SYF Educator Transforms Lives – And Gets the Recognition She Deserves!
SYF Note: Today’s post is about Darla Merrill, Lead Teacher at Simon Youth Coast High School Academy (California), and her journey as an educator. Darla was named Simon Youth Foundation’s Teacher of the Year in 2010, and was named her school district’s Teacher of the Year in 2018.
Growing up, Darla Merrill dreamed of doing something bigger than herself and giving back to others. She lived in a small town in the South, where school was the center of the community. She loved to learn and took advantage of all the activities and opportunities her school had to offer.
Inspired by her older sister and encouraged by teachers who saw her ability to help others be the best they could be, Darla became the first member of her family to graduate from college. She embarked on a teaching career that has spawned more than 30 years, with a passion for educating and inspiring youth who faced personal challenges.
“They’re so beautiful inside and out, but sometimes they don’t see it,” Darla said when SYF spoke with her recently. “I try my best to connect with them. There were teachers there for me, and I just want to be there for them.”
In 2003, Darla’s journey as an educator and her desire to do more for students who struggled in traditional classrooms led her to become a co-creator/developer of Simon Youth Coast High School Academy, a partnership between SYF and Huntington Beach Union High School District (HBUHSD). At the time, it was the first and only school in the district to serve students who had been expelled.
Darla seized the opportunity: She made deep connection with her students, built relationships in and out of the classroom, and she implemented physics, Lego Robotics, personalized PE learning opportunities, and annual long Solar Cup program where her students build and race solar-powered boats against other schools across Southern California.
In 2010, SYF recognized Darla for her role and life’s work by naming her SYF’s Teacher of the Year. Earlier this year, HBUHSD caught up to what we’ve known and bestowed the same honor, naming her Teacher of the Year – out of 702 teachers in the district.
“I feel honored and humbled to represent our district, SYF and something that’s bigger than me: alternative education educators and programs,” Darla told SYF of receiving the award. “Many times you lose out on opportunities to be recognized as a colleague who does the same thing next door. I never thought this would be an option for me because alternative education teachers aren’t usually recognized outside of alternative venues.”
Today, Simon Youth Coast High School Academy is a school of choice and serves students who want to pursue their education outside of a traditional classroom or school. Its success led HBUHSD to partner with SYF to launch another Academy, the Simon Youth Academy at Valley Vista.
“When we first came over here, people didn’t understand the support from SYF,” she said. “But they see the scholarships and hear the stories. SYF’s voice just empowered other teachers here to see you genuinely care about seeing students make it. I couldn’t have done what I did without your support, and it’s just grown even better over the years.”