school for love

School sweethearts: Stories of true love between teachers, drawn from America’s classrooms

Photo Illustration by Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

It shouldn’t have been surprising that Abbas Manjee and Melissa Giroux sometimes delivered coffee to each other’s classrooms. Teachers at their school did that all the time.

But their students always called attention to the gesture by suggesting that the two were in love. “The kids would erupt in ‘oooooooooooooooohs,'” Manjee recalls. “Maybe they knew before we did.”

Five years later, Manjee and Giroux are married — making them one of countless couples that came together while working together in schools. Nearly 20 percent of married Americans who work in education have spouses who do, too.

This Valentine’s Day, Chalkbeat is looking at some of the love stories that launch in teachers’ lounges, professional development sessions, and after-school happy hours every year.

Meet the happy couples below. We’ll be adding more stories every day next week. Want to see yours included? Let us know.

Kassandra and Cornelius Minor

The setting: Kassandra and Cornelius met in the bagel line on their first day at the Brooklyn School of Global Studies in 2006. Each had come to teaching through the NYC Teaching Fellows program; Cornelius had previously taught in the Bronx and Kass had moved from Chicago just weeks before.

The mood: Kassandra was immediately taken with Cornelius’s dreadlocks. Their first conversation came a few days later when Cornelius helped Kass find her way to the subway. Soon, they started dating. Cornelius proposed to Kass onstage at a concert by hip-hop artist John Forte. When students found out, they made a congratulatory movie. “To this day it is the most touching thing a kid has ever done for me outside of our family,” Kass says.

A story: Cornelius taught seventh grade and Kass had many of his students two years later in ninth grade — a time that many middle school teachers fear. “To send them forward to someone that I love and that I know is going to love them as much as I did, that’s really powerful,” Cornelius says. “It made it where we could care about anything together, accomplish anything together.”

The update: The pair married in 2010 and added daughters to their family in 2012 and 2014. They also left Global Studies, which went through a turbulent period and eventually closed. Both now work at Teachers College — with an hour’s commute from their Park Slope home. “It’s kind of our only alone time. … We try to steal lunch together whenever we can,” Cornelius says. Kassandra adds, “We call it a date sometimes.”

Ybelka Medina and Geoffrey Schmidt

The setting: Geoffrey was “emotionally exhausted” after working at an alternative school in a secure juvenile facility for five years. A friend invited him to visit Innovation Diploma Plus High School, an alternative school in the Bronx. The first classroom he walked into was Ybi’s; she was in her first year teaching social studies.

“Here’s this powerful and passionate young woman who’s speaking to young men — some of them, due to severe lapses and delays in their education are only a couple years younger than her — and she’s this social justice warrior for them even if they didn’t know it,” Geoffrey recalls. “She was holding them accountable, challenging them with a really significant assignment, and letting the frustrations of fighting a broken system just kind of roll off her shoulders so she could teach. I decided that day, for other good reasons, I wanted that job; but I also decided I really wanted to know this person.”

The mood: The pair initially feared that more would divide them than bring them together.

Ybi: “I am a Dominican immigrant that grew up in a blue-collar family that depended on social welfare to make ends meet in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Geoff is American, comes from a solid white-collar family … and initially came off as a total frat boy more interested in socializing then actually teaching. I really liked hanging out with him … but didn’t take him seriously as a teacher nor as someone to date. But then as we spent more time outside of school we started really delving into the reasons we each became teachers and how that drove our instruction.”

Geoffrey: “Eventually Ybi realized that even though our experiences leading up to being educators of change may have been different our genuineness and commitment was the same.”

A story: The best man, officiant, and a speaker at their 2012 wedding all worked at Innovation Diploma Plus with them. “They are guys I would walk through fire with for the rest of my life, because they walked with grace through fire every day I knew them,” Geoffrey says.

The update: The pair moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, in 2014, where Geoffrey is the director of school culture at an alternative school designed to give students who have struggled elsewhere a rich college preparatory curriculum and lots of support. Ybi teaches English as a second language at a charter school that is trying to turn around a long-struggling school. Their son, born last fall, attends day care with the children of some of Geoffrey’s students.

Abbas Manjee and Melissa Giroux

The setting: They met in 2012 as founding teachers at ROADS II, a charter transfer high school in the Bronx. Melissa taught English and Abbas taught math. Each had worked at district-run schools previously, Melissa at a traditional high school with a high dropout rate and Abbas at a transfer high school.

