This Year's Big Apple Award Recipients

This year’s 17 recipients were selected from a record 7,100 nominations representing a diversity of grade levels, subject areas, and each of the five New York City boroughs. In addition to continuing their outstanding work in the classroom, these model educators will also serve as Big Apple Fellows during the 2019 – 2020 school year.


Melissa Aguirre

Melissa Aguirre

Middle School English Language Arts Teacher
J.H.S. 217 Robert A. Van Wyck  (28Q217)
Queens 

At a young age, Melissa Aguirre became the legal guardian to her 14-year-old cousin from the Dominican Republic, who lacked formal schooling and was could not read or write in Spanish. When finding a bilingual program for her proved challenging, Ms. Aguirre made the decision to become a bilingual ELA teacher herself. “Engaging students has meant holding them to high expectations with high levels of support,” Ms. Aguirre explains. She tells her students: “Every day we get up and work hard with integrity to get smarter like the scholars we are.”

These expectations are also exampled to students in her role as a Peer Collaborative Teacher, where she opens her classroom up for other teachers to learn and grow in their practice. “Exceptional teaching has required me to position myself as an ongoing learner among my students; someone they witness participating and leading intervisitations within our school to learn from colleagues,” Ms. Aguirre explains.


Jaime Cacciola-Price

Jamie Cacciola-Price

High School Theatre Teacher
Frank Sinatra School of the Arts High School (30Q501)
Queens

Jamie Cacciola-Price brings his positive attitude to school each day and aims to spread that joy to everyone he encounters. Mr. Cacciola-Price’s theatre class blends stage skills and techniques with empathy, public speaking, research, and writing. Students’ voices and opinions are honored equally, and Mr. Cacciola-Price takes every opportunity he can to take his students to plays and even on international trips. His play selections reflect diverse voices to mirror his students’ experiences.

 In 2011, Mr. Cacciola-Price made the career change from acting to teaching. “I wanted to be in a school, teaching the art-form that I love, focusing on engaging and fostering artistic growth in young people in the hope that they would embrace their unique voice and become confident in their identities,” Mr. Cacciola-Price explains. Student’s voices and opinions are honored equally in Mr. Cacciola-Price’s class where you will often find students leading the class discussions on current events, or the experiences of bullying and peer victimization; topics that directly relate to his students. “Selecting material that students can engage with is one of the most important aspects of my job,” he says.


Elizabeth Da La Garza

Elizabeth De La Garza

High School English as a Second Language Teacher
Pathways to Graduation-Jamaica Learning Center (79Q950)
Queens

Every day, Elizabeth De La Garza works to ensure the success of immigrant students in the District 79 Pathways to Graduation program. In addition to helping her students earn their High School Equivalency diplomas, she also puts them on track to meet their post-secondary goals through the College Now and Workforce Development Internship programs. Ms. De La Garza explains: “I want my students to see education as their ticket upward…seeing their peers as living examples is the best evidence there is.”

Ms. De La Garza’s students not only earn their High School Equivalency diploma while in her class, they are also find a safe space where they can take intellectual risks and learn from one another; at present Ms. De La Garza’s classroom is made up of students from twelve different countries, all working toward the same goals. Superintendent Robert Zweig describes Ms. De La Garza as a ‘dedicated teacher and fierce advocate for Multilingual Learners’.


Rita Fattorusso

Rita Fattorusso

Early Childhood Teacher
The 47 American Sign Language & English Lower School (02M347)
Manhattan

Rita Fattorusso teaches a Dual Language class that is comprised of Deaf Students, Children of Deaf Adults and developing hearing children. Ms. Fattorusso provides a dynamic educational environment to all her students and ensures they leave her classroom as confident learners who are able to express themselves, verbally or through sign language. As a former deaf student in the public school system, Ms. Fattorusso’s devotion to her students is personal. She says: “I vowed that when I became a teacher, I would provide a rich learning environment for my students.”

