apple a day

New York City is honoring 19 exceptional teachers. Here’s who they are

PHOTO: Courtesy of the Department of Education
Former Chancellor Carmen Fariña presented fifth-grade teacher Keira Dillon with a Big Apple Award.

New York City has named 19 teachers winners of Big Apple Awards, a competitive prize that rewards “exceptional success” in instruction, impact on student learning, and overall contributions to school communities.

The winners were culled from a pool of 7,800 nominees, 1,000 of whom were invited to submit formal applications. The applicants were judged based on essays, classroom observations, recommendations and interviews.

Among the Big Apple winners is a physical education teacher — a first in the program’s five-year history.

“This year’s recipients represent the thousands of incredible educators who go above and beyond to motivate their students, and move their school communities forward,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement.

Here are the winners:

Danielle Bocchino (fifth-grade teacher, P.S. 215 Morris H. Weiss, Brooklyn)
Mrs. Bocchino has taught at P.S. 215 for 14 years and holds her students to rigorous standards, rewarding them with “conversation coupons” when they use accountable talk. Mrs. Bocchino stresses the importance of student independence because, she believes, “It is important to let them do the work.” At the beginning of this year, just 17 percent of her students were meeting fifth grade math standards; by mid-year, 86 percent were meeting the standards including 34 percent who were exceeding them.

Corinne Cornibe (high school math teacher, Academy for Young Writers, Brooklyn)
“I want my students to be creators – to design, innovate, and problem-solve their way to a better future,” said Ms. Cornibe. She started a robotics program and later establish an Advanced Placement Computer Science program that have ignited students’ passions and interest in learning. 73 percent of last year’s graduating class took a course in computer science, robotics, or both.

Yocasty Diaz (middle school math teacher, I.S. 219 New Venture School, the Bronx)
Ms. Diaz has worked at I.S. 219 for 16 years and describes her classroom as “a center of investigation, discovery, and risk-taking opportunities.” Ms. Diaz utilizes project-based instruction focusing on meteorological science to expand her students’ horizons by exposing them to professions that they otherwise might not have had access to.

Keira Dillon (fifth-grade gifted & talented teacher, P.S. 163 Alfred E. Smith, Manhattan)
Over her ten years at P.S. 163, Ms. Dillon has exposed students to great works of philosophy and art. Her goal: “to offer enriching academic and social opportunities that mirror this amazing city.” Ms. Dillon believes in building cross-curricular connections and her students conduct a weekly song analysis through a Socratic seminar.

Adriana DiScipio (English as a new language teacher, P.S. 230 Doris L. Cohen, Brooklyn)
Ms. DiScipio is now in her 11th year of working with often newly arrived English Language Learners at P.S. 230. “I perceive my students’ linguistic diversity as a strength and a resource.” Beyond her classroom, Ms. DiScipio serves as a Learning Partners Program Model Teacher, sharing work around language learning and vocabulary development with her school community.

James Harrington (high school art teacher, High School of Art and Design, Manhattan)
In his 11th year teaching at the school he graduated from, Mr. Harrington strives to live up to his own teachers’ legacy as mentors who saw their students as artists. Relating to his students, Mr. Harrington reflects, “I became a teacher to pass on the gift of art to a new generation, just as it was passed on to me.”

Leslie Lehrman (high school English teacher, Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology, the Bronx)
Ms. Lehrman explains that she left her career in magazine publishing to “combine my passion for reading and writing with my love for children.” As a Master Teacher, Ms. Lehrman acts as the department lead, guiding vertical alignment of instructional strategies, and helps to lead a professional learning community, collaborating with colleagues to develop and deliver monthly professional development aligned with schoolwide goals.

Jessica Martell (fifth-grade teacher, Central Park East II, Manhattan)
Ms. Martell works in an ICT setting and became a teacher to combine her love of New York City with her belief that every student is entitled to a quality public education. This year, each of her students has grown at least two reading levels, and Ms. Martell has fulfilled her goal of ensuring “all students see themselves as capable and brilliant readers and writers.”

