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Sonoma County educator who lost home in Tubbs fire selected a California teacher of the year

There was Katya Robinson, locking horns with one of her students. Again.

“Do you want to go to recess? Then go sit down,” she told AJ Staggs one morning last week.

He is a bespectacled, charismatic 5-year-old and the unofficial mayor of Room 21 at Park Side Elementary in Sebastopol. That’s where Robinson teaches a kindergarten through third grade class for students with moderate to severe disabilities.

It’s where she does the pioneering, creative work that earned her recognition as one of California’s five extraordinary public school educators named 2020 teachers of the year.

Robinson, 38, works for the West County Special Education Consortium. The award, announced earlier this month, follows her selection in April as Sonoma County’s teacher of the year.

Unaware or unconcerned that he was dealing with such a highly decorated professional, AJ laughed at her instruction to return to his seat.

“Don’t you laugh at me,” said Robinson, who, it should be pointed out, also was smiling broadly.

“We’re trying to increase his communication,” she said, once AJ was back at his table. “So if he’s arguing with me, that’s great, as long as he’s talking.”

After arriving that morning last week, and attaching personalized clothespins to the category that best described “How Do You Feel Today?” (most, but not all, were “happy”), her students gathered for circle time. At one point during an identification exercise, students were asked to name “something that’s big.”

Robinson called on AJ, who touched an image on the tablet in front of him - Robinson is big on digital literacy - which obligingly emitted the word, “Cow.”

AJ has issues with his speech; that digital tablet helps him participate in class. It’s one of countless accommodations she uses to help her students learn.

“A cow is big,” she agreed.

“You’re crushing it,” whispered Madison Minton to AJ, who smiled and nodded in agreement. She’s the Crocs-rocking behavioral assistant, one of the many Sonoma State University teachers in training Robinson has mentored in her 15-year career.

Also crushing it is her boss, Robinson, who’s been whipsawed over the past two years by wonderful and terrible news. A Piner High School graduate who studied English literature at Sonoma State, before pivoting to teaching, she lost her Coffey Park house in the 2017 Tubbs fire. It was during a recent walk-through of her newly built home when Robinson took a call from Tony Thurmond, California’s superintendent of public instruction, who told her she’d been selected a state teacher of the year.

The events weren’t unrelated, Robinson thinks. She coped with the loss of her home by channeling her energy and emotions into teaching.

Kathryn Davy, who directs the special education consortium, got a text from Robinson around 6:30 on the morning of Oct. 9, 2017.

“I don’t think I’m coming to work today,” it said. She sent a picture of the smoldering rubble that had been her house in north Santa Rosa.

School was canceled for a week. When Robinson returned, her job seemed to serve as an escape.

“Instead of wallowing in sadness,” Davy recalled, “she shifted this intense devotion to her classroom.”

Returning to the space she’d taken such care to design, a place she regarded as “a kind of second home,” to students for whom she cares deeply, was highly therapeutic.

“We create a family in here,” Robinson said of those pupils, who come from all over west county. “They’re so positive, they love seeing you every single morning. It was calming to come back to work after everything was lost.”

In her teacher-of-the-year application, Robinson wrote that her students might describe that classroom “as a comfortable and colorful wonderland currently being taken over by dinosaurs or the sneaky Dogzilla.”

This was a nod to the children’s book by Dave Pilkey, who parodies Godzilla with a Welsh Corgi named Dogzilla. Robinson has led class discussions over who might emerge victorious in a battle between Dogzilla and Cat Kong, another Pilkey creation.

While she uses whimsy to reach her students, Robinson is a fierce advocate for them, and for their right to progress towards a common curriculum: “all content areas that an elementary general education teacher would teach.”

She’d been teaching for five years when she got her master’s degree in education, focusing on autism intervention, at Sonoma State.

At first, she admits, she was chasing a piece of paper: “It was a bonus $1,000 in your paycheck.” In time, she took to heart the message of a professor who reminded her, “When you get your master’s, you’re committing to building your profession, to be a leader for this population” - the special needs community she’s embraced.

While her students learn in different ways, Robinson wrote in that application, “my standards and vision for them remain high because I see their place in the world.”

She is a proponent of “universal design techniques” that lower barriers between special and general education.

Say students are assigned an essay on the atmosphere. “If the purpose of the assignment is to explain the atmosphere, and the kid isn’t good at writing, they fail,” said Larkin O’Leary. She is a teacher, a friend of Robinson’s, and the mother of 5-year-old James O’Leary, who has Down syndrome.

“Universal design learning would allow for that kid to make a poster, give a slideshow - give them different options,” his mom said.

Hers and Robinson’s primary purpose is to see kids like James reflexively, instinctively included with his mainstream peers, rather than kept apart. Where those opportunities don’t exist, Robinson is inclined to push for them, rather than be patient.

An ex-varsity soccer and basketball player at Piner, she quickly noticed a shortage of athletic and recreational outlets for her students. In 2012, Robinson founded Epic Athletes, free basketball and soccer programs for special needs kids.

On a recent Thursday evening, two fields at the Epicenter sports complex on Coffey Lane in Santa Rosa teemed with 80 or so children dribbling soccer balls, taking shots, or, frankly, doing their own thing. When he decided to take a break, James O’Leary reclined on the turf, and was quickly surrounded by several female attendants.

“He’s a total flirt,” his mom said.

Nearby, another boy with Down syndrome, named Nicholas, picked an orange, plastic cone off the turf and used it as a jaunty beret. Robinson isn’t just teaching kids with special needs. She’s showing people in the community what inclusion looks like.

There’s still work to do at Park Side Elementary, where the special ed classrooms are “up the hill” and feel a bit separate from the rest of the campus, she said.

While the special needs students are embraced and included more than they used to be, some “subconscious segregation” still goes on, Robinson said, whether it’s seeing her students shunted to the back at school assemblies or not included on field trips.

“Just because we’re not invited doesn’t mean we can’t show up,” said Eryn Donovan, also a behavioral assistant in Robinson’s classroom.

On a recent field trip to the Sebastopol firehouse, the firefighters made a presentation. Finding her students in the back, knowing they needed to be closer if they were going to benefit from the talk, Robinson didn’t ask anyone’s permission. She moved her kids to the front. “We can ask forgiveness later,” she said.

Sometimes, on their way back up “the hill” from recess, she and her charges will detour through the main office, or past general education classrooms, popping their heads in, saying hello to people.

Sure, it’s a little sneaky. But sometimes you’ve got to ask yourself: What would Dogzilla do?

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5285 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com.

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