Big Apple

New York City is honoring 17 exceptional teachers. Here’s who they are.

PHOTO: New York City Department of Education
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza presents a Big Apple Award.

New York City has named 17 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 more than 6,500 nominees.

The winners include a special education teacher who had her students’ artwork exhibited at MoMA, a dual language teacher who wrote her own Chinese literacy curriculum, and an early education teacher who uses an app to communicate with parents.

Each was surprised by education department officials who presented the award in their classrooms.

“I learned guitar in elementary school from my teacher Mr. Valenzuela who empowered me, taught me the value of rehearsal and poise, and believed I could do anything I set my mind to,” Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “The Big Apple Award winners exemplify this love of teaching, and I could not be prouder of the 17 recipients selected this year and all of our teachers who bring out the best in our children every single day.”

Here are the winners:

Nina Berman (Early Childhood Education Teacher, LYFE Program at Pathways to Graduation Downtown Brooklyn, Brooklyn)

Nina Berman began teaching as a paraprofessional in the LYFE program when she was 18 years old. Realizing that she “needed to find innovative ways to connect and engage families,” Ms. Berman employed a new online app that allowed her to interact with parents on a daily basis in order to strengthen the connection between home and school, which has now been adopted in all LYFE classrooms.  

Nicole Chu (Middle School English Language Arts Teacher, The Computer School, Manhattan)

Nicole Chu empowers her students by expanding their learning beyond the limits of their classroom. Three years ago, she took the initiative to start an “all school meeting” where a rotating group of 8th grade leaders and faculty facilitators meet monthly to discuss important issues that students wanted to address. Ms. Chu explains: “I only hope the lasting message is as loud and clear as it was for me: your voice matters. Together with your peers, you make a difference in your community.”

Damen Davis (6th Grade English and Language Arts Teacher, I.S. X303 Leadership & Community Service, Bronx)

To overcome challenges his students faced outside of the classroom and at home, Damen Davis began reaching out to school support staff, contacted his students’ former elementary school teachers, and their out-of-school coaches, and when appropriate, met with parents. His students began to see him everywhere and they saw the investment and belief he had in them. Trust began to build which in turn led to students taking academic risks, and their efforts were met with significant growth and increased academic successes.

Sandra Fajgier (Pre-Kindergarten Teacher, Pre-K Center at Bishop Ford, Brooklyn)

Sandy Fajgier exemplifies best-teaching practices in early childhood instruction. Her classroom is a model for other pre-kindergarten programs because of the carefully curated materials used to spark the minds and imaginations of her students. As one parent shared: “She is an extremely talented, dedicated teacher with an inspiring classroom that is always fresh with new inquiries and activities.”

Marisol FitzMaurice (1st Grade Teacher, Concourse Village Elementary School, Bronx)

Marisol FitzMaurice began teaching 15 years ago because she wanted to change the lives of the young students in the Bronx community where she grew up. “I believe that my compassion for young children and enthusiasm for learning creates an attitude that influences my students to want to learn and become critical thinkers.” By involving students in all facets of the learning process, Ms. FitzMaurice gives students the foundation to take responsibility for their academic successes at an early age.

Stephanie Flete (4th Grade Mathematics Teacher, Urban Scholars Community School, Bronx)

Working as a Model Teacher at her school, Stephanie Flete works to find innovative ways to provide high-quality instruction for her students and to share her best practices with her school community. After one of her students faced a mental health crisis, Ms. Flete began developing social-emotional supports given the high incidence of trauma and emotional issues confronting her students. “No matter how strong your classroom management is or how positive a classroom culture is, there is always room for growth and support,” said Ms. Flete.

Mauricio Gonzalez (Science/Career and Technical Education: Marine Biology Teacher, Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, Manhattan)

Under Mauricio Gonzalez’s direction students are given relevant, real world environmental problems to solve independently and are taught to ask probing questions and research before making decisions. This hands on learning approach is especially engaging as students gain independence and confidence. As a result, Mr. Gonzalez’s students include a winner of the Gates Millennium Scholarship for their work on restoring eel grass to the New York Harbor and multiple research grant recipients.

