Thirty years had passed since Kathy Romero had been in a classroom, and in many respects, they were very good years.
She raised two daughters and pursued a career that saw her go from being a teller at a savings and loan to a licensed stockbroker and finally an office supervisor at the former Dain Rauscher in Edina.
But a chance viewing of an "Oprah Winfrey Show" episode reminded Romero that she never achieved her dream of being a teacher. So she left her high-paying job, went back to school and became a language-arts teacher at Crosswinds Arts and Science School in Woodbury -- where she now is a nominee for the 2013 Minnesota Teacher of the Year award.
Crosswinds, an integration school, has garnered attention of late for its fight for survival, yet Romero could not imagine being anywhere else or with any other students. In fact, she said last week, she found it difficult to be singled out for an approach to teaching that she maintains is common to Crosswinds colleagues. She builds relationships, she said, helping students feel safe and connected to the curriculum, first by meeting them "where they're at."
"Crosswinds is brilliant at that," Romero said.
Principal Bryan Bass, who nominated Romero for the teacher-of-the-year honor, spoke in a recent video about how she exemplified the school's ability to turn around student performance, particularly for those kids who stay throughout the five-year program.
Some students, he said, were multiple grade levels behind their peers in reading when they arrived at Crosswinds. By the time they left Romero's high school English class, he said, they were performing at or near grade level.
"It's almost a miracle," Bass said.
Meghan Bayne-Kuczmarski, a 10th-grader, said Romero's teaching style was unique: "She's like a mom, almost, at that school."
The video, shot for the benefit of legislators who will decide the school's future, includes a visit to Romero's classroom plus comments from her, and can be seen at the website www.emidfamilies.org.
Earlier this month, Education Minnesota, the state's teachers' union, announced a field of 135 candidates for the Teacher of the Year honor to be awarded on May 5.
Nominees from school districts in the north metro area include:
Anoka-Hennepin: Ross Eichele, John Keran, Amy Reed, Renee Voltin;
Brooklyn Center: Beth Schultz
Centennial: Colleen Miller;
Columbia Heights: Stan Mraz;
Elk River: Harry Davis, Michelle Farnum, Ron Hust- vedt Jr.;
Minnesota Correctional Facility-Lino Lakes: Katherine Wolverton-Maki;
Mounds View: Simone Haugen, Amy TerEick;
Osseo: Todd Martin
Robbinsdale: Kristine Browers
Spring Lake Park: Laura Pena-Kennedy
Last month, the East Metro Integration District (EMID), which runs the Crosswinds program, agreed to turn over the school to the Perpich Center for Arts Education, provided the Perpich Center wins legislative approval and funding by April 1. Otherwise, the building will go to the South Washington County School District, which, unlike the Perpich Center, has no plans to keep the current program operating.
The grades 6-10 school runs year-around with a curriculum that includes music and theater, and with students who often feel invisible in larger mainstream schools, Romero said. She said Crosswinds has a large population of gay and lesbian students who are comfortable with being "absolutely who they are."
Romero, 58, grew up in north Minneapolis and can relate to student struggles. Her role model, she said, was a ninth-grade civics teacher, Jackie Breault, who she says "took the time to get to know me even when I didn't really want her to."
In class, she instructs ninth-grade students in the Toulmin Argument, which breaks down the elements of persuasive speech -- a lesson that came in handy for Romero when she appeared before the EMID board in January to advocate turning over the school to the Perpich Center.
"We've successfully created an inclusive community," she said then, "a community our students could not find in their home districts."
Now, as the debate turns to the Legislature, Romero said she continues to "have hope that the message will be heard, and that ultimately, people will do the right thing."
She won't permit herself to think just yet about where she may teach if Crosswinds closes.
But she definitely will still be in school.
"I get all my energy in that classroom," Romero said last week. "Seriously, I can't wait to get there."
Anthony Lonetree 651-925-5036