The 29 Analy High School freshmen in Rachel Ambrose’s social science class were in the middle of watching a documentary Thursday afternoon, when a crew of about a dozen school administrators and nonprofit representatives rushed into the classroom to tell her she just had been named Sonoma County Teacher of the Year.
Ambrose, who has taught at Analy since 2013, was shocked.
“It means a lot,” she said. “Not just for me, but for my students and the school. It’s a great honor. It feels strange to be recognized as an individual because what we do is about supporting students.”
The balloons, flowers, Santa Rosa Symphony season tickets and $3,000 check from Community First Credit Union came just a month after dramatic budget reductions forced Analy High to cut for next school year 18 class sections and some staff positions — including Ambrose’s.
The school has since found a way to keep Ambrose on staff next year, though the freshman class she was teaching Thursday will no longer be offered, she said.
“It’s weird,” she said. “It’s a very weird year.”
Analy High School Principal Raul Guerrero nominated Ambrose for the Teacher of the Year Award because of the creativity and strategies she uses to provide her students with a top-notch education, despite financial difficulties, he said.
Declining enrollment, along with a lack in state funding and rising employee pension and health care costs, left West Sonoma County Union High School District with a $1.2 million budget shortfall for next year. Because of that, more than 40 class sections at Analy and El Molino high schools were put on the chopping block. Ambrose has supplemented her meager classroom budget by applying for grants and working closely with the Sebastopol Regional Library to find low-cost and free opportunities to broaden her students’ minds, like interviewing elderly members of the community as part of a StoryCorps project. The nonprofit seeks to preserve America’s history through audio recordings, which then are archived at the Library of Congress.
“She really has dedicated her time and profession to the school and to our community,” Guerrero said of Ambrose. “She does a lot of work that goes beyond the classroom... She tries to expose students to as many opportunities as possible, and she does it in a way that ignites in students a passion for learning. To me, that is the most valuable thing — for a teacher to ignite that passion for learning.”
Ambrose also started a lecture series called “Woke Wednesdays,” in which community members are invited to speak to her ethnic studies class about important issues of the day. In the past, speaker have included representatives from Santa Rosa Junior College’s Black Student Union, nonprofit LGBTQ advocacy group Positive Images and the Islamic Society of Santa Rosa.
“I’m passionate about it because it’s meaningful,” Ambrose said. “It’s like, when you wake up in the morning, you actually want to go to work because you enjoy what you do. You feel like you have an impact. You might not see that impact for a long time... and you might not be able to connect with each and every one of your students, but that doesn’t mean you don’t try, right?”