Outside of the classroom, Ms. Fattorusso has played a leadership role in the school community by establishing a community pantry that serves the entire school supporting families who need food, shoes, and even professional clothes for parents preparing for job interviews. “She has worked tirelessly to maintain the pantry and made sure that we get donations of food, etc. when we need them. She does all of this outside of teaching a group of four-year-olds who adore her,” says a parent. 


Nicole Feliciano

Nicole Feliciano

Middle School Social Studies Teacher
West Prep Academy (03M421)
Manhattan

Three years ago, Nicole Feliciano noticed some of her students were sitting in front of the classroom, and she suspected it had to do with their eyesight. So she secured funding to provide her students with free eye exams and a pair of glasses. Of the 30 students who were examined, 29 received glasses, which proved to be a game-changer for their learning and classwork. “She is our force through community outreach and social change, and our biggest cheerleader,” one parent explains.

A native-born Brooklynite, Ms. Feliciano teaches her students to “become historical scientists through rigorous lessons that support reading and writing,” she explains. In her classroom, students take ownership of their own work through self-assessments “catered to the understanding of historical writing and the importance and value of including accurate historical information throughout a writing piece to enhance an argument.” By challenging her middle school students to base their arguments in primary sources, Ms. Feliciano sets her students up for success and the rigorous academics of their future high school and college careers.


Yadira Hans

Yadira Hans

Elementary Education Teacher
P.S. 249 The Caton School (17K249)
Brooklyn

Yadira Hans knows that her work in the classroom has a direct impact on her community and City as a whole. 90 percent of the students in her fourth grade class are multilingual learners, and many are uncomfortable participating in class at the start of the school year. But, through her instruction and routine, students are able to build self-efficacy and gain confidence. Last year, while on maternity leave, Ms. Hans created YouTube videos to support students in preparing for their reading and writing exams.

In addition to teaching, Ms. Hans serves as a Model Teacher in her school, opening up her classroom as a ‘lab-site’ for her colleagues to see teaching practices in action. “I feel humbled and honored to be able to help teachers in my grade, teachers in my school, teachers in my district, teachers in my city, and even teachers from other states that have come to visit my class.” She says. 


Emilie Jones

Emilie Jones

Middle School English Language Arts Teacher
I.S. X303 Leadership & Community Service (09X303)
Bronx

Emilie Jones is the founder of I.S. 303’s first ever Gay Straight Alliance, which planned and facilitated a student panel discussion at the school’s most recent Women’s Summit in March 2019. “As a gay, southern woman who teaches in New York City, I place an importance on my classroom identities and how celebrating and understanding a range of identities is essential,” shared Ms. Jones. She also received a Disney Musical Grant for her school, which provides students the opportunity to participate in dramatic experiences and perform their plays on Broadway.

As a member of the school’s ELA leadership team since 2011, Ms. Jones researches literacy methods to engage her students and their continued academic gains. Her focus is to ensure her students make significant academic gains in 7th grade so that their high school applications the following year are as strong as possible. “The middle school students at The Leadership and Community Service Academy in the Bronx are brilliant young advocates learning about the world and how they can make it a better place,” shares Ms. Jones.


Paraskevi Langis

Paraskevi Langis

High School Biology and General Science Teacher
Gaynor McCown Expeditionary Learning School (31R064)
Staten Island

Paraskevi Langis is preparing her students to contribute their knowledge and learning to the world beyond the classroom. Through a field research project, Ms. Langis’s students created and implemented a tick protocol to prevent their classmates on the cross country team from contracting Lyme disease. Ms. Langis’s students also delved into the impact of the opioid epidemic on Staten Island through the study of cell biology. Her students hosted a town hall and presented their findings to the Staten Island Borough President and District Attorney.

By connecting her science classes to the broader world, Ms. Langis has created an engaging classroom environment her students do not want to miss. “The fact that students who are out sick, come to 7th and 8th period just so they don’t miss out on the double period AP biology class, or FaceTime us from home so they can still participate in our round table huddles, shows that they are invested.” She is excited that “the students find meaning in what they are learning.”