Nash Matute (Reading recovery teacher, Archer Elementary School, the Bronx)
Ms. Matute has taught in New York City public schools for seven years and serves as a Reading Recovery teacher for a group of first grade students. She is “driven by the never-ending room to grow and develop.” Ms. Matute also serves as an instructional coach for her school’s upper grades and has implemented a schoolwide teacher and peer conferencing system for teachers to assess and build relationships with students.

Katie McArdle (Elementary Autism Teacher, P.S. K231, Brooklyn)
Ms. McArdle has spent the past 14 years teaching New York City students on the autism spectrum. “After college, I stumbled upon a graduate program focusing on students with severe and multiple disabilities, and as soon as I began, I knew I had found my niche.” In her classroom, each students’ unique learning style is respected and nurtured. Mrs. McArdle’s primary focus is on developing her students’ self-awareness, self-control, and self-advocacy.

Faye Michalakos (sixth-grade math teacher, Hellenic Classical Charter School, Brooklyn)
Ms. Michalakos ties all of her instruction to real world examples and experiences for her math students. Understanding the “why” of math is critical to her students’ success, and Ms. Michalakos builds partnerships with parents and families through schoolwide engagement events. In the classroom, she insists upon students using math vocabulary and accountable talk, and prepares them to facilitate their own Socratic seminars and to monitor their own progress by writing themselves “glow and grow” notes.

Carmen I. Morales (TASC preparation teacher, East River Academy, Rikers Island)
Ms. Morales has spent the past 25 years at East River Academy working with incarcerated students. She often “sneaks” hopeful and inspiring messages into their work to keep them engaged, and cultivates a physical learning environment which is uniquely suited to the social emotional needs of students on Rikers Island.

Patrick Murphy (special education teacher, P.S. 199 Maurice A. Fitzgerald, Queens)
Mr. Murphy has inspired students to consider engineering careers after starting a Lego Robotics program. He believes in tapping into his students’ interests and passions to drive instruction, saying, “I became a teacher because I love the art of learning.” Individual student conferences also help him monitor student progress and create monthly goal sheets aligned to rigorous academic standards.

Rose Newman (physical education teacher, P.S. 118 Lorraine Hansberry, Queens)
“My Physical Education class is a place of moving and learning,” said Ms. Newman. She is the first PE teacher to receive a Big Apple Award, and her goal is for students have fun while learning about health-related fitness, skills, and character. She also sets specific goals that can be tracked during the year, and students are expected to spend at least 50 percent of class time engaged in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and complete at least 1,000 steps during each lesson, as measured by the use of pedometers.

Rosario Orengo (middle school social studies teacher, The Urban Assembly Unison School, Brooklyn)
“I wake up every morning excited to do this work,” said Ms. Orengo. For her, the work of being an educator means creating a safe environment, in which her students feel comfortable taking academic risks and sharing their own confusions and misunderstandings. Focusing on conversation and discussion, she uses high-interest readings and integrates connections to current events to motivate her students, and helped introduce restorative practices to the school community.

Elaine Rodriguez (dual language middle school math teacher, M.S. 322, Manhattan)
Ms. Rodriguez said she “practices an open-door-at-all-times policy and welcomes positive thinking and mistakes from students, parents, administrators and visitors.” In her dual language classroom, Ms. Rodriguez models instruction in Spanish for one week and then continues the curriculum in English the following week.

Julia Satt (second-grade special education teacher, P.S. 45 John Tyler, Staten Island)
Ms. Satt has taught at P.S. 45 for ten years in an ICT setting, focused on educating the whole child, responding to each student’s unique behaviors and needs, and using restorative circles to promote equity of voice. A significant portion of Ms. Satt’s students have made two years’ worth of reading, writing, and math progress in just one year.

