GALA Teacher Wins Prestigious National Fellowship

GALA science teacher Emilie Hill, in the classroom she’s packing up as she prepares to leave for a year-long fellowship in Washington, D.C.

In addition to administering final exams this week, science teacher Emilie Hill is busy packing up her classroom at the Girls Academic Leadership Academy/Dr. Michelle King School for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (better known as GALA).  But while the the last day of school is on Friday, the packing effort goes beyond standard end-of-the-year tidying.  That’s because Hill was recently named one of nine recipients nationally of the Albert Einstein Distinguished Fellowship for Educators in STEM Education, and she will be spending the next year working in a congressional office in Washington, D.C.

For many years, Hill was the lead teacher in a program for at-risk students at John Marshall High School. But when Marshall Assistant Principal Elizabeth Hicks left to start GALA several years ago, Hill went with her to help design the science program at the new all-girls school.  GALA opened three years ago, on the campus of LA High, with grades 6 and 9, and has added two grades each year since.  Now, in GALA’s third year, it has 520 students in grades 6-11, and next year it will celebrate its first graduating class.

“So far, we’ve been really successful,” said Hill, noting that the school has a “huge” wait list for incoming middle schoolers, many of whom are returning to the LAUSD school after having been previously enrolled in charters or private schools.  Hill also said that it’s been “extremely rewarding” to help get the school off the ground, though teaching only girls has been “very different” for someone who has three sons and a brother, but no daughters or sisters.

Hill said, however, that she noticed back at Marshall that girls and boys tend to approach classroom tasks differently, especially in science labs, where the boys often just grab the equipment and dig into an assignment, without reading the instructions…while the girls tend to be more methodic, reading the instructions several times and making sure they understand everything before diving in.  For that reason, Hill said, she had already instituted same-gender lab groups in her co-ed science classes, even before moving to GALA.  And the gender-based groups “seemed to make everybody happier,” Hill said – both the boys who like to rush in, and the girls who are more meticulous.  Dividing them up, she said, removed some friction and improved the overall experience for both boys and girls.

Hill’s class schedules, on the white board in her GALA classroom.

So for the last three years, Hill has been enjoying her GALA students while teaching AP Physics, AP Chemistry, an interdisciplinary AP Seminar course and a middle school engineering class at the new school.  One big highlight came this spring, when teams from Hill’s engineering class took first and third places in their division at a regional underwater rover robotics competition.  (The other top-three team was also all-female, which made it a first-ever all-girl sweep at the competition.) Hill said that while she saw other teams at the competition give up when their rovers had problems, her students didn’t – and “and that’s what we teach here.”  “That’s what I’m going to miss most,” she said, “watching the girls learn to help each other and keep going.”

But as much as she’s enjoyed her time at GALA, other interests have also been tugging at Hill.

In fact, Hill told the Buzz, her original passion – until she “fell in love with chemistry” in 11th grade – was political science.  And although she detoured into teaching science as a career (“that was a big switch for me – that was not where I [originally] saw my life going”), the earlier interest stuck with her, too.  Especially when, as a teacher, she found herself frustrated with education policies, and the lack of accountability that comes with such top-down edicts. (Because no one person is in charge of such things, she said, “there’s a lot of finger pointing.”)  Eventually, while still teaching, Hill got involved with the National Education Association, which sent her to Washington, D.C. four times a year, and she learned a lot more about how educational policies are developed by lawmakers and how the policies can change before they actually reach the classroom.  (Legislators, said Hill,  often don’t have a “classroom lens” because they’ve never been teachers.)

Along the way, Hill also learned about the Einstein Fellowship, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), along with the Department of Defense (DoD) and the National Aeornautics and Space Administration (NASA).  She was intrigued, considered applying for several years…and finally took the plunge last fall.

According to Hill, the fellowship attracts 500-800 applicants annually, and the application materials include a work history, letters of recommendation, and answers to five essay questions about STEM education, leadership, and why you’re interested in the fellowship. The application deadline was last November. Then the DoE narrowed the applicants down to a pool of 50, and then to 20 semi-finalists, who were all flown to Washington in March for interviews with the DoE and the other agencies that fund the program.  The winners – including Hill – were announced in May

Also on Hill’s classroom whiteboard: the list of 10 US Representatives and Senators she will interview with prior to the final placement for her fellowship.

The fellowship recipients will work in either a governmental agency or congressional office during their fellowship year.  Hill hoped for, and won, a spot in the congressional contingent. She was allowed to select five legislators’ offices she was interested in, and five more were added to her list of potential assignments by the fellowship administrators.  Hill will interview with all 10 of the offices in mid-June, and will find out where she’s been placed toward the end of the month.  Then she will attend an orientation in August, and will start work in her assigned office when Congress comes back into session after Labor Day.  During her fellowship year, which ends next July, Hill will be given a portfolio of issues and advisors, and will help provide input on the issues to the representative she’s assigned to.

Of the 10 legislators on her interview list, Hill says she’s currently most interested in working with Senator Jacky Rosen (who was a computer programmer in the 1980s, when very few women worked in that field), Rep. Tony Cardenas (her own congressional representative), and Rep. Jahana Hayes (who used to be a classroom teacher).

In addition to the exciting new work, another perk of the fellowship is that it comes with a stipend that’s actually a bit more than Hill’s LAUSD salary for the period.  But there are a couple of big sacrifices, too.  First is that she will have to move to Washington, DC for a year without her family.  And second is that she has to take a formal leave of absence from her teaching duties…and while LAUSD guarantees her a job when she returns, it does not have to be at the same school she was at before the fellowship — which means that, ironically, she may not be able to return to the school she helped launch, and where that experience contributed to winning the honor of the fellowship.

Still, it’s a rare opportunity, and Hill is looking forward to the experience. “It’s so exciting…and so scary!”

Someone else will be teaching in Room 377 next year…while Ms Hill is off doing other wonderful things.
GALA students on the school’s campus, located on the grounds of LA High School.

For those interested in learning more about GALA, see the school’s website, or the LAUSD website for the school.  There are open house tours for prospective parents in mid-September, with a reservation form available in August.  Tours are for families in grades 5th grade and above only.  Applications are due – through the school, not the LAUSD eChoices system – in January.

 

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About Elizabeth Fuller

Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - first in the Sycamore Square neighborhood, and since 2012 in West Adams Heights/Sugar Hill. She was long-time board member of the Sycamore Square Neighborhood Association, currently serves on the board of the West Adams Heights/Sugar Hill Neighborhood Association, spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.

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