teacher appreciation

‘Every child needs a champion’: Meet the teachers who inspired some of the country’s education leaders

To mark Teacher Appreciation Week, Chalkbeat went in search of the educators who changed the lives of the people you read about in our stories.

We asked a handful of influential figures to tell us about the teacher whose action, lesson, or presence made a lasting impact on them. The stories they shared — about the teacher who trusted a future chancellor with a beloved guitar, the one who offered advanced books and a lesson in being “cool,” and another who used their city’s history of black activism to reach students — are worth a read.

Here’s what they told us.

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Mandy Manning, 2018 National Teacher of the Year

Living in a single parent household is really busy all of the time. So my teachers were extremely, extremely important to me, because they were the adults in my life who were supporting me when I was going through those more difficult years. In particular, I had this teacher in middle school. We had just moved to California, and I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t know anybody, I was starting at a brand-new school. And it was seventh grade, so you can imagine.

So here I was, a brand new student, walking into a new school in a new city and a new state. The first day, I had several teachers, which was also something that was new to me. I had gone to a regular sixth-grade class in an elementary school, with one teacher. I remember distinctly walking into my English class with Mrs. Baker. Mrs. Baker was a teacher of color. And Mrs. Baker was so kind. As soon as I walked in the door, I could tell just by her facial expression and her smile that she cared about me.

I was just this new kid. She welcomed me in, and she completely transformed so many things about how I thought about myself. Because of her, I was moved up to honors English the next year, and I also participated in mock trial. I actually got to be one of the lawyers in mock trial. She instilled this confidence in me that I don’t know if I would have had. I fell in love with English and kept going. But the thing I really carried with me was the belief that I could try new things and I could accomplish things I never thought possible. And then becoming an educator, I carry that lesson with me. I welcome all of my kids with an open heart and open mind. My goal is always to help them see how amazing they are.

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A. Robert Gregory, Newark Public Schools interim superintendent

Every child needs a champion; someone who believes in them and encourages them to love learning while igniting their curiosity. For me, in my early years, that person was none other than Ms. Pat Longordo, my first-grade teacher at Harriet Tubman Elementary School.

Ms. Longordo greeted her students daily with a warm hug. She never missed a day of work, and moreover, she allowed you to make mistakes and used them as teachable moments. Her warm heart, passion and commitment are attributes every educator should possess. She helped me personally fall in love with reading and poetry at a young age, and taught me the importance and power of words. She dared to care for me and my classmates when so many were losing hope, and reminded us daily that we would one day change America.

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Richard Carranza, New York City schools chancellor

Dr. Alfredo Valenzuela, who taught me guitar in the third, fourth grade, was one of those teachers who always made me feel like I was his only student.

My dad was a guitar player — a really good guitar player, but worked all the time. I couldn’t touch his guitar. When we would practice the guitar at school, [Dr. V] would say, take the guitar home! But I was afraid, my parents were afraid, that if we broke it they didn’t have the money to replace it.

I remember Dr. V actually came to my home and brought the guitar and spoke to my mom. He told her, look, this is what they’re for. I have lots of ‘em. If they break, don’t worry about it. But they’re not going to break, because your sons are very responsible young men. I remember that number one, the teacher came to my home, two, he called me a very responsible young man, and three, I had a guitar to practice at home. I would say that was transformational for me.

To this day, I stay in touch with him. He’s gone on to teach music to many, many, many other students. He was just one of those people who I thought, if I can be like Dr. V, I’ll be OK.

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Rich Buery, chief of policy and public affairs for KIPP

In my family, education came first. My mother taught public high school for 33 years in East New York, Brooklyn, where I grew up. Former students constantly approached her to thank her. Because of her, I grew up thinking teachers were rock stars. My middle school homeroom teacher Cheryl Virginia confirmed it.

I attended I.S. 383, a public middle school in Bushwick. Like East New York, Bushwick experienced high poverty and crime, and poor educational outcomes. I.S. 383 served gifted and talented black and brown students from these and other low-income Brooklyn neighborhoods. Ms. Virginia created an environment that was comfortable, lively, and nurturing. She taught us we could do anything, and that “to whom much is given, much is required.” She introduced me to books that were far above my reading level, and made me believe I could tackle them.

She encouraged me to be my best self. I remember acting out once, trying to be “cool” to impress a classmate. She explained to me in a blunt but loving way that the way to be cool was to be myself, not to try to be like someone else. Her respect for young people helped me respect myself.

