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.

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.