Michelle Jennings (Middle School Science Teacher, Brooklyn Science and Engineering Academy, Brooklyn)

As a first generation Haitian-American, Michelle Jennings understands the doors that a good education can open for her students. Her current student population and community are of Caribbean and African-American descent, some of whom are the first in their families to go to school in America. She serves as a mentor teacher, has been selected to be an Urban Advantage Lead Teacher and was recently selected as one of five teachers to win the 2017 “Excellence In Education Award” presented at UN Headquarters during the annual CTAUN conference.

Gregg Kwarta (5th Grade Teacher, P.S. 232 The Lindenwood School, Queens)

“A teacher’s true success is not measured by how children grow in the classroom but by how you affect their growth outside the classroom and their values and actions,” Gregg Kwarta explained. That philosophy guides his teaching practices and his dedication to his students. To further connect and empower families, Mr. Kwarta sends welcome postcards to families and monthly newsletters to highlight each student in the class.

Jae Lee (High School Korean Language Teacher, Bayside High School, Queens)

Jae Lee dedicates himself to the celebration of the Korean culture. He has established multiple partnerships with groups like the Korean Consulate and the Korean Education Center, while also creating the Bayside Lunar New York celebration. Mr. Lee also connects his students to experiential learning opportunities through his role as a Work Based Learning Coordinator.

Michelle Lee (5th Grade Dual Language Teacher, P.S. 163 Flushing Heights, Queens)

A dual language teacher for 11 years, Michelle Lee is a senior mentor for new teachers. She wrote her own Chinese dual language literacy curriculum with the DOE’s Office of Periodic Assessment, and started a spelling bee contest for P.S. 163 in Queens where students were encouraged and inspired to take on challenges to expand their vocabulary.

Amie Robinson (Special Education Visual Arts Teacher, P.S. K077, Brooklyn)

Amie Robison’s visual arts instruction gives students with diverse learning and communication needs a way to express themselves. Ms. Robinson’s students have had their artwork exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Brooklyn and Queens art museums, Brooklyn Public Library, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

Mike Rosario (7th and 8th Grade Physical Education Teacher, P.S. 279 Captain Manuel Rivera, Jr., Bronx)

Mike Rosario’s dedication goes beyond the gymnasium and is evident in his commitment to the wellness of his students. Mr. Rosario said that recently he met a mother “who was crying tears of joy because her child was no longer diagnosed as pre-diabetic. She attributed this directly to my class and my work with the student in the fitness club that I lead before and after school.”

Raya Sam (6th Grade Mathematics ICT teacher, Hamilton Grange Middle School, Manhattan)

Raya Sam came to the U.S. in the first grade as a refugee from Cambodia, and her experience with a caring teacher who helped her adjust to her new home inspired her to become a teacher. In addition to teaching and facilitating IEP meetings across the school, Ms. Sam founded and coaches the school’s cheerleading team, and edits their annual yearbook and school newspaper.

Ryuma Tanaka (English as a Second Language Teacher, I.S. 145 Joseph Pulitzer, Queens)

As the son of an immigrant single mother, Ryuma Tanaka relates his own experience of being bilingual and bicultural with those of his immigrant students, many of whom are new to the United States. Mr. Tanaka works to empower his students while appreciating the experiences that may affect them socially, emotionally and academically, because “when students feel that their teacher cares about their culture and language, then a trusting relationship can be built with them,” he said.

Alberto Toro (Middle School Instrumental Music Teacher, I.S. 007 Elias Bernstein, Staten Island)

Alberto Toro knows the power music education has in shaping his students’ love of the art form and the positive impact it can have on students’ overall learning. As a student, Mr. Toro says his high school band director taught him about culture, history, integrity and character. He’s now teaching those same lessons to his students, whose sense of partnership, confidence and soulfulness increase throughout the year—skills they incorporate into their everyday lives.

