In a Day’s Work

To get students across the finish line, Kevin Cullen had his students complete art assignments that included critiquing works by Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera.

AS THIS YEAR’S TWO-WEEK SPRING VACATION APPROACHED NEAR THE END OF MARCH, teachers and administrators at Central Coast High School were growing concerned about a group of seniors who were missing credits necessary for a diploma. Graduation was June 1. The clock was ticking. The urgent situation called for creativity.

Teachers and administrators gave up their own vacations and created a one-week session over spring break, where they would focus on helping this group of about 20 seniors cross the finish line. Kevin Cullen, a six-year Central Coast High School veteran who specializes in helping students earn the credits needed to graduate, was charged with leading the program.

Cullen says digital classrooms had posed a problem for Central Coast High School, which focuses on students with “unique learning and social-emotional needs.” Cullen says none of his students showed their faces on screen during the spring session. Engagement was low. After the second day, Cullen knew he would need an extra week with the students. After two weeks, Cullen had still not been able to reach a group of seven students. Some were themselves parents or parents-to-be, others were the breadwinners for their families and had day jobs during school hours.

“I just knew that if we could have enough time with them, we could do it,” Cullen says. “But reaching them and getting them in one place for an extended period of time over the course of a couple visits, that was the trick.”

AS THE SCHOOL YEAR MOVED CLOSER TO JUNE 1, Cullen knew he had to get innovative if these students were to graduate on time. So, he packed his school supplies into his car and hit the road.

Cullen talks about his own winding path to Central Coast High School with a grin and in the unrushed tone of a journeyman at peace with his journey. Soft-spoken but confident, Cullen has a self-admitted penchant for rambling, which leads him to discuss his “several” cross-country hitchhiking excursions, his troubled youth, love for blues music and how his college experience in his home state of Maine was not a very academic time in his life.

“Let’s just say I’m lucky to be here,” Cullen says, smiling.

Though varied, that Cullen’s path led him to Central Coast High School is unsurprising. His career, which began with a counseling gig at juvenile hall in Monterey County in the 1980s, has been focused on helping children through difficult circumstances. He’s worked as a juvenile-focused probation officer at the Monterey County Courthouse and at the Rancho Cielo Youth Campus in Salinas. He’s been a school administrator on the East Coast where he intervened in youth gang activity, as well as in child welfare in California before taking a job at MPUSD’s alternative high school.

His career, he says, has provided a vivid image of what can happen to children who aren’t given the proper attention or students who do not finish high school.

CULLEN SPENT THE TWO MONTHS between spring session and graduation traveling to meet his students on their turf, balancing their own needs and responsibilities with an absolute necessity to graduate on time.

He pulled from a Shakespeare teacher he says most impacted him in high school. “He was encouraging, enthusiastic and he always had time for me,” Cullen says. Cullen committed to being available for these students around the clock, communicating over text and email with them and their parents and guardians, meeting them at their homes or local parks whenever they were available, even after hours.

Cullen worked with one student, the single mother of a 6-month-old, up until Memorial Day, May 31, in her backyard. After completing her final assignment and learning she would graduate, she asked on what day graduation was scheduled. “Tomorrow morning,” Cullen responded.

“It was time consuming, it was hectic – and it was all worth it. Everyone deserves a chance,” Cullen says. “In some respects, as a teacher, it’s all in a day’s work. You do what you need to do.”

Christopher Neely covers a mixed beat that includes the environment, water politics, and Monterey County's Board of Supervisors. He began at the Weekly in 2021 after five years on the City Hall beat in Austin, TX.

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