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Making incredible connections
with students

One of Lewis Chappelear’s proudest moments as a teacher came unexpectedly during graduation 2010. He recalls a man coming up to him and asking, “Mr. Chappelear, do you remember me?” When Chappelear couldn’t place him, the man introduced himself: “It’s Juan.”

Lewis Chappelear

The engineering and design teacher at James Monroe High School in North Hills, Calif., did indeed remember Juan. He had taught the struggling student eight years earlier. Juan didn’t pay attention in class, and he didn’t do his homework. Chappelear later learned the reason: Juan’s ADHD medication wore off after lunch during Chappelear’s last-period class. Chappelear first had thought he wasn’t connecting with the student or helping him learn. At graduation, Juan told him otherwise and thanked his former teacher for changing his life. Juan now is the proud father of four and the manager of an electronics store, and he credits Chappelear with instilling in him a love of electronics. The teacher remembers Juan telling him that he “wouldn’t have found a job if it wasn’t for me.” Chappelear long believed he hadn’t reached this student at all. “I couldn’t have been more wrong,” he says. “Even when we think we’re not making a difference, when we’re not reaching that kid, we still may be reaching that kid.”

Thanks to the engineering and design program he founded at Monroe eight years ago, Chappelear has reached many students like Juan. A former engineer, Chappelear teaches classes in computer-aided drafting, graphic design, robotics and electronics. But his impact on students extends beyond the classroom. Chappelear has partnered with 40 local companies and postsecondary institutions to provide internships and mentorships to his students, many of whom are English language learners and come from low-income families. “That was one of the best things I could have done,” says Chappelear, who started the partnerships in 2007. Students especially enjoy shadowing engineers on the job. “The kids come back and they say ‘Oh my gosh! It’s the first time I’ve ever sat down with an adult and had lunch.”

Chappelear also has partnered with California State University, Northridge to allow his students who have earned at least a 3.0 grade point average to take a college freshman engineering class online; about 30 of his students participate each year. Many of his students, though, don’t have computers at home. So they take the course in Chappelear’s computer lab at Monroe, which has 45 computers. Chappelear opens the lab every morning at 6:30 a.m., an hour before school starts, so students can work on projects and print papers. Chappelear seeks out grants to pay for paper, ink and other supplies.

The teacher’s devotion to his students has not gone unnoticed. In 2008, Chappelear was named Teacher of the Year for the state of California. His colleagues say the honor was well-deserved. “He is just so kind,” says Annie Babayans, who teaches ninth-grade health and is the adviser for student body activities. “He always shakes students’ hands and always asks how they’re doing. He makes incredible student connections.”

Just ask Juan.