Diana Shteynberg (Pre-K teacher, Shorefront YM-YWHA, Brooklyn)
Raised in a family of educators, Ms. Shteynberg’s goal is to guide students to be “self-initiating and self-directed learners” and to “grow from dreamers to doers.” Ms. Shteynberg seeks to create a welcoming environment and an atmosphere of trust for every child and family, and builds strong parent partnerships, offering positive and constructive feedback. At the end of last year, every student in Ms. Shteynberg’s class was able to enter Kindergarten without the ESL program due to excelling in language and literacy.

Binh Thai (sixth-grade humanities teacher, University Neighborhood Middle School, Manhattan)
Mr. Thai began his teaching career 17 years ago as a member of the inaugural cohort of the New York City Teaching Fellows. Mr. Thai implements a 360-degree feedback process in his classroom: students receive feedback from each other as well as from their teacher, and Mr. Thai uses an online form to solicit feedback on his instruction directly from students.

First Person

How football prepared me for my first year of teaching (but maybe not the second)

Football brought me to Memphis, and Memphis brought me to teaching.

That’s how, last August, I found myself the solo teacher for seventh grade science at a KIPP middle school in North Memphis that hadn’t had a teacher in that role make it to May in four years.

I completed and even enjoyed that year of teaching, despite its challenges. And while I don’t think my years of high school and college football gave me every tool or personality trait I needed to do that, the experience helped.

First, football taught me to perform when I was not at 100 percent. One of my former coaches used to ask ailing players, “Are you hurt, or are you injured?” in an attempt to parse the words of high schoolers. Hurt was a bruise; injured was a break. I learned to play with bruises.

I found myself asking the hurt or injured question one early morning in February, when I woke up with a throbbing headache. I was hurt, not injured. I made it in.

But physical ailments aren’t the only ones that can sideline a teacher. Teachers have bad days. Frankly, teachers can have bad weeks or months. The same can go for football players. All-star quarterbacks throw interceptions, and gutsy linebackers miss tackles.

The same coach used to tell me, “The only play that matters is the next play.” I found that true last year, too. I couldn’t go back and change the way I unduly reprimanded a student any more than a wide receiver can get another shot at catching a dropped pass.

Some days, though, you “learn” more than you bargained for. In football, those days may be when you feel like you probably should have never tried to play. Those days you drop every ball that comes your way, you forget where you’re supposed to be on every play, and you wonder if the knitting club has any openings.

Football taught me how to drown out these thoughts of inadequacy with positive visualization and by staying focused on concrete goals. As my coach used to tell us after a particularly good play, or a particularly bad one: “Never too high, never too low.” Just as the bad days will soon be washed away in the unrelenting tide of the school year, so will the good ones.

Retaining any sense of perspective on the school year was hard, and there’s no easy fix to an extended period of self-pity or frustration at a string of bad days. My goals were to help kids learn to appreciate science, and to be an adult that students felt they could go to for support. Keeping them at the front of my mind was the best help I could find.

On that note, I have a confession to make. Before my first year of teaching, I was one of those people who didn’t truly understand how difficult teaching was. The reality of how many hours teachers spend outside of school putting their lessons together never crossed my mind. The fact that planning units ahead for my students felt like scouting out my opponents didn’t make the long hours any easier. That first month of teaching was a shock to my system, and the only solution was to put my head down and go, the way I had been taught to do.

Football also left me with some loose ends. The sport taught me next to nothing about patience or about the virtues of benevolence; it never pays to be gentle on the gridiron. Football also didn’t teach me anything about working with people you don’t agree with. On a football team, everyone is united under the same cause: winning.

The parallels I discovered also raise a few uncomfortable questions. I decided to pursue an advanced degree instead of continuing to teach a second year. Does football truly inform teaching as a career, then, or just that first year? A main tenet of football is to never quit. Did I violate that by switching career paths?

Pushing past pain, and centering most hours of one’s life around one goal, can be difficult principles to build a life around. They were also valuable to me when I needed them most.

