Schenectady County

Stunned Schenectady teacher presented national award

When Van Corlaer Elementary School teacher Heather O’Leary heard her name, she didn’t believe it.

When Van Corlaer Elementary School teacher Heather O’Leary heard her name, she didn’t believe it.

The entire school had been called to a special assembly Tuesday morning, without any explanation. When teachers saw that the state education commissioner was there, along with all of Schenectady’s state representatives and U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, they guessed that the meeting would celebrate New York winning federal funds for schools in the recent Race To The Top competition.

Instead, Milken Family Foundation Chairman Lowell Milken took the mic.

“I come here today with a secret,” he told the students.

The room hushed.

“We’ve known it for three weeks but we weren’t allowed to tell anybody. But I’m going to tell you,” he said. “I’m looking for somebody.”

Every child stared at him, fascinated.

“I’m going to give you hints.”

As he had the students define “excellence” (“like you got an ‘A,’ 100 percent”) and “leaders” (“they’re, like, in the front”), it became clear he was looking for a teacher worthy of his

foundation’s national educator award.

He wanted someone incredible, he told them. Someone as talented as Derek Jeter.

But who?

Students raised their hands, eager to guess. Not yet, Milken said. First they should know what the excellent teacher would get for winning the award.

He began lining up students and handing them 2-foot-tall numbers.

First, a two. Then, a five. Finally, a zero.

He called on a student to read the number — $250.

Then he added another zero. Even the teachers applauded when a student was able to correctly read $2,500.

And then he handed out a third zero. The teachers gasped.

Milken grinned.

“I think it’s time to find out who the teacher is,” he said.

O’Leary had her hands full at that moment, watching children who were beginning to fidget. She and her fellow teachers had whispered the names of faculty they thought would deserve the Milken Family Foundation’s award. But she hadn’t expected it to be her.

So when Milken read her name, she didn’t move.

“It felt like really my name hadn’t been called,” she said later.

She hesitated for just a moment, until the teachers near her leaped up and hugged her.

They had guessed it was her — several of them had gotten calls this summer from an unidentified awards panel seeking information about whether she was an “excellent teacher.”

O’Leary even knew that her principal had recommended her for something — but Michelle Van DerLinden had deliberately underemphasized the importance of the possible award.

The Milken Educator Award is given to about 60 teachers a year. In its 24-year history, it has never before been granted to anyone in New York state, although three others are slated to get it this year.

For all of them, it will be a surprise. The entire process is shrouded in secrecy. At Van Corlaer, only the principal knew O’Leary would be winning the award.

O’Leary was chosen because of her extraordinary success in teaching English to foreign-language speakers, according to the Milken foundation.

She has been teaching English as a second language for seven years after spending a decade teaching social studies at the high school.

Last year, she began teaching English to three students who had just moved here from Afghanistan. Two were disabled and the third child did not speak at all.

By the end of the year, the child who would not speak had begun to talk. And one of the disabled students had become the strongest reader in his second-grade class.

Milken met with the boy after giving O’Leary the award.

“Wow,” he said after their brief conversation. “I would never have known you didn’t speak English two years ago.”

Van Corlaer had the best English and math test scores in the district last year. It is also home to about 40 ESL students, who take turns squeezing into a former industrial closet to practice English.

There’s so little room that some of them study at tables in the hallway.

In groups of four or five, O’Leary’s advanced students meet for three hours a week. Intermediate students spend six hours with her, while beginners are paired with a one-on-one paraprofessional and work with O’Leary all day.

They don’t just practice reading. O’Leary has them working on science and math vocabulary, as well as practicing the skills they are learning in the classroom. She can reinforce those skills while communicating partly through gestures and props.

Even with her intermediate students, she gestures as she speaks. On Tuesday, students were to measure items they had collected on the playground. She picked up a ruler and pantomimed measuring objects as she said, “Get a ruler and measure something from your nature box: a pine cone, a leaf, a piece of wood.”

The small school allows her to work closely with classroom teachers, she said. When one ESL student was struggling with division, the teacher told O’Leary — and she re-taught the lesson during her ESL class.

That’s why Angelica Quinones, age 9, loves her.

“She teach us stuff, like multiplication” that Quinones didn’t understand in her regular class, she said.

She moved to Schenectady from Puerto Rico two years ago.

“I used to speak Spanish. Then she taught me English,” Quinones said. “She is nice to people. She helps people. And she brings us stuff! She takes us places!”

O’Leary relies heavily on hands-on experiences to communicate with the students and create enthusiasm for learning a new language.

She regularly takes them on field trips on her own time and at her own expense.

Then she puts together photo albums of each trip, complete with captions in English, to encourage them to read.

A trip on Saturday to a local farm had her students reading eagerly on Tuesday.

“They’ve been going all around the school reading that,” she said. “They have something to talk about, something to write about.”

The prize money will allow her to create even better experiences for the children, she said. She doesn’t plan to spend any of it on herself, although the $25,000 can be spent on anything the teacher desires.

“It just means we’ll be able to do some really special, innovative things here, something really creative,” she said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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