When he was a journalist in southern California, Greg Asciutto was grimly familiar with the harsh realities of poverty and homelessness.
"I saw the disparity of extreme wealth and extreme poverty," he said. "I traveled quite a bit to study homelessness and social issues. I got tired of telling the story. All of these issues stem from a lack of equal access to a quality education. I decided to become a teacher to help."
Asciutto, originally from Stanly County, moved to California to attend the University of Southern California and worked as a journalist for several years before returning to the area to teach.
"I grew up ice skating at Eastland Mall," he said. "I knew that east Charlotte, and Garinger High School, is where I wanted to be. Garinger has a unique history and student population. I wanted to be a part of it."
He started teaching language arts four years ago and was recently named the Beacon Learning Community Teacher of the Year. Kondra Rattley, learning community superintendent, surprised Asciutto during his third period class.
"I had a good idea of what was happening, but my kids were shell-shocked," he said. "It was great that they were here to see it. If it weren't for the kids I teach or the colleagues I have, I wouldn't be in this situation. It's great to be a Wildcat."
As a white teacher in a predominantly black and Hispanic school, Asciutto had to earn his students' trust before the real teaching could begin. "I come in here with an extreme privilege and I am well aware of that," he said. "My goal is to use that privilege to advocate and help."
Asciutto's co-teacher, Tanya Filmore, said it took some time for Asciutto to earn his student's trust.
"The kids had their guard up," she said. "He doesn't look like them or talk like them. Some of these students bragged about running off teachers when they were in middle school. I thought, well, he may or may not come back after Christmas Day. But he kept showing up. And he earned their trust. And their respect. He broke down walls. It's been amazing to watch."
Addressing homelessness is a big concern for Asciutto, who volunteers at the Charlotte Men's Shelter. Every year, he chooses one student whose family is in transitional housing and helps them find a permanent home.
"I help them access resources to get the help they need," he said. "It's hard to do well in school and focus when your home situation is unstable."
A space in the back of his classroom is the "Resources Wall," where students can find everything from food bank information to bus maps. He even provides alternative school solutions for students who might not be ready for school. He recently helped a student enroll for the high school program at Central Piedmont Community College.
"He needs to work and high school isn't a viable option for him right now," he said. "It's all about finding what works best for the student. Every child has a unique need. It's not just academics. It's everything. Once you get that figured out, all the pieces come together."
Asciutto sees his role as more than an educator.
"I am a teacher, but I am a member of this community," he said. "It takes all of us to make this work."