Alen Merced

Alen Merced

High School English As a Second Language Teacher
The College Academy (06M462)
Manhattan

As a Multilingual teacher, Alen Merced adapts new teaching methods to meet his students’ unique needs. “My teaching philosophy is based on the notion that educators must use strategies that help a student want to learn, above anything else,” he explains. He is also the Saturday and vacation academy teacher for ELA, and plays chess with his students during lunch. Additionally, Mr. Merced works as a Collaborative Coach to support and advise DOE’s Teaching Fellows.

Alen Merced uses his own experience growing up to drive the work he does with his students, and how he engages them in the learning process. “The social and emotional supports have always been a strength in my practice, because I know what it’s like to be a bilingual student.” Mr. Merced’s Principal speaks of his dedication, “He has expanded his professional contribution to our school community by calling teachers, parents, students, and school leaders together to develop personalized intervention plans for students. His actions demonstrate…that there is a community of people that are fully invested in each student’s success.”


Kimberly Middleton

Kimberly Middleton

High School Special Education Teacher
Millennium Brooklyn High School (15K684)
Brooklyn

Kimberly Middleton challenges her students to analyze both educational and societal issues, pushing them to think critically in the classroom and beyond. Ms. Middleton helped redesign the Living Environment curriculum to make it more student-centered and reflective of larger ethical considerations. She also started a step team at her students’ request, empowering them to express themselves through performance and celebrate their cultures. She explains, “I’m invested in them as students and people, and want to empower them to be successful on their own.”

A Brooklyn native, Ms. Middleton pushes her students to think critically in the classroom and beyond. “I see my school as a microcosm of the community I’ve been rooted in and continually shaped by…I am committed to changing the science curriculum I teach to explicitly reflect my students—particularly those whose diverse cultural experiences haven’t been valued in traditional curricula,” Ms. Middleton explains. One student reflects on Ms. Middleton, saying “she creates trust with all her students, with the families, and all the teachers.”


Lamar Ok

Lamar Ok

Elementary School Teacher
KIPP Infinity Charter School (84M336)
Manhattan

Lamar Ok’s positive energy can be felt in his third-grade classroom, where he sets high expectations, and ensures all students contribute to the conversation, are given positive feedback and work together to build a positive learning community. Principal Daisy Salazar reflects, “The relationships Mr. Ok has built with students stand the test of time, and students continue to spend mornings and afternoons with him after third grade. As an educator for over 12 years and leader for over four years, I've never come across a teacher like Lamar Ok.”

Mr. Ok builds lasting relationships with his students and their families. He tutors past students, writes recommendation letters, and visits former students with social emotional needs. Mr. Ok is the math content lead and leads a Social Justice book club that he created in order to initiate conversations that challenge his peers to consider the impact of their race and their actions on their students. “I became a NYC teacher because I believe all students, especially, black and brown students living in urban cities, deserve an education that will lead them to future joy, happiness, academic success and liberation,” he says. 


Amanda Palmieri

Amanda Palmieri

Elementary Special Education Teacher
P.S. X010 (75X010)
Bronx

Amanda Palmieri’s enthusiasm for teaching is infectious and can be felt the moment you walk into her classroom. She develops relationships with her students based on respect, bringing her genuine and most authentic self to the classroom every day. Her rigorous instruction, ongoing feedback, and emphasis on self-monitoring and personal accountability skills have resulted in impressive academic and social gains. Many of her students will move on to general educational settings next year.

To ensure that learning continues outside the classroom, Ms. Palmieri understands the importance of building and maintaining meaningful relationships with the families of her students. She strives to engage her student’s families in conversations that extend beyond their child’s behavior. “I have made it a personal goal to send home a lot of academic information; student progress, what to do at home, games they can play…so they can see their child shine.”


Karen Pierre-Charles Byrd

Karen Pierre-Charles Byrd

Elementary Education Teacher
P.S. 059 William Floyd (14K059)
Brooklyn

When you enter Karen Pierre-Charles Byrd’s classroom, you feel the genuine care that she gives to every learner. Her classroom motto states, “You never know what you can do until you try.” Ms. Pierre-Charles Byrd developed “Number Talks” and "Reciprocal Teaching in Math," school-wide initiatives designed to support students’ math fluency and efficiency. She says, “My rigorous classroom environment consistently demands students excel beyond what they can even think or imagine.”

