Faces of 501: Leo Espinoza

Leobardo Espinoza Jr. is the college and career advocate at Topeka High School, but it was just a few short years ago that he roamed the halls as a student. After graduating high school in 2013, he went to Yale University and graduated in 2017. In addition to helping students in the district, he recently had two entries into Topeka’s Top Tank entrepreneur competition, both advancing to the top 20. One idea even moved on to the top 10. The overall winner of $100,000 will be announced on February 17.

“I submitted two ideas for the completion, one I developed with friends, Lucas Ryan and Ashley Klemme, for Chatterhouse Coffee Shop, and one idea, Boca Bites that I had been working with my mom, Martha Espinoza for a while. The Chatterhouse idea advanced to the Top Ten. When I saw the opportunity I knew I couldn't let it pass. Before finalizing our ideas, I talked to various mentors to bounce ideas off of them and to hear their thoughts on what I had thus far.”

“It’s been a fun experience to get to sit around with my friends over coffee and imagine what kind of business we'd like to see downtown and how it would be beneficial to our community. It's fun to think in abstract terms, and then figure out the details of how we can make an abstract vision a real business experience for a consumer in Topeka. The initial application actually wasn't too lengthy. We knew competition would be tough since applicants from around the region were allowed to enter, but I'm excited my two entries made the top 20.”

  “I’m a product of Topeka Public Schools (TPS), I attended both Robinson Middle School and Topeka High School. I've been very grateful for the many opportunities my school district has afforded me, beginning with my selection as part of the first eighth grade AVID class in the district, all the way to my current employment as the college and career advocate at Topeka High. During the course of my now many years with the district, I've been able to meet truly life-changing mentors, mentors who have challenged me in ways I had never been challenged before. They've pushed me to truly be the best I can be, and for that I'll always be grateful. That's partly why I came back to work at TPS, because I'm hoping to pay forward what those mentors did and continue to do for me. Without them, there's no way I would've ever made it to a place like Yale, where I graduated from in May. They truly changed the course of my life for the better."

“Being an AVID student taught me to never settle, but before learning that, I had to be told that I was settling. I hadn't realized it until Ms. Sonnich, my eighth grade AVID teacher, pointed it out and told me I could so much more than what I was doing. That's when I decided to take all the honors and AP classes I could once I got to Topeka High. AVID taught me to take advantage of opportunities. It ingrained the idea that regardless of where you come from or where you attend, there are resources out there for everyone to take advantage of. It didn't matter that Topeka High wasn't a private school with an abundance of every resource out there. It mattered that no matter where I found myself, I took advantage of every opportunity presented to me and furthermore, that I used the resources I did have, like the internet, to find national competitions to apply to that would give me even more opportunities I couldn't find in Kansas. Opportunities like those included flying me out to a foreign country to learn about community enrichment programs. I continue to use AVID skills to this day.”

“I want students to take advantage of every opportunity. The worst thing that will happen when you ask someone for help is they say, ‘No.’ Rejection isn't as scary as your teenage mind makes it out to be. Reach out to me, if I can help you get to where you want to go after high school. Don't be fearful. The world is great. There's so much out there, but it's up to you to decide what your life will be. The sooner you discover your what you want, the more successful you'll become.”

January Above & Beyond Award: Ryan Key

Ryan Key felt a calling to support the students at Jardine Middle School, which he followed by becoming a WyldLife team leader volunteer. Through Young Life's WyldLife program, Key has dedicated his time to building relationships and becoming a support system for students. Ryan Key is the January Above & Beyond Award recipient. 

Despite being a full-time college student majoring in Communication Studies at Washburn University, Key finds the time to volunteer as part of the WyldLife program at Jardine. The program is specifically tailored to help mentor and support middle school students. 

"We want to build relationships with these kids that would transfer from their time in middle school to their future high school career" Key explained. "Young Life is important to me, because I believe that it is important for us to build relationships with the youth so that we can share the love of Christ with them." 

Key was nominated for this award by Mike Haire, principal at Jardine Middle School. Haire said, "Ryan spends countless hours eating lunch with students, planning for WyldLife activities twice a month, as well as the many hours mentoring and participating in activities with Jardine students outside of the school day. He even attends camp with them in the summer in Minnesota." 

Key remarks that the most impactful part of his volunteerism has been at the Young Life summer camp in Minnesota,"Just being able to get to know who these guys are and getting to experience the Lord working through us."

Lead by his faith, Key has created a significant positive impact on Jardine and its students. Haire sums it up by saying, "Ryan and his team are building positive relationships with students, supporting them in and out of school, providing a positive mentorship for students, teaching students empathy and respect for one another and getting students involved in positive activities." 

This experience has given Key a new perspective on today's youth. He explains to future volunteers to "...be ready for a new perspective. A new perspective on what it looks like to be a youth in today's society. The hurt and struggle they go through and the things that bring them enjoyment." 

Volunteers like Ryan Key are highly valued at Topeka Public Schools. School volunteers enable students and staff to have the support and services they need to be successful. If you are interested in becoming at TPS volunteer, click here.  

Faces of 501: Dr. Pilar Mejia

Dr. Pilar Mejía has dedicated herself to Topeka Public Schools for the past 13 years. She has worked as a teacher, an ELL teacher, an ELL Secondary Instructional Coach, Dual Language Coordinator, Assistant Principal and now as the Principal at Highland Park Central Elementary.

“Before I worked for Topeka Public Schools I earned a degree in Fashion Design in Cali, Colombia, where I am originally from. I also received a master’s in Product Management Fashion, in Milan, Italy. I taught foreign languages, English, Italian and Spanish at Berlitz Language Institute in Cali, Colombia. When I came to the United States I earned a teaching a degree from Washburn University, a master’s degree from the University of Kansas and a doctorate from Kansas State University.”