The mood: ROADS was a high-stress environment, with teachers all working long hours and wearing many hats. They also worked very closely with the same group of students, so it was inevitable that they got to know each other well.

Melissa: “I admired Abbas’s ability to build relationships with kids through humor and tough love. Even though I was totally annoyed by his need to make sarcastic comments in every meeting, I respected his point of view. And then one day we went to happy hour alone when the rest of the staff backed out …”

Abbas: “The first thing I noticed about Melissa was her teaching style — it was student-centric and she was able to encourage students to produce fantastic writing. During meetings I would sometimes use sarcasm and I noticed she would not only laugh, but one up me. The rest is history.”

A story: It was common for teachers at ROADS to bring each other coffee from the nearby Dunkin Donuts.

Abbas: “Every time I brought Melissa a coffee during class, the kids would erupt in ‘oooooooooooooooohs.’ Maybe they knew before we did. … One student, Kelvin, would call Melissa ‘mom’ and me ‘dad’ long before we were together.”

Melissa: “My favorite thing about teaching at the same school as Abbas is the shared former-student family we have. A couple of weeks ago we went out to dinner with four former ROADS kids, including Kelvin.”

The update: Melissa works with a nonprofit that places mentors in middle schools and is getting a master’s degree in urban policy and leadership at Hunter College. Abbas joined an ed tech startup called Kiddom as its chief academic officer. Together, they’re about to set out on a trip to the Netherlands and Belgium — the eighth and ninth countries they’ll have visited together. (Vietnam, in April, will be number 10.) They married at City Hall in 2015 and have a cat named Chairman Meow.

Brittany and Grant Monda

The setting: Brittany and Grant each joined Teach For America in 2010 and were placed in Memphis. Their paths crossed in their second year when they each taught the same subject at different schools and also enrolled in a master’s degree program at Christian Brothers University. “That’s when the sparks really flew!” Brittany says.

The mood: Brittany had a reputation for having strong resources and materials for her students. Grant asked for them — and her phone number.

A story: Grant started a soccer program at his school. Brittany brought the team — which went winless its first season — the customary soccer snack of cut oranges.

The update: The pair married in 2015. Each is still working in Memphis schools, Grant as head of school at Aurora Collegiate Academy Elementary and Brittany as the executive director at Memphis College Prep Elementary.

Gabbie Frey and Grant Thomas

The setting: They met in 2011 at New Orleans’ Akili Academy. Grant was a fourth-grade teacher in his first year at the school but his third year teaching, and Gabby was a kindergarten teacher in her first year of Teach For America.

The mood: Grant noticed Gabbie’s vibrance on the first day of school, but their only substantive conversation the first year they worked together was about the Coachella festival. Then came Hurricane Isaac the following fall, when school was closed for a week. Gabbie’s building had power and air conditioning; Grant’s did not, and he headed over.

The two started dating but didn’t tell others at school right away. “There was some secrecy involved,” Grant says. “It made going to work even more of something to look forward to.”

A story: Gabbie used to take students to Grant’s classroom to expose them to the behavior of more mature students. “She had a kindergartener who figured out before any of my fourth graders did,” Grant recalls. “She was a savvy or intuitive kid and figured out that Ms. Frey made a lot of trips to Mr. Thomas’s classroom.”

The update: Both left the school in 2013. Gabbie moved to New York City and started working at Harlem Village Academy, a charter school. Grant moved to Nashville to get a master’s degree at Vanderbilt University. In 2015, he took a job at a college readiness nonprofit and joined her in New York. They now live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with their dog Maya.

school for love

A three-year secret relationship, three TFA marriages, and other love stories from school

(Photo illustration by Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat)

This Valentine’s Day, Chalkbeat is looking at some of the love stories that launch in teachers’ lounges, professional development sessions, and after-school happy hours every year. Catch up on the first set of stories here and submit your own.

Sally Jenkins-Stevens and Alex MacIver

The setting: Sally and Alex met in 2007 when she joined Bronx Lab School, where Alex had been teaching for two years. Sally was a math special education teacher who had previously done Teach For America in St. Louis, and Alex, who had started as a NYC Teaching Fellow, also taught math. They were assigned as collaborative team teachers, meaning that they planned and taught a ninth-grade algebra and physics class together.

