for professional development. They are learning what it means to be a young adult,” Sheila says.
“They get experience that someone else graduating from another high school might not have. We are preparing them not only to be academically ready to go to a college but for the demands of being in the work force.”
The job training program is especially valuable in helping level the playing field for students who might otherwise be underserved, says Sheila.
In the classroom, Cristo Rey De La Salle provides students with individual mentoring to help manage both academic demands and those outside of class.
The Walton Family Foundation provided funds to support Cristo Rey De La Salle through the Silicon Schools Fund.
Sheila mentored 16 students in her first year of teaching, and will continue mentoring the students until they graduate high school.
“What gets me excited to start my day is greeting my community; students and adults early in the morning, giving them a smile, a firm handshake or hug, and checking in on how they are doing,” she says.
“Throughout every single day, we check in with them. We understand how important it is for our students to feel supported and have someone in their corner pushing them and motivating them, not just in the academic sense but as a person.”
Sheila loves Cristo Rey De La Salle’s model because it recognizes there are “no cookie-cutter students” at the school.
“We look at each and every student not just as another number within our student body, but as an individual person with individual needs,” she says.
“Students look up to teachers and adults in their school. It’s important to remember that every interaction means something to them. This can affect how they perceive themselves, how they perceive others.”
Given the diverse backgrounds of her students, Sheila says she feels an enormous responsibility to provide them individualized support.
“I’ve seen schools look at students and say ‘If they make it, they make it’ and ‘If they fail, they fail.’ It’s a lot of work to make sure that, every single day, we have the support and resources for each student,” she says.
When students are challenged by doubts about their abilities, Sheila strives to check in with them, help them identify obstacles they are facing and create tailored plans to achieve their goals.
“We can’t just generalize. There’s a lot of higher-level cognitive lifting to make sure our students are successful. It can be a struggle, but we need to do it make sure our students are as successful as they can be.”
Those challenges are also “the best part about teaching,” Sheila adds.
“It’s so important to guide them and walk alongside them during their learning process. And what I have realized is just how much, as a teacher, that I learn from my students.”