Oakland teachers break barriers with Ivy League admissions

Oakland teachers break barriers with Ivy League admissions
Photo: Paola Bernal at KBUS/MJ Carter
By MJ Carter - Published on April 16, 2021.

Two Oakland teachers from Latinx backgrounds have been admitted to master's programs at Columbia University and Harvard University, and the charter school community where they've been working is singing their praises.

In the Latinx community, Ivy League schools are typically somewhat far-fetched. Yes, a few get in here and there, but historically master's education programs in particular have lacked in diversity overall.

That said, two teachers at KIPP Bridge Academy have broken barriers, and they are launching their careers forward with newly announced Ivy League admissions. They are both products of hard-working immigrant families. 

Bridge or KIPP Bridge Upper School (KBUS) or Bridge, as it’s called, is a KIPP Northern California region school in West Oakland on Market Street. Teachers Tommy Gonzalez, who starts at Columbia this summer, and Paola Bernal, who starts at Harvard in the fall, have been working at KBUS for the betterment of the community. Both are proving that by breaking the cycles of poverty, you can break barriers and build bridges.

Next year will be Gonzalez's tenth year in the classroom, including his five years at Bridge. He says he wants to have a greater role, and that his commitment to Oakland is real. He adds this is just the first step of many in his career in academia and in Oakland.

"My whole short-term plan was to spend a decade in the classroom," Gonzalez said. "I am quickly approaching that." 

He plans to continue teaching at Bridge during his studies. The opportunity at Columbia is an education leadership program where he’ll receive his Master of Arts (MA). Specifically, it's the Summer Principals Academy at Columbia's Teachers College, which is the number-two program in the nation right now.

Gonzalez goes on to say, “It's completely relevant. I was like, if I am going to go to grad school, I need to go to a top-quality grad school that can prepare me. I can bring back those research-based practices and use them in the classroom with our students.”

He says the whole reason he’s at Bridge is that he wants to give Black and brown students choice-filled lives.

Bernal says that the highlight of her career at KBUS is “the students, the community," and, "Teaching in West Oakland has a lot of history."

"It’s such a privilege to teach in a very significant part of the Oakland community," she says.

This is her second year at KBUS and her fourth year at a KIPP Charter school.

Bernal explains that she will be pursuing a Master's in Education Policy and Analysis at Harvard. And far from the diverse environment in Oakland, at Harvard, only one-third of the student population are students of color.

“Teaching at Bridge has taught me a very valuable lesson," Bernal says. "It has humbled me as a teacher. Teaching in this community, you have to really, really love what you do."

The school itself is making waves with new leadership in School Principal Dr. Andre Haughton. And Dr. Haughton is making accommodations so that Gonzalez can attend the start of his program at Columbia, which starts June 5th.

"The California cohort goes to New Orleans and then we go to the orientation in New York too," says Gonzalez.

Both Gonazalez and Bernal come from parents who came to the U.S. for a better life. And both teachers are first-generation college graduates.

Bernal's parents are from Mexico, and she says she reminds herself that she’s doing this for her students, her community, the Latinx community, and "for the future of my students, my children one day."

"That they will have more opportunities," Bernal says.

"My father migrated from Guadalajara, Jalisco,” says Gonzalez. His mother is from East LA, and she tried but did not complete a community college program, so he's a first-generation college graduate.

Gonzalez plans to take a leadership position in Oakland and also continue his education after Columbia. 

Bernal is breaking barriers for now, and we’ll see where her Harvard journey takes her next. 


Disclosure: MJ Carter teaches Creative Writing and Journalism at KBUS.