And regardless of whether football continues to be popular among young people, I hope that parents still find ways to give their kids a chance to compete — a chance to win, and more importantly, to lose.

Having to do that time and time again made me able to accept struggle in life, and it made me a better learner. I think it made me a better teacher, too.

Evan Tucker is a former teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in ecology. 

Miseducation

In Colorado’s high-poverty schools, many teachers are just starting their careers

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles/Chalkbeat
A first-grade student reads in Spanish in a biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary in Adams 14.

This story is part of a partnership between Chalkbeat and the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica. Using federal data from Miseducation, an interactive database built by ProPublica, we are publishing a series of stories exploring inequities in education at the local level.

Koli Jamerson’s residency program gave her tools that she uses every day as a teacher, ideas for developing engaging lessons and for working with English language learners.

But it didn’t teach her how to help a student who explodes in anger because the police were at her house the night before on a domestic violence call or who cries all day because she doesn’t know where she’ll sleep that night.

Jamerson, now in her third year of teaching first grade at Altura Elementary in the Aurora school district, is still standing. She remains committed to her profession in large part due to the help of veteran teachers on her team, who provided advice as she found her footing those first couple of years.

“It helps keep things in perspective,” Jamerson said of her conversations with more experienced educators. “Otherwise, I would have been talking to a bunch of other teachers who were also drowning, and we would have drowned together.”

It’s getting hard for new teachers in Colorado to find those support systems, since the percentage of Colorado’s teachers in their first or second year in the classroom is among the highest in the nation. In 2015-16, the most recent year for which federal data is available, 17 percent of Colorado teachers were new to the classroom, compared with 12 percent nationally. Only Tennessee, Arizona, and Washington, D.C., rank higher. As recently as 2011, less than 11 percent of Colorado’s teachers were new to the classroom.

This information comes from a new interactive database from the investigative news organization ProPublica. It draws on data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and for the first time allows parents to easily search their school and district and compare it with others in the region. 

The rates of inexperienced teachers are even higher in certain rural districts and in districts where lots of students come from low-income families and face more challenges. Those districts also often have high numbers of students of color. In contrast, whiter, more affluent suburban districts tend to have low rates of inexperienced teachers.

And those numbers have significant ramifications for Colorado’s students: New teachers can bring energy and innovation to the classroom, and some, especially those with support and guidance, manage to thrive early on. But students with inexperienced teachers tend to have lower test scores on average, according to numerous studies, and new teachers often get lower scores in classroom management from their principals.

Most teachers will readily admit it takes several years to get your bearings in a profession for which no amount of classroom learning can fully prepare you.

“In reality, you get second grade one time, you get third grade one time, as a kid,” said David Singer, founder of Denver’s University Prep charter network, which has shown impressive test results even with plenty of relatively inexperienced teachers. “You deserve an excellent educator.”

Chalkbeat reviewed more recent state data that follows the typical federal definition of “inexperienced teachers” — teachers with less than three full years of classroom experience — and found that the broad trends remain true and in many cases are even more severe than they appear in the federal data. Statewide, one in four Colorado teachers was classified as inexperienced. Last school year, 31 percent of Denver Public Schools teachers were in their first three years on the job, compared with just 7 percent of teachers in the more affluent Boulder Valley School District.

The Adams 14 district, based in the working-class suburb of Commerce City, is one of the lowest-performing in the state. Last year, 45 percent of teachers there were considered inexperienced, compared with 8 percent in the south suburban Littleton district. 

In districts with so many new teachers, it becomes inevitable that students there will encounter educators who haven’t yet reached their prime.

“When a teacher is new to the profession, as with any profession, they’re not as effective,” said Allison Atteberry, an assistant professor in the research and evaluation methods program at the University of Colorado’s School of Education. “There’s a really steep learning curve in those first years. That can’t really be avoided. But if there are more of those teachers, then more students will be exposed to those teachers. And if you have districts with more at-risk students, that has major equity implications.”

