Angelo "Ang" Bracco has been given keys to the educational castle as one of 2014's five California Teachers of the Year.
The 65-year-old former Concord and San Francisco police officer has been a Solano Middle School special education teacher in the Vallejo City Unified School District for 14 years.
Selected by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson after a state selection committee performed in-class evaluations and an interview, Bracco says the chemistry of good teaching boils down to one element: relationships.
"When you're dealing with 155 kids a day, like most teachers have to, it's hard to generate rapport," Bracco says. "Relationships are key. Even though my most hard-core students washed up at other schools, they know that I care about them."
Bracco teaches sixth- through eighth-grade kids with behavioral issues, so the state limits his class size to 10 students.
"When other teachers take one of my students, they come back later and say, 'Just one of yours is harder than ten of mine.' These kids have an array of cognitive issues; they're bipolar, schizophrenic, or drug babies. They come from homes with poverty, unemployment, or from foster homes, or high crime neighborhoods."
But Bracco, a man who spent 27 years walking the beat -- on San Francisco's Mission District streets before transferring to Concord to be closer to a home he was building in Lafayette -- sees hope in his students. Five days a week, six hours a day, he peers into their broken, vulnerable lives and envisions a brighter future.
"My students do extremely well academically," he says, countering any idea he runs a fuzzy, feel-good classroom. "Most classes like mine teach four grade levels below, but I teach at grade level."
The Bracco room is structured. Students don't even stand from their desks without first raising their hands. He says he's strict and the kids buy into it because they trust him. They know he calls their parents once a week. They know he's "deriving a plan for their success." And they know that if they act out, if they throw a book or a few curses in the air, as long as no one is hurt, they can meltdown, regroup and move on.
He likes Common Core, saying, "Soon, students won't be only focused on what's on the test. It's going in depth: it's not multiple choice. If you can write and elaborate, you know the subject matter."
He sees it as a collaboration between the business world and education, where current, conceptual ways of thinking and working in groups will mean employers don't have to go to other countries for well-prepared workers.
Bracco grew up in Gilroy, picking prunes and topping (shearing off) the green part of garlic he pulled from the ground. After graduating from Fresno State, he entered law enforcement and credits his time in Concord with solidifying his devotion to working with kids.
"They had a Young Explorers program, for 14- to 21-year-olds interested in a law enforcement career," Bracco recalls. "I was asked to take over short term for a guy who was sick. Twenty years later, I was still running it."
Police work and education parallel each other, Bracco says. Dealing with youth gangs, sensitively handling different ethnicities, and relating to kids from a spectrum of economic situations all translate from cop duty to classroom.
The one big difference he considers a bonus? "On the street, they can get up and walk away. I might see a kid once every few weeks. Here, it's every day, six hours."
In a news release, Solano Middle School Principal Robert Russell says Bracco's students are "engaged, comfortable, disciplined, and show Mr. Bracco a level of respect that very few teachers ever achieve."
Beyond providing structure and daily dedication to building their confidence, he insists there's no secret formula. Honored to have been selected from amid California's nearly 400,000 teachers, his reaction when he learned of the award was "Gosh, can you believe this?"
But his gratitude doesn't blind him to the district's enormous need for improvement. Other schools he says, have technology.
"Here, we have scrimping, saving, using money from our own pockets to replace resources that are drying up."
He's hoping legislation aimed at leveling the playing field for hard-hit areas, will be "light at the end of the tunnel."
Retirement is a subject he's considered. The 12 horses, 23 goats and 11 acres he and his wife, Annette Feeney, own in Sebastopol are sure to keep him occupied. Already, he takes his inner-city Vallejo students to the ranch for "equine therapy."
He says many of them have never been in the countryside, never pulled garlic from the soil, never touched the powerful haunches of a horse. But they have been under the command of a classroom hero and when he retires, it's not hard to imagine a third Bracco career: helping kids find their place in the world from the saddle of a horse.
Angelo "Ang" Bracco, a former member of the Concord Police Department who is now a special-education teacher at Solano Middle School in Vallejo, is one of five 2014 California Teachers of the Year. Others are Timothy Smith, Florin High School, Sacramento; Michael Hayden, Mira Costa High School, Los Angeles County; Linda Horist, Nohl Ranch Elementary School, Orange County; and Jessica Pack, James Workman Middle School, Cathedral City. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson nominated Smith as California's representative for the National Teacher of the Year competition.