I was fortunate to have Ms. Virginia and other teachers in my life who inspired me to spend my career fighting for high quality public education. Today, as I support the work of great teachers at KIPP schools nationwide, Ms. Virginia remains a beacon.

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State Rep. Janet Buckner, vice chair of the Colorado House Education Committee

I will never forget my 1st grade teacher, Mrs. Johnson. Even to this day I can recall every characteristic about her. Where I grew up, I was the only black child in my class, and unfortunately black students were not allowed in kindergarten at the time. Despite this educational setback, Mrs. Johnson saw the potential in me at an early age and instilled values regarding the importance of reading and comprehension.

This led me to practice every night by reading books to my grandmother. Just knowing that I could accomplish this fundamental elementary task as a child created confidence and ownership with regard to my education.

To this day, I credit Mrs. Johnson with my academic success and my acceptance of people who look different from me. Educators have the unique ability to inspire and create lifelong impressions on students. I cannot overstate how important it was for me to have Mrs. Johnson teach me that I was no different from the other students in my class, and that I could accomplish any goal that I set my young mind to. I will always value her kindness and dedication to teaching me the fundamentals of reading.

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Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers

A few weeks before I became the national president of the AFT, I asked several of my former teachers, including Mr. Swift, Mr. Dillon, Ms. Gaffney, and of course, my mom, to join me at our convention. I wanted them all there with me to share in the honor of becoming the leader of a teacher’s union, because I’m here thanks to the support of so many other teachers and support personnel with whom I worked over the years, and so many kids who taught me as much as I taught them.

Mr. Swift taught me the value of hard work. Mr. Dillon taught me to teach for the stars. Miss Gaffney taught me confidence. And my mom taught me to repair the world. Teachers everywhere do that every day for millions of kids, and for that, I thank them.

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Chris Rogers (left) and Ms. Simpkins (right)

Christopher Rogers, lead director at JustMaybeCo and a Chalkbeat Reader Advisory Board member

Ms. Simpkins was my Hi-Q advisor, our version of the academic decathlon. But in truth, she was and is so much more. When I was in high school in the mid-2000s, she was part of the number of black teachers who grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania. What I loved about Ms. Simpkins was her commitment to teaching us the critical skills we needed to navigate a world that is not set up for many of us, mostly low-income black and brown children, to succeed (dare I say survive).

She had a poster on her classroom wall of a famous Martin Luther King quote: “Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” She would remind us that King spent time in our hometown, attending Crozer Seminary and studying under local pastors. It wasn’t just that King was here. It was that there was something that everyday Chester folks offered King that allowed him to fully commit to his “drum major for justice” instinct.

This righteous belief in our potential to be able to contribute to something greater than ourselves was modeled in her actions as a community historian and arts advocate. She has collected priceless artifacts of the black experience in Chester, exploring the way black folks have made and remade the city through various struggles against racism and political corruption.

Ms. Simpkins, while being retired from the school district, has yet to really … retire. She’s currently working to rehab the historic YWCA building in our Overtown section of the city as a place where young people and families can gather to learn about the history of the city and collaborate in various forms of art-making and community-building activities.

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Bror Saxberg, ‎vice president for learning science at the ‎Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

My handwriting, as many of my current and past colleagues will attest, has never been a reason to bring me into a project. It’s been a challenge stretching back to the start of schooling – it required a near-divine intervention to let me move from first to second grade because of it.

Several teachers over time have made heroic interventions to help me keep moving forward in spite of my dysgraphia. The one I’ll call out now is Dr. Judy Lightfoot, one of my high school English teachers. Years after leaving high school, I discovered that the teachers at my high school held a faculty meeting to discuss “What to do with Bror’s writing – it’s so bad!”

Apparently, and unsurprisingly, even though I tried to type everything I could, many teachers at the high school struggled through my handwriting, to the point where they felt they just couldn’t evaluate my work to give me feedback, or in some cases tell if I knew what I was doing. Hence the discussion.

Dr. Lightfoot stepped in at the meeting to stop it. Apparently, she said something to the effect, “This is ridiculous – we should not be talking about this. I read his writing fine. If any of you have any issues with his writing, just bring it to me, and I will read it for you.”