Atteberry said the numbers don’t surprise her, and they reflect a perfect storm in the state’s teacher corps. Colorado has experienced rapid population growth, increasing the demand for teachers, at the same time that experienced teachers are retiring or changing careers. That means more new teachers in Colorado classrooms, even as fewer students are entering teacher preparation programs.

Colorado’s low teacher pay exacerbates retention problems. Colorado ranks 30th for teacher pay, and when those salaries are adjusted for cost of living, it falls to 44th. The competitiveness of its teacher salaries is the lowest in the nation, meaning that people who go into teaching take a bigger salary hit compared to their peers with similar levels of education. Nationally, 1 in 10 teachers will leave the profession after their first year, and many more never reach the five-year mark.

Districts around the state are asking voters to raise taxes this November in part to raise teacher pay. Better pay for educators is also a major part of the campaign for Amendment 73, a $1.6 billion statewide tax increase for schools that appears on the ballot. But Colorado voters have so far been reluctant to raise statewide taxes for schools, and critics say there is no guarantee the money will make it into teachers’ paychecks.

Atteberry said raising pay would help mitigate these trends. Beyond that, there isn’t a lot of solid research on the best ways to keep teachers in the classroom, she said, but coaching and support from other teachers can make a difference. Denver is trying a new program to ease the transition for novice teachers with more time spent observing and learning from veterans before getting sole responsibility for a classroom. But just as with teacher salaries, providing adequate coaching is expensive. And the more newcomers there are, the harder it is provide meaningful support to novices.

Denver metro area inexperienced teachers

DISTRICT Teachers with less than three years experience Students receiving subsidized lunches
Adams 14 45 percent 87.3 percent
Dougco 39 percent 12.4 percent
Sheridan 33 percent 90.4 percent
27J (Brighton) 33 percent 37.7 percent
Denver 31 percent 67.2 percent
Jeffco 31 percent 31.7 percent
Aurora 29 percent 68.7 percent
Englewood 29 percent 66 percent
Westminster 24 percent 81.4 percent
Mapleton 21 percent 60.6 percent
St. Vrain 15 percent 30.6 percent
Adams 12 11 percent 39.9 percent
Cherry Creek 9 percent 30.0 percent
Littleton 8 percent 16.8 percent
Boulder Valley 7 percent 19 percent

Source: Colorado Department of Education, 2017-18 school year

This year, for the first time, Annalee Peterson has her own fifth-grade classroom in Columbia Elementary in Colorado Springs, where a large portion of the students are homeless or face other challenges. Before starting an alternative certification process, she ran reading groups as a paraprofessional in the same building for four years. And years before that, she dropped out of a Teach for America placement in a Newark high school where she felt alone and unsupported.

Peterson said her certification program includes intensive classroom observation and feedback that has been invaluable as she made the transition from para to teacher. She also has a trusting relationship with her building principal, who encouraged her to become a teacher.

“I think every new teacher should have a mentor,” she said. “I see other teachers come in, and they don’t have it.”

Peterson said she also benefits from her school’s skilled full-time counselor, something many Colorado schools don’t have.

“If we have a kid with a fair amount of trauma, and they get triggered, they have someone they can go talk to,” she said. “And that’s a huge help. They are getting their emotional needs met, and when they come back to the classroom, they’re ready to work and ready to focus.”

The Adams 14 school district, which has spent eight years on a state watchlist due to its low-performing schools, has the highest rate of inexperienced teachers in the Denver metro area. The 7,000-student district has experienced a lot of turnover not just at the classroom level, but at the highest tiers of leadership.

With an urgent need to improve school performance, Mark Langston, the district’s new manager of educator effectiveness, tries to put a positive face on the large number of new educators that arrive each year.

“I’d rather have a phenomenal teacher for one year, than a bad teacher for many years,” Langston said. “Strong systems have a nice blend of experience.”