Ashley Wilson (Kindergarten Teacher, Success Academy Charter School—Harlem 3, Manhattan)

No moment is wasted in Ashley Wilson’s classroom. In the morning meeting, students share about themselves and their lives to help create a supportive community. Ms. Wilson takes opportunities to model positive behaviors such as how to respond when someone is struggling. “By showing my students that I care about who they are inside and outside of the classroom, I am able to develop the trust necessary for students to take academic risks,” she said.

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. After this story was published Friday, we asked for further clarification on this. We received this statement Saturday morning:

Superintendent Cordova understands that when teachers make the choice to strike, they are doing so to make a statement and bring attention to the importance of the issue at hand. Foregoing pay during the time that a teacher is not working is a challenging decision that no one makes lightly, and consequently, brings with it an impact that is intended to push for change.

DPS did not feel that it would be fair or appropriate to provide back pay to striking teachers when many others — including more than 40 percent of classroom teachers — chose to remain at work this week. However, DPS is working with the DCTA to offer all teachers the opportunity to attend a Saturday session to replace the professional development day that was cancelled in the days leading up to the strike. Any teacher who attends will be paid a day’s salary.

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.

Teens Talk Back

‘Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait.’ Teen group says New York City diversity plan doesn’t move fast enough.

PHOTO: Courtesy/Teens Take Charge
Teens Take Charge members at a "virtual" press conference in New York City on Thursday

A teen group representing students from more than 30 New York City high schools sharply criticized a recent report from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group as offering no real solutions for increasing integration in the city’s starkly segregated high schools.

At a virtual press conference on Thursday, broadcast live on Facebook by Teens Take Charge, students expressed support for the report’s broad policy aim of achieving greater integration but also disappointment that the findings offered few specifics for how to reach this goal. The mayor’s Diversity Advisory Group has said a follow-up report will provide more details later this year.

“We have been told to wait, to be patient, that change is coming soon,” said Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan. “Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Teens Take Charge has long advocated for greater efforts to end segregated enrollment patterns in the city’s high schools. Sokhnadiarra Ndiaye, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy High School, said that students’ expectations of the mayor included his announcing “a comprehensive plan” — even if it took years to realize — “to racially, socioeconomically, and academically integrate high schools before the end of this school year,” she said.

Among Teens Take Charge’s specific recommendations are doing away with academic screens for admission to the city’s high schools, a more transparent process for applying to them, and more resources for low-income schools. Early last year, the group produced an Enrollment Equity Plan for increasing educational opportunities for low-income black and Hispanic students.

And because concrete plans for increasing integration would take time, Ndiaye said the teen organization supports several interim measures as well to address inequities in the school system. These include providing more college and career counseling for junior and seniors at low-income, under-resourced high schools. The teen group would also like to see the city provide vouchers to low-income families to access extra-curricular activities and programs offered by private companies or the ability to participate in such programs at other public schools if theirs don’t offer them. (Some city teens joined a class-action lawsuit against the education department and Public School Athletic League for allegedly denying black and Hispanic students equal opportunity to play on school sports teams, in violation of local human rights law.)

Torres described how Teens Take Charge has had “several meetings and phone conversations with Department of Education officials over the past year,” and schools chancellor Richard Carranza has stated that students have his ear. “We’re listening,” he tweeted in response to a Chalkbeat story with excerpts of the students’ views.

In December, the city’s education department posted a new job listing for a “Student Voice Manager” who would gather students’ thoughts on education policies. But while acknowledging this seat at the table, several students expressed frustration at the slow pace of change.

Bill de Blasio’s office declined to comment about Teens Take Charge’s concerns or their specific recommendations, beyond referencing remarks the mayor already made about the School Diversity Advisory Group report.

Doug Cohen, an education department spokesman, said in a statement, “We’ve taken real steps toward school integration,” pointing to initiatives such as a $2 million diversity grant program for school districts and communities citywide to develop their own local diversity plans, and a program that enables middle-schoolers to visit college campuses. “We know there is more work to do, and we thank Teens Take Charge for its continued advocacy on these issues,” he added.

Students at the group’s event urged swift change. “They know our plan; they have our information,” said Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Brooklyn Millennium. “They need to take action now.”