The mood: As co-teachers, the pair spent a ton of time together even before the school year began. They started dating after only a couple of weeks — but decided to keep their relationship a secret from colleagues and students. That secret lasted for three years, until Sally left the school.

Alex: “We were really conscious/aware of/concerned about how people might interpret our professional words and actions differently if there was this added layer of our relationship. For better or worse we chose to eliminate that story line.”

Sally: “We were so diligent about keeping the secret, we would get off at different subway stops to go to work so co-workers wouldn’t see us come in together. Sunday nights we would talk about who got to tell which story from the weekend so that our stories never overlapped. We even staggered taking in leftovers for lunch so nobody was left wondering why we each had the exact same left over lasagna for lunch. … Maybe we took it a little overboard.”

A story: One day early in their relationship and school year, the pair had finished the first part of a lesson and were deciding what to do next. “Should we break up?” Sally asked Alex. She meant, “Should we split the class up into groups and each take some?” But that’s not what Alex heard. After an uncomfortable moment of confusion, they divided the class — and stayed together.

The update: The pair left New York in 2011 for high schools in San Francisco and married in 2013. Sally now works for a nonprofit that supports community schools development and Alex works with a nonprofit education consulting group. “Both of those careers have taken a copilot seat with the job of trying to raise two amazing/challenging/beautiful/exhausting twins who are coming up on their second birthday in June,” Sally says.

Elisa Villanueva Beard and Jeremy Beard

The setting: The pair met in 2000 at Teach For America’s summer training institute in Houston. Elisa was a Teach For America alumna from the 1998 Phoenix corps, and he was an alumnus from the 1995 Los Angeles corps. Each was working with TFA and helping to train new teachers over the summer.

“Another friend of mine who was working as a corps member advisor that summer also met his future partner at that institute,” Elisa recalls. “There must have been something in the air.”

The mood: A few days before new teachers arrived, Jeremy and Elisa were assigned to put together binders for them. Jeremy tried to finish the work faster than Elisa. “I remember thinking, ‘This guy is really competitive,'” Elisa recalls. “That was the first sign of compatibility between two former athletes.” The pair nurtured their mutual crush all summer, then became a couple after spending time together one on one at the end-of-summer staff party.

A story: Elisa was working in her home community, the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, as an executive director for Teach For America when Jeremy moved to the region, eventually building out the first IDEA Public High School in Donna, Texas — an International Baccalaureate school — as its principal. “To date, Jeremy has had almost 20 of his students join Teach For America, which provides both of us with incredible full-circle moments,” Elisa says. “There’s nothing like watching our very own students leading this effort we have dedicated our lives to.”

The update: Both still work in education — and Elisa is still at Teach For America, now as the CEO. Jeremy is the head of schools at YES College Prep, a charter school network, after working as a principal, administrator in the Houston school district, and a leader of a school turnaround nonprofit. They married in 2004 and have four sons.

“They are brilliant, curious, hilarious, demanding, and loving. Our children know that Jeremy and I have a deep commitment to ensuring all children have a great school to attend, and that the current state of lack of access and opportunity to the most marginalized children in our nation is not fair or acceptable,” Elisa says. “And if you ask them why Mommy has to travel three days a week, they will share, ‘Mommy wants to make sure all kids have a great school to go to.'”

Stephanie and Jules Lippman

The setting: It was 1977 at P.S. 111 in the Bronx. Stephanie had been laid off from the New York City schools in 1975 amid sweeping budget cuts, and she had just been rehired as a sixth-grade teacher. Jules had been “excessed” to the school after his position at another school was cut. He was teaching third grade.

The mood: The city teachers union played a key role in their relationship. Jules was the union leader for P.S. 111, and he recruited Stephanie to join a committee of teachers advising him.

A story: After marrying, the pair worked in side-by-side classrooms for 27 years, mostly at a Bronx middle school where they taught the same students. “We arrived at the school each morning where we were constantly greeted by, ‘Don’t you two ever fight? We want to see a real good one,’” Stephanie recalls. “They could not get over the fact that our professional relationship is totally different from our marriage,”

The update: Both retired from teaching, but Stephanie now works as a coach for the city Department of Education. They have five grandchildren. “We do everything together and are very comfortable with that,” Stephanie says. “After all, we spent all our days together at work.”

