Unsung Santa Cruz: Katie Akagi helps troubled students find their identity

Two people talking at a table
(Aiden Casanova)

Katie Akagi has overcome a troubled past to become a dedicated teacher at Delta Charter High School. At Delta, Katie supports students who struggle in traditional school settings, providing personalized guidance and assistance. Their own experiences of overcoming challenges and the support they received motivate Katie to empower their students and show them that anything is possible.

Editor’s note: Lookout’s high school journalism challenge invited students to write a profile of a local unsung hero who is making a positive difference in our community, inspired by our popular “Unsung Santa Cruz” series. Our editing team read and reviewed the submissions, publishing the top ten stories. The top three authors are awarded a $500 scholarship.

From a troubled past to a certain future, Katie Akagi has had a bumpy road to success. At Delta Charter High School, Katie spends a lot of time teaching and mentoring students who do not fit in well to typical schools for different reasons. In the past, Delta saved Katie from a dark future; now Katie wants to save others who are in the same situation as they once were.

Growing up, Katie lived in a rough household. “My mom and dad divorced when I was 5, but my dad took care of my mom a lot,” they said. “My mom had a lot of mental health challenges when I was growing up. My dad did the best he could but he had his own issues, too.” Katie had a rough time with their parents when they were growing up. Because of the situation at home, Katie began to feel like they didn’t belong anywhere. “In middle school I kind of started feeling different, or separate,” they said, “like I didn’t feel like I fit in with my friends.” The feeling of not belonging made it hard and harder for Katie to do well in school, especially as they entered high school.

During their freshman year, Katie began to get involved with the wrong groups of people: “My best coping mechanism was partying, drinking and doing drugs.” Katie also was not doing well academically, which eventually resulted in their parents pulling them out of school and transferring them to Delta.

At first arrival, it wasn’t smooth sailing. The staff at Delta gave Katie a place where they could learn and grow, but Katie was still getting themselves into trouble. Eventually, Katie got arrested and after that, they realized that Delta was trying to help them but they were rejecting the support. As Katie said, “The staff at Delta at the time were, I mean, they kinda saved my life. They were really there for me.” With the support of Delta, Katie was able to power through school and eventually go to college, where they went on to earn an associate degree in liberal arts, a bachelor’s in feminist studies with a minor in literature, and a master’s in journalism. Katie also got a teaching credential in foundational mathematics.

Katie was on their way to become a journalist, but found out that it wasn’t for them. Katie loved the feeling of being in a classroom and eventually taught some math classes, but kept looking back at Delta. “Delta is the place that saved my life,” they said of their thoughts at the time, “and I want to make it back there so that I can be with those students who need the help and who I hopefully can impact by sharing my story.” Katie eventually did come back to Delta, where they teach independent studies, guided studies and math.

At Delta, Katie, 38, spends their day helping all of their students in the different classes they teach. In independent studies, Katie helps students who need more assistance for certain reasons. Katie explained, “Independent studies is a program for students who for one reason or another don’t do well sitting in classes all day. Some of them have jobs; some of them have really high anxiety so sitting in a regular classroom for a school day is very challenging.” Katie also helps set up students’ courses using their transcripts. “I basically use their transcripts to determine what their credit needs are, and then set them up with curriculums to meet their credit requirements, and I meet with them at least once a week to check in about the work that they’re doing, their learning, their overall well-being.” Katie takes their time to make sure their students are getting the correct education that they will need to later be successful.

In guided studies, Katie said, “I do the same thing with them – I use their transcripts to set their curriculum; they have basically an independent studies curriculum but they come into school to do their work.” In math, Katie helps students find out what math they need to learn in order to become successful in their life: “There is obviously a focus on math topics which kinda span Algebra 1 and Algebra 2, but there’s a heavy focus on students evaluating themselves and reflecting on their learning and kind of exploring what math they need to do to be successful in their futures.”

Besides giving students the personal learning experience they need, Katie also helps students gain confidence with who they are. “I get a lot out of working with students and helping them find academic success,” they said, “but also generally using teaching to empower them, to kind of figure out who they are and help them become better versions of themselves.”

Katie is also very supportive of fellow LGBTQIA+ community members and tries to help students struggling with their gender identity explore who they are and want to be: “I am open about my gender identity with students, and hope that my openness shows students – I guess normalizes diverse gender identities for young people.” Students discover things they didn’t know about themselves with Katie’s help, and they gain confidence in who they are as individuals.

I also asked one of Katie’s friends, Kelly Pretzer, about her experiences personally knowing Katie. “Katie is just like – a super supportive person who I know will always be there for me,” Kelly said, “listen to me when I need to, you know, vent.” Not only is Katie a supportive educator, but she’s also a supportive friend. It’s easy to see how Katie was able to find success despite their struggles, being the genuine caring person they are.

In the end, Katie wishes to be someone who can help others. As someone who’s had a rough life themselves, Katie wants to show their students that anything is possible. When asked what motivates them to do what they do, Katie replied, “My own experience with overcoming my personal challenges, and the people who were there to help me when I needed it – maybe even in particular the people who were there to help me when I didn’t know I needed it.” I think it’s safe to say that no matter what background you come from, you really can accomplish anything.