She did more than support me as her student – she offered to spend her own time with other teachers, to help me succeed despite a problem that was impossible for me to solve. The meeting (or at least that part of the meeting) was over, and I only heard about her intervention with her colleagues many years later. Because of Dr. Lightfoot and other teachers who similarly problem-solved on how to help me succeed, often without me realizing it, I kept on learning, through many years, many degrees. Looking back, it’s their work that now inspires me to pay it forward through my work to find ways to better support great educators to help imperfect learners like me — and all of us.

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Jennifer McCormick speaks during a 2016 campaign event.

Jennifer McCormick, Indiana schools chief

My fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Montgomery was instrumental in really setting a tone in the classroom. Literally we all thought we were the favorite student — but now that I look back on it, we really were. She was at Westwood Elementary, our tiny little elementary school out in a cornfield.

I lived out in the country, and we had a long bus ride to school. I remember I’d had a rough morning at home trying to get myself together. Missing the bus was not an option for me because my parents worked. When I showed up at school, I was a flat out mess.

I had these bobby pins that had big frogs on the ends. I remember her taking the time to help me fix my hair and help me re-group at my desk and saying, “You’re going to have a good day.”

I remember that day so clearly. She came in and really saved the day. It’s not just about math, spelling or social studies — it was beyond that. It was probably two minutes, not about academics, just about me as a person and my well-being.

As a teacher, I remembered that time. I had kids who would come in all frazzled. I remember that two minutes of my time could impact 12 hours of their day.

She was at my wedding, and when I became state superintendent, we talked. She was masterful at the relationships piece. Now, having the opportunity to go into a lot of classrooms, that is a skill. I think I continue to hold that close because any time that kids just feel like you care about them, it just goes a lot further than if they think you really don’t care about them. The power of a great educator really impacts you forever.

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Thanks to our partners at Yoobi for supporting our Teacher Appreciation campaign.

School choice

Secret CPS report spotlights big vacancies, lopsided options for students

The school district says the report will help inform how it invests in and engages with communities. Communities groups worry the document will be used to justify more school closings, turnarounds and charters.

An unreleased report by a school choice group backed by the business community paints in stark detail what many Chicagoans have known for years: that top academic schools are clustered in wealthier neighborhoods, and that fewer black and Latino students have access to those schools.

The report highlights startling figures: About 27 percent of black students are in the district’s lowest-rated schools, compared with 8 percent of Latino students and 3 percent of whites. It also says that while Chicago Public Schools has more than 150,000 unfilled seats, 40 percent, or 60,000 of them, are at top-ranked schools. That surplus will grow as enrollment, which has been plummeting for years, is projected to decline further by 5.1 percent over the next three years. What that means is the cash-strapped district is moving toward having nearly one extra seat for every two of its students.

The document effectively shows that, in many areas of the city, students are skipping out on nearby options, with less than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

In a city still reeling from the largest mass school closure in U.S. history, this report could lay groundwork for another round of  difficult decisions.

The “Annual Regional Analysis” report, compiled by the group Kids First Chicago on CPS’ behalf, has been circulating among select community groups but has not been made public. It comes on the heels of a report showing students’ high school preferences vary with family income level. Students from low-income neighborhoods submit more applications than students from wealthier ones and apply in greater numbers for the district’s charter high schools.

The group behind the latest report has had many iterations: Kids First is a new name, but its origins date back to 2004, when it started as the charter fundraising group Renaissance Schools Fund. That was during the Renaissance 2010 effort, which seeded 100 new schools across the city, including many charters. The group changed its name to New Schools Chicago in 2011 and again rebranded this year as Kids First, with a greater focus on parent engagement and policy advocacy.

The report has caused a stir among some community groups who’ve seen it. Because the school district has used enrollment figures to justify closing schools, some people are worried it could be used to propose more closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

“To me this is the new reason [for school closings],” said Carolina Gaeta, co-director of community group Blocks Together, which supports neighborhood schools. “Before it was academics, then it was utilization, now it’s going to be access and equity. Numbers can be used any way.”

In a statement on the report, Chicago Teachers Union Spokeswoman Christine Geovanis blasted Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration for policies that she alleged “undermine enrollment at neighborhood schools,” such as the proliferation of charter schools, school budget cuts, and building new schools over the objection of community members.

Reached by phone Thursday, Kids First CEO Daniel Anello confirmed that his organization helped put the report together, but declined to comment on its contents, deferring to the district. CPS Spokeswoman Emily Bolton acknowledged the report’s existence in a statement emailed to Chalkbeat Chicago that said the school district “is having conversations with communities to get input and inform decisions” about where to place particular academic programs. The statement said CPS is still in the process of drafting a final version of the document, but gave no timetable. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office didn’t grant requests for interviews about the Annual Regional Analysis.