Grace Loew and Kent Hansan

The setting: Kent and Grace first saw each other at Teach For America’s summer training institute in 2005, but they didn’t get to know each other until after the school year started. Then, Grace invited a friend from the summer training to her birthday party — and he brought his roommate, Kent. It turned out that they lived in the building next to Grace’s in New York.

The mood: Grace wasn’t looking for a boyfriend: She wanted to focus on teaching. “Eventually, he won me over and convinced me we could date and I could still dedicate my life to teaching,” Grace says. They began dating around Thanksgiving 2006, more than a year after meeting.

A story: As an elementary school teacher, Grace spends time every summer setting up her classroom. As a high school teacher, Kent doesn’t have that responsibility — and can help his wife. “One year he spent an entire day sawing out a slanted shelf from a built-in cabinet so I could use it for my library,” Grace recalls. “Turns out the shelf was not only firmly held in place by grooves, but it was also nailed in on all four sides. He had to do it again when I changed rooms.”

The update: The pair married in 2011, and both are still in the classroom now. Grace teaches first grade at a progressive public school in Brooklyn, and Kent teaches math at KIPP NYC College Prep High School in the South Bronx. Together, they’re raising two wonderful little boys and beginning to navigate the city school system as parents. “Because we are both educators, we know the value of structure and routine for all children, including our own,” Grace says. “We are definitely on the same parenting page.”

Andrew Hoskins and Anne Ryckebusch

The setting: Anne and Andy met at Half Moon Bay High School, in Marin County north of San Francisco, in the fall of 2003. Anne had been working in local schools, which her daughters attended, since the 1990s. Andy was a new hire after getting a job offer by phone because he could teach both history and algebra.

The mood: The two began spending more time together after they found themselves simultaneously single in 2005. Andy escalated the relationship by visiting Anne’s classroom to ask her to be his valentine in 2006. Their first date was a hike on which Anne unnerved Andy by foraging him wild plants.

A story: Students find Andy and Anne’s husband-and-wife teacher relationship amusing and cute, Andy reports. “We get along great in and out of school, although I cringe in the lunch room sometimes when she scolds me for eating unhealthy food now and then in front of the other teachers, who just crack up,” he says.

The update: The pair married in 2012, giving Andy “two awesome step-daughters” and, later, a grandchild. Both still teach at Half Moon Bay High School.

Carrie and Kevin McCormack

The setting: Carrie was in her second year at East Bronx Academy and her 13th year teaching in 2008 when Kevin McCormack, a newly minted music teacher, joined the staff. At their first staff meeting, their principal asked everyone talk to someone new, and they wound up together.

The mood: Kevin started asking Carrie out in the fall of 2009. “He was very persistent,” she recalls — but she assumed their 14-year age gap would be a problem. She finally agreed to meet him for a drink in October; by April they had effectively moved in together.

A story: Carrie was teaching in the library, and Kevin started visiting more often. Finally, a student asked whether they were dating. When they learned the answer, they were initially distressed. “The boys were more appalled because [Kevin] was so short,” Carrie says. “Age never fazed them because all teachers are old.”

Joking aside, Carrie said students have taken to citing her and Kevin in their “#goals.” “It’s really good for them to see a healthy relationship,” she says. “So many of them don’t see a genuinely good one.”

The update: Carrie is still at East Bronx Academy, where she has added college and career advising to her resume. Frustrated that he could not build a more robust music program, Kevin left the school last fall for a career in computer programming.

“The day I went back to school and he wasn’t there, it was weird,” Carrie says. “I came home and it was like, ‘How was your day? I think that’s what we we’re supposed to do.’”

Wendy Kopp and Richard Barth

The setting: In the summer of 1989, a couple of months after Richard had graduated from college, his mother read an article about what Wendy was doing with Teach For America, then in its infancy. “She suggested I see if I could help,” he recalls.

The mood: The pair didn’t become a couple until after working together for five years. “It was love at first sight,” Richard says. “We just didn’t realize it. But after five years of working together, it dawned on both of us at the same time.”

A story: Wendy almost didn’t hire Richard. In fact, when he called back to see how his interview went, she barely remembered him and told the person who answered the phone that she would not be moving forward with hiring him. The message didn’t get relayed. Soon after, in a desperate hiring bind, the organization asked him to start working with three days’ notice.

