5 for 5 Spotlight: Candace Daniel, Cesar Mays, Jeff Paxton Jr., Jess Walcik, and Justin West

In our Five for Five series, we spotlight YES Prep staff members who have committed five or more years to YES Prep. For more, read about YES Prep’s Commit to Five program.

Candace Daniel has worked at YES Prep for 8 years. She currently serves as the high school student support counselor at Southeast.

Candace Daniel

Favorite memory: My first spring trip was the most exciting, disastrous memory of my YES Prep career. I was a little nervous about taking 130 rambunctious 8th graders to Washington D.C., but I was totally up for the challenge. The flight was great, the tours was amazing, there were a few complaints, but the kids were having a truly fulfilling experience. Then came Thursday. Everyone was exhausted and depleted and unbeknownst to us, some of the students hadn’t been hydrating. After dinner, one student became ill and remained with a chaperone to receive treatment. As the rest of us walked to the train preparing to head back to the hotel, another student complained of a stomach ache and became ill. I received a frantic phone call from our then 8thgrade GLC, Charlie, stating that all hell was breaking loose and I needed to get on the next train because multiple kids had become ill (one passing out) and the other students were panicking. After I disembarked from the train, I ran back to the hotel, full speed, to find students everywhere. Some were holding each other and crying, others were standing in shock. I got a crash course in spring trip crisis intervention that night. Every child ended up being fine, slightly dehydrated, but safely back in Houston on Friday. Once I got home, I sat to reflect on my experience and one word kept coming to my brain, TEAM. I never felt like I was in that situation alone. I never once felt left behind. We collectively stood on the shared notion of protecting our students by any means. Those are the moments that make this work unforgettable. They are the people that make working here special.

Why YES Prep: I heard about YES from a colleague in the social work field that I went to grad school with. She said YES valued the social emotional support for students as much as their academic pursuits. I have stayed for eight years for multiple reasons. The first being my students. They keep me on my toes, pushing me to improve daily and to not take myself so seriously. Second, being allowed to do the work that I am passionate about on a daily basis, on the same campus, is truly huge. Many experiences for school social workers are very different because they bounce through multiple campuses, are given tasks not necessarily aligned with their expertise, and manage huge caseloads, hindering their ability to be innovative and make extended connections with families. Lastly, the people! The SSC team is phenomenal, exhibiting strength beyond measure and responding to the ever-changing needs of our students. My SE family (present & past) have helped me develop my skill-sets and build a broader base of friends.

Cesar Mays has worked at YES Prep for 7 years. He currently serves as the high school physical education teacher, 9th grade level chair, and varsity boys’ basketball coach at Gulfton.

Cesar Mays

Favorite memory: It would probably be my first spring trip with the class of 2015.  It was an amazing experience with a great group of kids where we got to show them different colleges. I would always tell my students that I wished my high school provided these types of opportunities  when I was in school.

Why YES Prep: I was referred by a friend who’d been my coworker at Houston Can Academy and was interviewing with Gulfton. After her interview, she talked about how great the campus, kids, and staff were. I was hired a year later. After my first year, my students would ask me if I was coming back next year. I found that odd at the time but have come to realize that they are used to teachers staying for a year or two and then leaving. As a teacher, it’s important to me to provide stability for students. Schools can be the most stable place in a kid’s life. And, for students, knowing that your favorite teacher is coming back year after year or being taught by a teacher that your older sibling had is so rewarding. I was fortunate to have this when I was a student, and I like serving kids who have similar backgrounds and educational opportunities to my own.

Jeff Paxton, Jr. has worked at YES Prep for 7 years. He currently serves as the music teacher (guitar 1 and 2) at Gulfton.

Jeff Paxton

Favorite memory: My favorite memory is more a collection of inspiring relationships. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some extraordinary people and teach brilliant and creative students. I’ve watched Kevin Hritz build his legendary Fuerza Rap Team and receive the send-off of a lifetime last summer. I had the strange (but cool) opportunity to open for one of my former guitar students, Dreco Salgado, at Fitzgerald’s. This past fall, I was lucky enough to be the cross country coach for a remarkable group of young men who won the East Texas Regional Championship and were runners at the State Championship. I could go on because my favorite memories are the talented and good-hearted people I’m surrounded by at YES.

Why YES Prep: In 2010, I was fired from a certain “freaky fast” sandwich delivery company for reckless driving. A week later, I started substitute teaching. My family is full of great teachers, and I quickly realized that I enjoyed interacting with the kids and the unique opportunity to be creative and innovative on a daily basis. In 2011, I moved to Houston for a girl (my wife Rachel), and was recommended to YES by a friend. As with many people, I was totally hooked the second I watched that Senior Signing Day Video with Arne Duncan (you know the one). I stay at YES Prep, and Gulfton specifically, because I enjoy feeling like I’m at the forefront of historic social change. Maybe it’s a shade narcissistic, but I want my kids to read about the early-2000s movement for educational equality and the empowering of immigrant communities and say, “My old man…” I also believe that, due to it being an international immigration hub, the Gulfton neighborhood has the best food in any square mile in the country. If you don’t believe me, I’ll happily send you the Gulfton Guidebook (which I’m extremely proud of), and be your overly-enthusiastic tour guide.

Jess Walcik has worked at YES Prep for 7 years. She currently serves as the math lab teacher, middle school math specialist, and math lab course facilitator at Southeast.

Jessica Walcik

Favorite memory: This last year, the Wizard Camp counselors chose me as a Wizard Camp namesake.  An honor in and of itself, it was even more special that the co-chairs were part of the Class of 2018, my first group of 6thgraders here at Southeast.  I have so many awesome memories of time spent with them, both in and out of the classroom, and to be selected by them to represent Southeast to the incoming Class of 2024 was an unbelievable honor.  As I look ahead to one of my favorite YES traditions, Senior Signing Day, I know it will be an emotional day to see all my “friends” from 2018 announce their future college plans.  I cannot wait to share in their joy and help celebrate their success!

Why YES Prep: I started my teaching career at a charter Pre-K in the East End.  I loved working with those kiddos and their families to ensure that they were ready for kindergarten by the end of their year with me.  However, at that school, I encountered a number of staff members, both fellow teachers and administrators, who did not believe that all students could learn at high levels.  As a result, some students in the community were pushed more than others.  I saw students who had made great gains in my pre-k class experience a slide in kindergarten or 1st grade because they were not continually held to high expectations by everyone in our school community. I came to YES because of its mission.  I have found a community of staff members who embrace the idea that all students can learn and grow, and should be provided opportunities to do so every day. I feel supported as a whole person; from my professional development to my personal development, inside and outside of work, I am constantly encouraged to push my own limits and reach farther than I sometimes think possible.  The supportive relationships I have made at Southeast, and in the larger YES community, keep me here year after year.

Justin West has worked at YES Prep for 7 years. He currently serves as the director of student support at North Forest.

Justin West

Favorite memory: I have many favorite memories from working at YES Prep over the years, but each of them stems from  our students. One fond memory is when we had one of our annual teacher vs. student dance-offs during a pep rally. It was a time for us to battle, and show the students that “old people” can get down, too. The greatest part was how we all connected at the end by dancing a line dance. Those pep rallies always show just how proud each of us is to be a Legend, and they are moments I could never forget.

Why YES Prep: I originally started at YES as a TFA corps member, but I always felt blessed to be placed at North Forest to work with our students. They have truly been my reason for staying at YES, and they are my constant motivation to consistently improve myself and help advance our organization.

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