Standing in his classroom at Camp Miller in Malibu, Roger Espinosa -- LACOE Teacher of the Year -- is working in the same area where he and his twin brother used to play as toddlers.
"My father used to take us to work, way back when the camps had no fences yet," said Espinosa, who has been holding industrial arts classes -- from wood shop and welding to carpentry -- at LACOE's probation camp schools for more than three decades.
Espinosa's father, the late John Espinosa, was a math and science teacher at Camp Scott-Scudder and Camp Kilpatrick from the 1950s to 1984, when he retired from LACOE. He was credited for many classroom innovations, including the use of standardized textbooks. He was hired by the famous Frank Wykoff, then director of Special Schools (now Educational Programs), who made history in his younger days as the only athlete to have won three Olympic relay gold medals.
Espinosa remembers meeting Wykoff at holiday barbecues and getting to know some of the students whose lives his father touched.
"As a young man, I realized how my dad and the other teachers made a difference in the students' lives," he said.
In fact, one of the students later became a famous Hollywood actor, who recently talked about his camp education at an event that Espinosa attended.
During his frequent trips with his father to the camps, Espinosa developed a fascination for the hands-on industrial class projects. He knew then he wanted to be a shop teacher.
Espinosa obtained a bachelor's in industrial arts from Cal State L.A. and a master's in education from Cal State Northridge. He is credentialed to teach all areas in industrial arts -- including metal shop, wood shop, construction and automotive technology.
But a few years into teaching, Espinosa faced the reality of education budget cuts and the increased emphasis on the core subjects of reading, writing and mathematics. He started to write grants to secure funding and get the "shop" tradition going.
"I wanted the program to stay for the kids," he said. "Building something with their hands -- creating instead of destroying, for which many of them ended up at the camps -- make them feel proud about themselves."
The hands-on projects have also opened up a new world for many of his students. "I clearly see a positive change in their attitude and demeanor when they're able to work with a raw material and create something out of it," he said.
"They feel a lot better. They feel empowered. They realize they have a talent, and my job is to foster talent that has been dormant. As a teacher, this is what I find most exciting and rewarding."
Photo: LACOE Teacher of the Year Roger Espinosa of Juvenile Court Schools works with students in his classroom at Camp Miller in Malibu.