The update: After growing Teach For America, Wendy left in 2013 to focus on Teach For All, a global network of teacher recruitment and training organizations like Teach For America. Richard is CEO of the KIPP network of charter schools. They’re raising four children together, and they still bond over their shared career choices. Says Richard: “What’s more fun than going out on a Saturday night and talking shop?”

getting in

Detroit district moves beyond test scores for admittance to elite high schools like Cass Tech and Renaissance

The Detroit school district is changing its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Detroit’s main school district is changing the way it decides which students gain entry to the city’s elite high schools.

Students applying to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective high schools will no longer be judged primarily on the results of a single exam.

Instead, an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office, will use a score card that gives students points in various categories.

Students can get up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school placement exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district will also get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

That is a change over past years when  students with the highest test scores largely got automatic admissions to their top-choice schools. Other factors like grades, essays, student interviews, and letters of recommendations were typically only considered during an appeals process for students who didn’t make the first-round cut.

“You can imagine that there was a great deal of subjectivity to that, and if you’re a student who might not be a good test taker, you were at a disadvantage,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who, as a dyslexic, said he was not a strong test-taker in school.

“I can empathize with that gifted student whose intelligence is not always identified by a standardized test,” he said.

Vitti said he hopes the new process “will have more of a quality control … It’s a consistent process to ensure that we’re being equitable and fair when students are being enrolled in these schools.”

The district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admission decisions mirrors a trend across the country where college admissions offices are increasingly moving beyond SAT and ACT scores to give more weight to grades and other factors in admissions decisions.

Cities like New York and Boston are reviewing their use of test-based admissions for their elite high schools in the face of an onslaught of criticism that the tests discriminate against students of color and students who come from poor families and reinforce already prevalent segregation in the districts.

“Tests tend to favor kids who come from backgrounds and whose families have the wherewithal to focus on test prep,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of schools’ reliance on test scores to make crucial decisions.

In addition to changing the admission criteria for Detroit’s selective high schools, the district is also for the first time requiring all district 8th-graders to take the exam. In the past, only students who applied to the top schools took those tests.

“Not every school emphasized the exam application process, so it would be dependent on an individual parent’s ability to navigate the system,” Vitti said.

Only about half of the district’s 8th graders took the exam last year. Data provided by the district show that several schools had just a handful of students take the test while others had dozens of test-takers. (See the full list of test-takers from district schools here.)

Vitti hopes that requiring 8th graders to take the test and encouraging more of them to write essays and gather letters of recommendation to apply will help prepare them to apply to college four years later.

“We’re creating a culture of college readiness,” he said.

The district is also using the exam to survey students about their career ambitions and plans to make high school programming decisions based on their answers, Vitti said, adding that high schools will also use the exam results to determine which students could benefit from advanced classes and which ones need more help.

Some parents and educators say they welcome efforts to make the application process more equitable.

Hope Gibson, the dean of students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on the city’s west side, said students were excited when the school encouraged them to apply to the selective schools.

“They feel like we believe in them,” she said.

The changes, however, have put some families on edge as they worry about how the new approach will affect students’ chances at landing a spot in their first-choice school.

Aliya Moore, a parent leader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a K-8 school that typically sends roughly half of its graduates to Cass and Renaissance, said parents had trouble getting information about the process and have been frustrated with Vitti and the school officials he brought to Detroit with him from his last job running schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I don’t like these new people coming here and criticizing our old ways,” said Moore, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1998 and has a daughter enrolled there now. “The district is now full of changes. Some are good, but some are like, if something is not broken, why are you trying to fix it? We support Dr. Vitti. We have nothing negative to say. But when you come in and you just totally dismantle what was, even if it was working, we don’t understand that.”

Among Moore’s concerns is the district’s use of  a new test this year, which makes it more difficult for the school to help students prepare. Also, this year’s test is being administered online while prior tests were on paper.

Vitti said the district is using a new test this year because last year’s exam wasn’t an option.

“The license expired years ago and the district was illegally using it,” he said.

The new test will be online, he said, though students with disabilities and other students whose parents request it will be allowed to take the test on paper.

The Detroit district now has four examination schools including Cass, Renaissance and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. The district this year converted Southeastern High School into an exam school after Southeastern returned to the district from five years in the Education Achievement Authority, a now-dissolved state-run recovery district.