When staff at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica see the yellow school bus pull up in front of their theater, they know exactly who will be getting out of it: Hawthorne High School theater students. They come off the bus one by one, dressed in their finest attire — at the behest of Estella Owoimaha-Church ’10 (Africana Studies).
“By our third field trip, the people who ran the theater were like, ‘Oh, Hawthorne High is here,’” Owoimaha-Church said. “My kids got off the bus and were like, ‘What? You know us?’ And a lady commented, ‘Yeah, you’re the kids who always dress up so nice!’ There was a sense of pride among my kids.”
To Owoimaha-Church, it’s essential to represent Hawthorne High in the best possible way, including being dressed to a tee at the theater.
Her dedication and love for her students, combined with the experiences they share, earned the English and theater teacher a spot as a finalist for the 2017 Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize, also known as the Nobel Prize of Education. The $1 million prize is presented to an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to their profession.
California State University, Northridge alumna Owoimaha-Church has done just that.
Made for Education
Since she was in her teens, Owoimaha-Church knew she was destined to be an educator. She thought she would move into education policy or advocacy, but students she worked with as an undergraduate inspired her to pursue a teaching career.
“While I was at CSUN, I was a college mentor and advisor for GearUp Project STEPS, which is a partnership between CSUN Student Outreach and Recruitment and North Hollywood High School. I got to work with students from sixth grade to their freshman year of college,” Owoimaha-Church said. “The year I was applying for my graduate program, I had decided to focus on policy, but my kids were like, ‘No, Miss! You should go in the classroom.’ It was because of them that I decided to be in the classroom full time.”
In her four years as an English teacher at Hawthorne High School, Owoimaha-Church has revitalized the theater department, increased student participation, increased graduation rates and improved reading and writing skills.
The theater students at Hawthorne have turned it around in large part because of policies that Owoimaha-Church implemented, including grade and attendance checks.
“I have been and am really hard on them,” Owoimaha-Church said. “If I get a bad grade check, I ground them.” She calls it “grounding” because she takes away privileges from kids who don’t submit satisfactory grade checks. If half or more of her theater students are grounded, Owoimaha-Church turns rehearsals into study hall.
When she wanted to take her kids on field trips, Owoimaha-Church realized that many of them couldn’t go because they had terrible attendance records.
“I started cracking down on attendance: You’re not going to the Pantages [Theater] if you didn’t go to class,” she said. “Attendance began to improve, and grades [continued] to improve.”
Thanks to Owoimaha-Church’s new policies, students excelled and the Hawthorne theater kids began to break barriers.
“This is [the theater department’s] fourth year in existence,” Owoimaha-Church said. “This will be my fourth group of seniors who graduate. Last year was the first year all of our seniors graduated. This year marks the first year that every single one of my seniors applied to a four-year school.”
Relating to Students
It wasn’t easy, she said, because the students suffered from apathy after being told they wouldn’t graduate on time. It’s a position Owoimaha-Church knew well, which helped her relate to students at Hawthorne.
Born and raised between Inglewood and South Los Angeles, Owoimaha-Church moved to the San Fernando Valley when she was in high school. She enrolled at North Hollywood High School, where she struggled to graduate on time due to personal matters.
“At some point in high school, with everything I was going through — my mom was in prison, I was raising my younger brother — high school wasn’t easy,” she said. “I started screwing up 10th and 11th grade. My teachers did stuff for me that my parents weren’t able to do: they took me to New York to experience Broadway for the first time, they took me to England to experience the West End [theaters], [they paid] for my college applications.”
Owoimaha-Church knew she had made the right career choice as she remembered all the teachers who helped her during the toughest years of her life. The personal struggles she faced nearly prevented her from graduating from high school, but her teachers never gave up on her — and she never gave up on herself.
“My teachers [held an intervention] for me. They said, ‘you’re going to get it together or else.’ And I was in the room crying,” she said. “I promised to get it together, and they sent me back to class. I made up all my classes and brought up all my grades in time to graduate. I owe them everything, and the only place I could even make a dent in that debt is by dedicating my time in the classroom.”
Owoimaha-Church’s high school teachers had a tremendous impact on her future, a pattern that continued with her professors at CSUN.
“[My] most influential professor while at CSUN was Dr. Karin Stanford. She has been a mentor to me and, to this day, is still one of the most important people in my life,” Owoimaha-Church said of the Africana Studies professor. “She has a way of pushing students to do things we assumed we were incapable of doing. If not for her, I wouldn’t have traveled to Atlanta as a sophomore in college to present my research findings in front of a bunch of experts. Time and time again, she pushed and provided opportunities like this.”
Owoimaha-Church said she loved everything about Stanford — especially that the professor “went above and beyond to help retain students of color and young women looking to navigate higher education and sustain themselves while in college.”
Still a Winner
The Global Teacher Prize nomination came at a point in her career when Owoimaha-Church was feeling particularly demoralized and unsure if her efforts were appreciated, she said. As a finalist, she was flown to Dubai to collaborate with other finalists in her cohort, as well as finalists from previous years.
Owoimaha-Church completed the application for the Global Teacher Prize in October 2017. Two months later, she got a phone call during her sixth period class while she was with her students. She didn’t recognize the phone number, so she ignored the call, but the same number then called her classroom landline to tell her she’d been chosen as a finalist.
“I was so shocked and overjoyed and so very confused. My kids got worried and asked me what was wrong and I told them [I was a finalist],” Owoimaha-Church said. “They all started screaming with excitement. And then the voice on the phone was like, ‘So, can you send a photo now?’ And I did.”
Though she did not win the $1 million prize, Owoimaha-Church said she still considers herself a winner.
“We got a video [message] from Prince Harry — Prince Harry! I was like, ‘Prince Harry’s talking to me. Prince Harry knows who I am,’” Owoimaha-Church said, laughing.
“He sent me a video to tell me I lost, but I got to go to Dubai,” she added. “I didn’t win the $1 million, but I get to be a part of this network of the best teachers in the world. It was the most liberating and validating experience of my life. That was the real prize.”