Kati Bennett was named High School Teacher of the Year for the Capistrano Unified School District, in part because of a program she created in a Concordia University class. The program, called Student to Student, helps English as a second language (ESL) students integrate into the public high school environment.
"I saw the need to help ESL students who feel isolated," Bennett says. "Student to Student pairs academically accelerated students and ESL students for tutoring and friendship, and helps ESL students spread out beyond their own cultural group."
The club meets weekly at the 3,000-student Aliso Niguel High School in Aliso Viejo where Bennett teaches. The school is known for its diverse population — fifteen languages spoken — and for preparing ESL students to attend four-year universities.
As the sun rises over campus one morning, students arrive for Bennett’s 7 a.m. honors English class. Bennett is approachable, conversational and effective. Later in the day she teaches ESL students.
"ESL is my first love and the reason I went into teaching twenty years ago," Bennett says. "High school is not an easy place for any student. To have someone be kind to you goes a long way. That brings in the Christian aspect. I pray every day that I can be there for students and communicate what I need to."
"I liked the cohort idea, the fact that the professors came to us and that classes met locally once a week," she says. "I have two kids, a husband and a job. Concordia’s program seemed do-able."
In 2006, Bennett enrolled in Concordia University’s MA in Education program.
The result: "I loved it," she says. "The quality of professors, the way they structured the classes. They treated us as professionals and recognized we were experienced in the field. It was very meaningful."
One of her first assignments was to create a program to address a need at her school. Bennett and a classmate developed Student to Student. Six years later, it remains popular among students.
"I’m surprised and happy," says Bennett. "It obviously met a need. … Concordia made me think again about teaching, to evaluate what I’m doing and why, and if I’m being effective. Every week brought new ideas. There’s not a class I don’t think back to when dealing with issues, from the physical setup of the classroom to the structure of my lesson plans."
In 2009, Bennett was chosen from among 2,200 teachers to be Teacher of the Year for the enormous 51,000-student Capistrano district, based on her extraordinary work with ESL students and her community involvement.
"I believe in the Lutheran tradition of being service-oriented," she says. "I hope I’m passing that on to the kids."
She is pleased that many of her ESL students go to college, including Harvard, and is thankful for her own Concordia education.
"Concordia opened my mind again to see teaching as a vocation," she says. "It was worth every penny and every minute."