Below is a preview of the report provided to Chalkbeat Chicago.

Gaps in access to arts and IB programs

Data released this week from the district’s GoCPS universal high school application clearly shows what academic programs are most in demand: selective enrollment programs that require children to test in;  arts programs; and career and technical education offerings, or CTE.

The Kids First’s analysis puts those findings into context, however, by detailing how supply is geographically uneven, especially when it comes to arts. Maps in the report divide the city into regions defined by the city’s planning department and show how highly-desirable arts programs are not spread equally throughout the city, and are most concentrated along the northern lakefront and downtown.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of fine & performing arts program seats available per 100 elementary school students in each planning area.

Worse, four regions offer 10 or fewer arts seats per 100 students, including the Bronzeville/South Lakefront region that includes neighborhoods such as South Shore, Woodlawn, Kenwood and Hyde Park. They are also scarce in the West Side region, which includes Austin, North Lawndale, and Humboldt Park and in the Northwest neighborhoods of Belmont Cragin, Dunning, and Portage Park.

The report also shows an imbalance in the number of rigorous International Baccalaureate programs.

This map shows the number of IB program seats per 100 students available to elementary and high school students in each planning area.

The highest number of IB seats are in the wealthy, predominately white Lincoln Park area. In contrast, there are far fewer IB seats in predominantly black communities such as  Englewood and Auburn Gresham, Ashburn and in the predominantly Latino Back of the Yards.

When it comes to selective-enrollment elementary school programs such as gifted centers and classical schools, which require students to pass entrance exams, options tend to be concentrated, too, with fewer choices on the South and West sides of the city. This map shows where selective enrollment high school options are most prevalent:

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of selective enrollment high school seats available per 100 students in the city’s planning regions.

STEM programs are more evenly distributed across Chicago than both IB and selective enrollment schools, yet whole swaths of the city lack them, especially on the South Side, including the Greater Stony Island. As the other maps show, that region lacks most of the high-demand academic programs the district has to offer.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of STEM program seats available per 100 elementary school students.

Racial disparities in school quality

The analysis also shows disparities in quality of schools, not just variety.

At CPS, 65 percent of students districtwide are enrolled at Level 1-plus or Level 1-rated schools. But only 45 percent of black students and 72 percent of Latino students are in those top-rated seats, compared with 91 percent of white students.

The disparities are even more severe given that the school district is mostly Latino and black, with fewer than one in 10 students identified as white. 

A page from a presentation of the Annual Regional Analysis showed to select community groups.

In the Greater Lincoln Park region, 100 percent of elementary schools have one of the top two ratings — the highest concentration of them in the city.  The highest concentration of top-rated high school seats, 91 percent, is in the Central Area, which includes Downtown and the South Loop.

The lowest concentration of top-rated elementary seats, 35 percent, is in the Near West Side region, and the lowest concentration of high school seats, 14 percent, is in the West Side region.

Long commutes from some neighborhoods

The number of students choosing schools outside their neighborhood boundaries has increased in recent years.

But the report shows that school choice varies by race: 44 percent of black students attend their neighborhood elementary school, compared with 67 percent of Latino students, 69 percent of white students, and 66 percent of Asian students. For high schoolers, only 14 percent of black students attend their neighborhood school, compared with 28 percent of Asians, 30 percent of Latinos, and 32 percent of whites.

More students enrolling outside their neighborhood attendance boundaries means more and more students have longer commutes, but how far they travel depends on their address. 

Again, this is an area where the Greater Stony Island area stands out.

A graphic from the Annual Regional Analysis executive report that shows how far elementary school students in each of the city’s 16 planning regions travel from their homes to school. The data shows that students on the South and West Sides tend to have longer commutes.

The average distance traveled for elementary school students is 1.5 miles — but K-8 students in Greater Stony Island travel an average of 2.6 miles. The average distance to class for high schoolers citywide is 2.6 miles, but students in the Greater Stony Island region travel an average of 5 miles, about twice the city average. 

A graphic from the Annual Regional Analysis executive report that shows how far high school students in each of the city’s 16 planning regions travel from their homes to school. The data shows that students on the South and West Sides tend to have longer commutes.

Looking forward

The introduction to the Annual Regional Analysis describes it as “a common fact base” to understand the school landscape. It clearly states the intent of the report is to assist with district planning, not to provide recommendations.

