Each year, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) honors between 17 to 18 first-year teachers as Rookie of the Year. Educators are recognized for their teaching practices, classroom management and their commitment to growth and development in the teaching profession. Of the 18 teachers selected for 2023, four are USC Rossier alums from the same graduating class and Master of Arts in Teach (MAT) program. Lauryn Merriweather MAT ’22, Joseph Arechiga MAT ’22, Sara Martino MAT ’22 and Amy Eunyeoung Lee MAT ’22 joined fellow Rookies of the Year at a ceremony in Dodger Stadium with LAUSD Superintendent Albert Carvalho on Aug. 13.
“One Rookie of the Year is great. Four is impressive,” said Assistant Dean of Teacher Education Eugenia Mora-Flores, former chair of the MAT program. The USC Rossier teacher residency program pairs resident teachers with fully credentialed, experienced teachers to better prepare MAT students to teach in local schools. “We are excited for our early-career teachers who are already making a difference in the lives of their students. It is a well-deserved honor.”
A first grade teacher at 54th Street Elementary School, Lauryn Merriweather was always an active student and community member. Being a teacher was one of the first jobs Merriweather wanted when she was a child. She received her BA in speech-language pathology from San Diego State University in 2020 at the start of the pandemic. In an effort to keep her mind engaged, Merriweather took community college classes in childhood development, where she found a position as a virtual TA. She saw first-hand how the new normal of online learning was a challenge for the younger students. After some research, she discovered the MAT program which redirected her to her first career interest with teaching.
A Los Angeles native, Merriweather grew up cultivating a spirit and love for giving back as well as knowing her community. Merriweather added that her current school is predominantly comprised of Black and Brown students. “Even though we share a bond through the color of our skin, every Black person is not the same,” she said. “Although we do have commonalities, we have to honor and respect the differences of everyone.”
Exchanging ideas with her fellow MAT classmates from diverse backgrounds also prepared her to be a better teacher in the classroom. In her interactions with her students, Merriweather added, “It helps my students realize that differences are beautiful and makes learning a rich experience. They celebrate and build each other up, which creates a caring community we really need.”
Also a fellow Angeleno, Joseph Arechiga is a Special Education Special Day Class (SPED SDC) English Teacher at Verdugo Hills High School as well as the school’s volleyball coach. After graduating from University of California Santa Barbara in 2021, he enrolled in USC Rossier’s MAT program.
Growing up in L.A., Arechiga understood where his students were coming from and the struggles they experienced. Giving back to his community was always kept in mind. “No one loves every single teacher, but I was fortunate to have good teachers,” Arechiga said. “I'm always in the mindset of okay, what could I have done differently to make it better?” Coaching and teaching were where the lines intersected and where he felt he could offer the most to his students.
USC, as a pillar in the community, also contributed to his interest in pursuing his graduate degree. “I always wanted to go to USC,” he added. During his teacher preparation training, he was placed at Figueroa Street Elementary school. While the opportunity to teach in the classroom offered practical skills, it was his peers who encouraged and supported him during his studies and training.
“I remember always feeling like they are crushing it in the classroom. I have to step up my game,” he said. “There are so many instances where you're surrounded by incredible people who see things so differently and come from all different walks of life.”
Margo Pensavalle EdD ’93, who helped to create the MAT program and retired in 2022, made an impact on Arechiga. “This is the type of teacher I want to be,” he added. “You could feel her care for the students and for her profession.”
Originally from Connecticut, Sara Martino always loved being with and working with kids. For her 10th birthday, she told her mother that she wanted to be a mother's helper in lieu of gifts. “She was like, ‘you are a child,’” Martino recalled. After graduating in 2016 with a BS in anthropology and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis, Martino worked for five years in Madison, Wisconsin at a healthcare software company. Dipping a toe into the teaching profession, she volunteered to teach Sunday school, where she realized that she looked forward to Sunday more than her Monday-to-Friday profession.
Martino and her fiancé then moved to California to be closer to family. Her path to USC Rossier was for practical reasons with location and financial support. “These are big factors in this day and age,” said Martino. “I also liked that Rossier had the gifted certificate, and Dr. Kaplan, who's a legend in gifted education.” The MAT program’s curriculum, hands-on training, theoretical work and emphasis on being culturally responsive supported Martino’s decision to pursue her graduate degree with USC Rossier.
Her two takeaways from the program: practical student teaching and culturally responsive education. As part of Martino’s teacher preparation, she was placed at Tom Bradley Global Awareness Magnet in a fourth and fifth grade combination class as a student teacher. Theoretical material from her professors supplemented the training from her guiding teachers. Through the program’s emphasis on culturally responsive education, Martino gained a deep understanding of the importance of representing students in the curriculum. “Making the curriculum accessible to the group of students you're teaching, allowed me to be more successful in an area like L.A., where I had students from all different socioeconomic, racial, religious and cultural backgrounds.”
Martino was awarded Rookie of the Year for her work as a first grade teacher at Hancock Park Elementary School. Now in Sacramento, she will be teaching second grade at MP 3 Charter School.
Amy Eunyeoung Lee, fourth grade teacher at Commonwealth Avenue Elementary School, was also recognized at the ceremony. She received her BA in education from the University of California Irvine in 2020. While pursuing her undergrad, she worked with Jumpstart to implement curriculum in preschool classrooms across the Santa Ana Unified School District.