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.

it's official

Brooklyn middle schools eliminate ‘screening’ as New York City expands integration efforts

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
The city approved a plan to eliminate selective admissions to try to integrate District 15 middle schools.

The education department on Thursday approved sweeping changes to the way students are admitted to middle schools across an entire Brooklyn district, marking one of the most far-reaching integration efforts under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration.

Along with the admissions overhaul, the city launched $2 million in new grants for other districts that want to develop their own integration plans and announced that an existing citywide task force will continue to advise city leaders on school diversity issues even after the group issues its recommendations this winter.  

Together, the moves dramatically ramp-up the city’s efforts to integrate one of the country’s most segregated school systems — something de Blasio has only reluctantly taken on. While the mayor has been criticized for steadfastly avoiding even saying the word “segregation,” the issue has become impossible to ignore with the arrival of schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who has captured national attention for his frank calls for action, coupled with relentless activism from some parents, educators, and elected officials.

The middle school admissions changes are the culmination of years of advocacy from critics who blamed a complicated and competitive admissions process for exacerbating segregation in District 15, which encompasses brownstone neighborhoods such as Carroll Gardens and Park Slope and immigrant enclaves including Red Hook and Sunset Park.

Under the new system, District 15 middle schools will no longer “screen” their students based on factors such as report card grades, test scores, or auditions for performing arts programs — eliminating selective admissions criteria altogether. Instead, the district will use a lottery that gives extra weight to students who come from low-income families, are learning English as a new language, or are homeless.

The aim is to enroll a similar share of needy students across each of the district’s 11 middle schools. And since class is often tied to race and ethnicity, the lottery priority could also spur student diversity on a range of different measures.

But the admissions changes are just the first step towards integrating schools in a district where students are starkly segregated by race and class. Families will still be free to apply to the schools of their choice, so overhauling enrollment policies will have little effect unless parents are willing to consider a wide range of options.

Winning over parents presents a formidable challenge since middle class and white families in District 15 clamor to get into just a few vaunted schools, and parents of color may feel unsure about venturing beyond their neighborhood. To grapple with parents’ apprehension, advocates fought to couple the admissions changes with efforts to make schools more inclusive and appealing to families.

“Our work is only starting,” said Carrie McLaren, the mom of a fifth grader in Boerum Hill, who was involved in drafting the district’s integration plan.

The city announced it would dedicate $500,000 towards new resources, training, and other supports for parents and educators to help make the plan work. A new coordinator will be responsible for helping families navigate the admissions process, and an outreach team is tasked with contacting every parent with information about how to apply to middle schools. Additionally, it will be up to a new “diversity, equity, and integration coordinator” to oversee the district’s work, which will include providing teachers with anti-bias training, social-emotional learning, and alternative discipline practices.

Advocates pushed for those measures to try to make schools more fair and inclusive of students from different backgrounds. They called for the training for teachers and support in creating classroom materials that reflect diverse cultural histories and viewpoints, as well as the overhaul of discipline practices — which often treat black and Hispanic students, and those with disabilities, more harshly than their peers.

“If we’re simply moving bodies, and not changing pedagogically or culturally, then we’re ultimately setting up students of color to be in environments where they’re not welcome,” said Matt Gonzales, an integration advocate with the nonprofit New York Appleseed.

Advocates hope that District 15 will be a template for integration efforts elsewhere in the city. The process has been hailed for being far more inclusive — and less contentious — then the path that helped lead to the creation of two other districtwide integration plans. District 3, which encompasses the Upper West Side and part of Harlem, recently approved middle school admissions changes that give so priority to students from low income families and those with low test scores. It came on the heels of a similar plan for elementary schools in District 1, which includes the Lower East Side, East Village, and part of Chinatown.  

For Laura Espinoza, a mother in Sunset Park who helped draft the District 15 integration plan, the real work lies in making sure her community schools are equipped with the same resources as those in more affluent neighborhoods. Admissions changes alone don’t solve that underlying problem.

“The solution comes through focusing on the resources schools have,” she said. “Why are they called public schools if they are given more in some areas, and less in others?”