Karen Pierre-Charles Byrd’s experiences growing up as a public school student in urban Miami was the fuel that motivated her to become a teacher. She wakes up every day anticipating the school day, knowing her students are waiting for her. “My determination to meet the demands for improvement both in the quality of education and in the performance of students led me to pursue graduate level work in New York City,” Ms. Pierre-Charles Byrd explains. She encourages her students to build on their skills through modeling, and by nurturing growth mindset so that all of them excel.


Douglas Rebecca

Douglas Rebecca

High School Adaptive Physical Education Teacher
P.S. K721 - Brooklyn Occupational Training Center (75K721)
Brooklyn

Every day Douglas Rebecca advocates for his students, creating lesson plans and opportunities that allow them to succeed independently. His colleague says: “Mr. Rebecca truly embodies the title of an APE teacher. He created access for students to sports. Mr. Rebecca will modify any activity to ensure that all students participate. Whether it is wheelchair hockey or adaptive swimming, Mr. Rebecca makes sure everyone has a chance.”

Mr. Rebecca has worked hard to bring a positive energy to his classroom where he creates learning experiences that meet students “’where they are’ by modifying activities to meet all of my students' unique needs in the areas of physical fitness, motor skill development, and sport and leisure activity participation. I am aware that I am trying to encourage my students to become physically active for life, so it's crucial celebrate even the (seemingly) smallest achievements,” he explains.


David Roush

David Roush

High School Media Communications Teacher
Harry S. Truman High School (11X455)
Bronx

“I didn’t choose teaching; teaching chose me,” says David Roush. Mr. Roush makes the classroom feel like a real television production studio, holding five-minute ‘staff meetings,’ and then releasing students to complete their work. He seeks out opportunities for his students, like coordinating a Saturday morning internship program with CBS News. Classmates hold each other accountable for their successes through a positive and safe environment that supports and accelerates learning. One student says: “He helps all his students equally and shows us no matter where you come from we are all like a family.”

Mr. Roush has the ability to promote equity and a family-like feel in his classroom “When a student has trust and rapport with their teacher AND classmates, they are willing to take academic and social risks that they might not take otherwise.” He says. “I simply choose to believe in my students more than they believe in themselves. I help them uncover their innate talents that they’ve always had, but just didn’t know.”


Danielle Tutelian

Danielle Tutelian

High School Mathematics Teacher
Bronx High School of Business (09X412)
Bronx

Danielle Tutelian became a teacher because she wanted to instill the same passion she has for learning onto others. Students are held to high expectations, and are given opportunities to take on leadership roles within the classroom. Through the Teacher Assistant Scholar Program, Ms. Tutelian is training the next generation of math teachers by empowering students to become teacher assistants. Ms. Tutelian devotes a period every morning to meet with students and support them in planning effective student-led lessons.

Ms. Tutelian has created a culture and environment in her classroom that allows students to escape their everyday struggles, and feel at home with one another while learning. “My goal is that my students graduate and go to college,” she says, and many of them will be the first in their families to do so. “I believe in them, and I help them believe in themselves. These students have taught me to not give up,” she says. 


JoAnn Westhall

Jo Ann Westhall

Elementary Computer Science & Technology Teacher
P.S. 031 The Bayside School (26Q031)
Queens

Jo Ann Westhall says, “The passion to make a difference, a real lasting impact on the lives of children and families in the community drove me to become an educator.” In 2014, there was no computer science curriculum at Ms. Westhall’s school. This year, the school hosted their third Citywide Showcase for computer science, and Ms. Westhall is at the center of this change. She has developed the “Code Ambassadors” program, through which her fourth and fifth-grade students lead computer science centers called “Code Café” in lower-grade classrooms.  

Jo Ann Westhall began teaching after a decade long career in network television; finding her true purpose in the classroom. Ms. Westhall utilizes technology tools in her classroom to provide multiple learning paths for different learning styles, and she models for her students how to work through problems, it’s a place where collaboration, problem solving, and innovation take place.

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