It still bothers Wendy Katten, founder of Raise Your Hand, who has seen the report and said it tells little about how kids are actually learning at schools.

“It sounds like some data a company would use to reduce inventory at a manufacturing plant,” she said.

Gaete with Blocks Together said the numbers in the report are also missing important context about how the proliferation of charter schools, a lack of transparent and equitable planning, and a lack of support for neighborhood schools in recent decades has exacerbated school quality disparities across race and neighborhoods in Chicago, one of the nation’s most diverse but segregated cities.

It’s unclear when the final study will be published, or how exactly the school district will use its contents to inform its decisions and conversations with communities.

But an event posting on the website for Forefront, a membership association for “nonprofits, grantmakers, public agencies, advisors, and our allies,” mentions a briefing for the report on Oct. 10.

Kids First Chicago CEO Dan Anello and CPS Director of Strategy Sadie Stockdale Jefferson will share the report there, according to the website.

Q and A

In a wide-ranging interview, Carranza takes issue with admissions to New York City’s gifted programs

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Since becoming schools chancellor, Richard Carranza has questioned city admissions methods that critics say exacerbate segregation. Here, he speaks to a crowd at a town hall about school diversity.

Ever since the city launched a push to scrap the entrance exam for its vaunted specialized high schools, Chancellor Richard Carranza has made it clear that he doesn’t believe a single test should be used to make school admissions decisions.

In an exclusive back-to-school interview with Chalkbeat on Friday, he said that also goes for the city’s gifted and talented programs.

Just like specialized high schools, gifted programs are deeply segregated. Only 22 percent of students in gifted programs are black or Hispanic, compared with 70 percent citywide. And just like specialized high schools, admission to most of the city’s gifted programs hinges solely on the results of an exam.

“I think that’s not a good idea,” Carranza said. “When you look at the disparities in representation across this system, you have to ask the question, ‘Do we have the right way of assessing and making decisions about students?’”

Most students enter gifted programs when they’re in kindergarten, so they are only 4 years old when they take the test — an approach that Carranza questioned.

“There is no body of knowledge that I know of that has pointed to the fact that you can give a test to a 4-year-old or a 5-year-old and determine if they’re gifted,” he said. “Those tests — and it’s pretty clear — are more a measure of the privilege of a child’s home than true giftedness.”

A full transcript of our interview with the chancellor is coming soon. We’ll have interesting insights about Carranza’s relationship with his predecessor, what he thinks about the city’s Renewal turnaround program now that he’s had time to get to know it better, and the problems he’s trying to solve with a recent bureaucratic overhaul. Here are some highlights to hold you over until then.

Why few schools may get shuttered under Carranza’s leadership — even though he’s ‘not scared’ of closures

In one of his very first moves as chancellor, Carranza spared a storied Harlem school that was slated for closure. Since then, he has shaken up the school’s leadership, initiated new partnerships, and brought in a different support structure.

It’s just one example, but it could be a hint of what’s to come during Carranza’s tenure.

The school that won the reprieve is a part of the mayor’s high profile Renewal program, which aims to boost student learning by offering social services and a longer school day. The program has shown mixed results, at best, and many Renewal schools have been shuttered after failing to make progress. 

Carranza indicated there could be more closures ahead: “Let me be clear: I’m not scared of closing a school if it’s not serving the needs of the students,” he said.

But he added: “My experience — nine times out of 10 — has been that we haven’t done all we can do to give schools that are struggling to improve the right conditions, the right resources and the right support to actually improve.”

Did Carranza push City Hall to do something about segregation at specialized high schools?

City Hall has indicated that its plans to overhaul admissions at the city’s vaunted specialized high schools had been in the works for some time. Indeed, de Blasio promised to do something about the stark underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students at the schools during his first run for mayor.

Carranza wouldn’t reveal much about what happened behind the scenes in the lead-up to the city’s June announcement that officials would lobby to scrap the exam that serves as the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The chancellor said he brought up the issue in his talks with the mayor before coming onboard, and said his boss shared the same vision.

“I can tell you the mayor is passionate about making sure that our schools are just as diverse as our city,” Carranza said.

Asked whether he personally played a role in the decision, Carranza would only say that the mayor “knew what he was getting,” when he was tapped to be chancellor.

He later added: “One of the things that I appreciate is, that what the mayor hired was an educator to be the chancellor, and he lets me do my job.”

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.