Advocates have called on the city to focus on the distribution of resources within schools as part of its integration effort, including an analysis of arts programming and even parent fundraising — moves that Espinoza hopes become a reality and not “only words.” The city announced “targeted funding” for technology and other resources will be part of the District 15 plan.

Messaging will also be an important piece of the work ahead. McLaren said families will be responsible for reshaping narratives around what makes schools desirable, and also taking a hard look at their own school’s practices and working across communities to problem-solve when barriers to integration arise.

“As a parent, and a white parent specifically, I see my role as having to talk to other white parents… and think about how our structural inequities have fed stereotypes and bias,” McLaren said. “It all takes a lot of work, and I don’t think there are easy answers, but at least this is changing the conversation.”

to the races

Jia Lee, a special education teacher and union gadfly, wants to be New York’s next lieutenant governor

Earth School teacher Jia Lee is running for New York lt. governor. An advocate against high-stakes testing, she spoke about the issue in 2015 before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

With 18 years in the classroom, special education teacher Jia Lee has seen a lot of change. Now, she wants to be the one who makes it.

Lee is running for lieutenant governor on the Green Party ticket, facing off against the incumbent Democrat Kathy Hochul and a Republican challenger, Julie Killian, in the November general election.

Even during an election cycle that has propelled underdog candidates closer to office, Lee knows her odds of victory are long. But that hasn’t stopped her before. In 2016, Lee challenged United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew in a bid for the union’s top post. She lost but managed to garner more than 20 percent of the vote as part of the MORE caucus — an opposition party that calls itself the Movement of Rank and File Educators and champions pocketbook issues such as pay, but also social justice causes.  

When she’s not teaching fourth and fifth grades at Earth School in the East Village, campaigning, or agitating within the union, Lee is active in the opt-out movement that protests high-stakes standardized tests — an issue that she once testified about before Congress.

Lee joins a wave of teachers across the country who have taken their classroom frustrations to the campaign trail in states far less blue than New York, such as Oklahoma and Arizona. Closer to home, the 2016 teacher of the year could be heading to Congress. Here’s what Lee thinks is driving their activism and what she’d like to change in education policy in New York.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Why are you running for lieutenant governor?

I’m running — and with the Green party specifically — because I feel as though policies in education have been largely driven by corporate reformers, who have direct ties with the Democratic party. I see it as incredibly problematic when you have this private/public kind of partnership, especially in government, where money or for-profits are driving decisions in our state. And the Green party is completely untethered to any of that.

I’m realistic about the power of the Green party because of the way our electoral process works in New York state. I believe I’m part of building a more grassroots, bottom-up movement that’s not just talking about the issues that are problematic but highlighting the root causes of it — and that’s the system and the rules that were designed by people in power. So it makes it very difficult for regular people, working people to engage in the system.

How would education policy change if you’re elected?

Currently the way decisions are made, it’s a pyramid structure. It’s very top-down, and my idea is to kind of invert that pyramid and create structures so there’s greater voice coming up from the bottom. How else are you going to know what policies need to be put in place if we don’t know what the needs are really?

Let’s say there’s an education gap or an opportunity gap happening. The analysis — over why that problem is — is in large part determined by people in power. So their solutions have always been to create consequences and rewards like the teacher evaluation system and the accountability system around high-stakes testing. It’s this really test-and-punish system. But if you go to any school that’s struggling, you’ll find that a lot of the answers and problem-solving can come from the actual community.

That sounds hard to do at scale. What kinds of systemic or structural changes could be implemented to make that a reality?

One, we have mayoral control, and that wasn’t always the case in New York City. The largest five school districts in New York State, if you look at them, a lot of them have either centralized control where the elected school boards have been dissolved, democratic spaces were dissolved. It’s a pattern across the country, where centralized control takes hold, and then you have less voice coming up from people.

And then I do believe that our locally elected officials — senators, assembly members —  they’re also taking big contributions from education reform groups, charters. And that, in large part, incentivizes the decisions that happen at the local level. We have to push forward rules about campaign finance, and I think that’s one of the biggest things that has to change — the culture of our governing system.

What do you hope to accomplish with your candidacy, even if you don’t win?