At the same time, he’s trying to improve the support those new teachers receive by making changes to the district’s five-day induction program to better meet their individual needs. The thinking is that a 40-year-old switching careers after running a business for 20 years might need different training from a 22-year-old recent college graduate. He’s also trying to match new teachers with mentors earlier in the school year.

But sometimes there aren’t enough mentors or he’s had to make exceptions to allow less experienced teachers to become mentors.

“They are mentoring each other,” said Barb McDowell, president of the Adams 14 teachers union, who says the churn takes a toll on teacher and student morale. “There are no veteran teachers there to help.”

Kevin Clark, a senior at Adams City High, said he always felt supported by his teachers in the district, but very few of them are still there as he enters his final year.

“For the seniors, it’s been rough,” he said. “We really value our support systems. The new teachers are trying to adjust and get their footing, but just because you send in a batch of new teachers, doesn’t mean everything is fine.”

The Denver schools with the highest percentages of inexperienced teachers in 2015-16 include a number of alternative high schools, high-poverty district-run schools, and charter schools. Some of the charter schools are part of high-performing networks whose students do well on state tests.

One of them is University Prep. The homegrown Denver network has two elementary schools, one of which posted the most academic progress in Colorado on state math tests in 2017. But in 2015, the network had just one school — and 42 percent of the teachers there were in their first or second year of teaching, according to the federal data.

At University Prep, some first-year teachers have taken part in a teacher residency program or in a program that has college students work as paraprofessionals while earning their degrees.

“When you think about that individual exiting their undergraduate [education] having spent four years in a building with master teachers, getting all the supports they need to grow, they’re ready to teach on Day 1,” said Singer, the network’s founder.

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Students at University Prep Elementary’s flagship school in Denver

Even so, the network provides its first-year teachers with extra support, he said, such as real-time coaching in the classroom, opportunities to observe more experienced teachers, and help with how to plan a lesson or conduct a parent-teacher conference.

Atteberry said successful charter schools with high rates of inexperienced teachers may be doing something different in the hiring process, looking for “spark teachers who really want to make a difference.”

The high rates of new teachers at some charter schools raise questions, though, about how sustainable the work environment is, and some of these same “spark” teachers may never intend to make a lifelong career of it and instead move on to other challenges. Asked about turnover, Singer said some University Prep teachers have left to pursue careers in medicine and law.

Denver metro area data show another exception to the trend in Douglas County. It’s an affluent and sprawling district southwest of Denver where just 12 percent of students get subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty. But in 2015-16, 31 percent of teachers were in their first or second year in the classroom, and in 2017-18, 39 percent had less than three years experience.

Kallie Leyba, president of the Douglas County Federation, the teachers union there, said Douglas used to be a “destination district” that teachers aspired to work for. But political upheaval, the election of a conservative school board that has since been replaced, and a “market rate” pay structure that remains have caused experienced teachers to leave in droves — some for much higher salaries in nearby Cherry Creek schools.

The Douglas County pay scale means that teachers with the same amount of experience might make very different salaries. Leyba herself faced the prospect of a lower ceiling on her salary when her building principal asked her to switch from a first grade to a second grade classroom because first-grade teachers are more in demand.

“Even though I knew this was a crazy system, it really hurt to feel like my value had gone down in the eyes of my principal,” she said.

What could Colorado do to get more of today’s inexperienced teachers to become tomorrow’s veteran educators?

Money is a big part of the answer. As it stands, Colorado teachers can earn significantly more money by moving to another state, and with teacher salaries less competitive here than elsewhere, teachers also look to other professions that offer less stress along with better pay.

“The No. 1 thing we should do is increase the prestige and value of teachers in society, and the way we signal that in our society is through salary and compensation,” Atteberry said. “That has a huge influence on who goes into the profession and on who stays.

“This is not an easy change because it costs a lot of money, and it also requires us to change how we think about teachers, but it is the policy that would be most effective.”

Chalkbeat reporters Melanie Asmar and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this story.