“I went into teaching because I love children and I love learning. I wanted to share my passion for learning in hopes that I could transmit some of it to the students with whom I became in contact. I believe education changes and saves lives, and I wanted to be directly involved in providing to children the most powerful tools they could ever own.”

“I continued my education with an educational leadership doctorate because I am a lifelong learner, I wanted to expand my knowledge and, hopefully, my impact in the field of education.”

“My school, Highland Park Central is a gem! Its glow are the children's sparkly faces who show up to school every day, and do what they can to make the most out of it. And there are the staff... day in and day out, every adult in this building pours their heart out to ensure the students have the best day possible.”

“I want the students to be better than they were the day before. Hold your head up high and stay in school!” 

Faces of 501: Barbie Atkins

Barbie Atkins is in her fourth year teaching art to Robinson Middle School students, where she “builds confidence in young humans and creates odd things.” On the weekends, she volunteers at Stormont Vail Health snuggling babies in the NICU. In her time at Topeka Public Schools she has been honored with the first-year teacher Distinguished Staff Award and the state-wide new teacher Horizon Award. She has also led district professional development, new teacher orientation and is a part of the TPS Fine Arts Curriculum Team.

“I've always created. Art was my outlet growing up.  It helped me through a lot. I grew up in a small town in southeast Kansas. When I was little, I would walk myself to the library, sit on the floor in the art section surrounded by a mound of books and copy out of 'how to draw' manuals.  I always knew my life would involve art, but I didn't set out to become a teacher until after I graduated from college. I did some soul searching and decided that what I really wanted out of life was to work with kids. I'm at my happiest when I'm helping my students see their potential. I get to spend every day sculpting weird creatures, painting imaginary scenes, and generally being weird with some of the coolest humans I have ever met.”

“A long time ago, I read that middle school was a deciding factor for the future of students' interests. This is the age that kids fall in love with ideas and activities:  they decide now if they are going to be life-long lovers of the arts. I don't remember where I read this and I don't know if it's true, but it is an idea that has stuck with me throughout my education and career. This desire to show young people how wonderful the arts are drives my classroom. I have this amazing opportunity to open up an entire world of creativity, imagination, and discovery for my kids - I think that is unique to this age group.  People also tell me that you have to be crazy to teach middle school, I prefer the term eccentric. This age group can change the world:  they are smart, inventive, passionate and brave.”

“When I was an education student, I merely thought of myself as a future teacher.  Once I started teaching, I discovered that 'teacher' is merely a job title.  It is so much more than that. Most of my day is making sure that basic needs are getting met. The learning, the creating, the critical thinking:  none of that happens without all that other stuff out of the way first. This relationship does makes my job difficult though:  Last year at eighth grade graduation, I was supposed to present art awards to my departing students, but I ended up crying in front of, like, 500 people, I was just so proud of my little artists.”  

“Every day in art class is an act of bravery. In my opinion, artists are in this unique position that many other subjects don't find themselves in. Creating is a vulnerable activity and it takes a brave person to make something original and show it to others. This is one of the many beautiful things about art education and why it is so necessary at all levels of learning.  In class, we spend a lot of time working together to create a safe environment where students feel secure enough to try new things, make and work through mistakes, and then have the courage to show their hard work to their peers. This is a process and it has to be practiced every day. I model kindness in my interactions with students and staff, we talk about how we should treat each other, we come up with rules together and our critiques always include encouraging words.  We support each other because we know how hard it is to be so vulnerable.  My students might come to me saying ‘I can't do that’ and they leave saying ‘I'll just keep trying.’ I suppose that I'm somewhat of a broken record when it comes to that.”

Faces of 501: Jessica Johnston

Jessica Johnston is the associate principal at Highland Park High School and has worked for Topeka Public Schools for the past six years. This summer, she competed for the first time in the martial art jiu-jitsu competition at the Sunflower State Games, finishing with a silver medal. Brazilian jiu-jitsu shows that a smaller, weaker person can defend themselves against a bigger opponent by using their technique and taking the fight to the ground.

“I’ve been practicing jiu-jitsu for the past two years.  I originally began by taking a modern self-defense course through FIRE Defensive Skills here in Topeka. Jiu-jitsu was a major component of the class. It is designed to give a smaller person an advantage by using techniques and leverage if a fight would ever end up going to the ground. As a five foot, one-inch woman this is very important to me. As I became more and more involved in the class I found that I really loved grappling and started studying Gracie jiu-jitsu. When you first start anything you find that you have a lot to learn. It's difficult going against someone who has experience and size against you. The first time I realized that this was something I loved was when I was able to know what to do before my opponent moved. I was able to anticipate their next move based upon hours of practice.”

“I think Jiu-Jitsu makes anyone who learns it feel empowered. It is a way to defend yourself against someone bigger. I started self-defense to be able to be a role model for my daughter and to show her that girls can be just as powerful as boys.”

“I don’t advertise that I practice jiu-jitsu to the students, but the ones that hear about it are interested in the martial art and have lots of questions on what jiu-jitsu actually is. During my first competition I was extremely nervous but once I got on the mat everything that I had trained for came back. At FIRE we always say that you fight like you train, so I knew I was prepared. After training for the past two years I look at things differently. It helps with stress, it’s a killer workout and when you roll or spar you lose track of everything else around you. You can focus on the moment. There aren’t many times in our day that we can fully focus on just ourselves. That is the true reward. “

“What I want students to know is that they can find something they are passionate about, study it, practice it and teach it to others.” 

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