I’m definitely very clear about the odds. But at the same time, I’m very hopeful about this process and this work. This candidacy is about really highlighting the process for a lot of people who maybe even never knew who our current lt. governor was, and now they know. That position has, in large part, been kind of invisible in our state, and maybe we’ve brought that to light. We’re electing people into positions of power in our state, and we’re starting to question them, developing ideas around what needs to change in order for a greater number of people to feel like they had a say, and not feeling like they have to compromise one way or another.

Another big push for me in this campaign is to highlight our issues. The root cause of poverty or all these societal ills is the income gap. It’s not about, ‘Oh, you must have worked harder.’ Or, ‘You must deserve your incredible wealth because of who you are.’ No. Everyone deserves to have basic quality of life.

We’re in a moment of great teacher activism across the country. What do teachers want? What is driving this?

Over the last decade, we’ve seen policies that strip our school budgets — so that places a greater burden on teachers. We actually spend a lot of our own personal money — people sometimes don’t realize how much — just to provide basic things like paper, pencils. And in some dire situations — I’ve actually been in this place — we’re actually buying clothes for students or toiletry items. I’ve had friends in New York City whose custodians have said that budgets have been slashed so much that they can only buy a certain number of garbage bags or paper towels for the bathroom. So teachers now in some schools put toilet paper on the supply lists and even purchase it themselves. That’s one phase of it.

And then another one is this incredible, ridiculous accountability system put in place while these budget cuts are happening —  asking teachers and students and administrators to jump really, really high — without any resources.

Teachers tend to be nurturers and people who sacrifice a lot. I’ve seen tons of stories in the media about the kinds of things teachers do above and beyond. It just shouldn’t be that way. The burden being placed on teachers is untenable.

What do you see as the value of unions? What do you see as reasonable criticisms of them?

Without unions, working people on the whole, we’ll have no space to collectively organize around working conditions. For us as educators, that has a direct impact on our students’ learning conditions. It’s a ripple effect. It affects our communities. Without our unions, we’re not able to protect and support our communities — let alone our own livelihoods.

I believe that our union needs greater internal democracy, that negotiations with the government — with the city or at the larger level — needs to have greater transparency and input from its constituents. Process matters within our union.

So far UFT membership has remained strong in the wake of the Janus Supreme Court decision, which banned mandatory union dues. How do you think the decision will play out here moving forward?

Being actively engaged in your union is like a gym membership. It’s only as powerful as how engaged members are in the process. So while we might have the roster — a lot of people [who] stayed on as union members — how much do they really feel engaged in decision-making at the policy level?

Collecting dues makes it so that our union leadership can have the finances to continue to operate in the way that they have and not to incentivize them to really listen to members. I’m concerned that unless there is greater engagement, nothing is really going to change, and it’s like death by a thousand cuts in our state. It’s not as visible as in red states, where they’ve had these huge cuts that impacted everyone, and everyone came around to the same conclusion that they had to fight for just their basic rights. Whereas here, it’s very nuanced. So it’s a slow death, I would say, at the rate that we’re going.

How has teaching prepared you for the campaign trail? Have you taken any campaign lessons into the classroom?

I have to say, being part of a school community that’s very collaborative and also being able to foster discussion practices with my students and teaching them how to have debates, be able to present their ideas —  in those very concrete ways, it’s prepared me for this. I feel like a lot of teachers could do this. It’s just the work of teaching takes up a lot of our time and energy and passion.

New York City’s elite specialized high schools enroll very few black and Hispanic students. Critics trace the segregation back to the Specialized High School Admissions Test, which currently serves as the sole admissions criteria. What do you think of  Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to scrap the exam?

I have very strong feelings that the SHSAT is a gatekeeper. The fact that we as a city can say there are elite schools for a few, and that everyone else is stuck with mediocre or less-than schools, is to me completely wrong. We should, as a city, be able to say that all of our schools provide the kind of education that we want our kids to have. If there is such a high demand for a specialized high school that has specific kinds of programming, then we need to find ways to provide more of them — even in each borough or each community if necessary. We’re creating a resource that seems to be very scarce, and in education, why are we doing that?