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Meet the Heroes: 11 Inspiring (and Unforgettable) Educators We Met in 2015

By Mitchell Trinka | December 16, 2015

This article is one in a series at The Seventy Four which profiles the heroes, victories, success stories and random acts of kindness to be found at schools all across America. Read more of our recent inspiring coverage at The74million.org/series/inspiring.
As the holidays draw close and we look ahead to 2016, all of us at The Seventy Four are still buzzing about the intrepid educators who inspired us this year. From schools both big and small, from bustling New York City to the quietest corners of Montana, we’ve seen time and again the impact that amazing educators are having on their classrooms — and how they are shaping the next generation of Americans one student at a time.
There was the U.S. Coast Guard pilot who traded in his wings for a chance to help underserved students in Newark, New Jersey. The superintendent in Florida who is both leading his school district, and serving as principal of one of its most ambitious schools. The principal of Haven Academy in the Bronx, where two-thirds of the student body is involved with the foster care system. The teachers in Montana who are succeeding — despite the dysfunction back in Washington, D.C. — in turning around one of the state’s most remote Native American schools.
And of course the army of educators who have accomplished the miraculous turnaround of schools in New Orleans in the decade since Hurricane Katrina. We spent a couple months in New Orleans this year, telling their story — be sure to check out our special report, and watch our exclusive short film:


These leaders were just the tip of the iceberg. For the reporters and editors here at The Seventy Four, 2015 was a year filled with heroes just like this. And as we approach New Year’s Eve, and again remember the familiar lyric “should old acquaintance be forgot,” we are inclined to say no. Old friends should not be forgotten — and the year’s most inspiring educational leaders should not fade away into the archives.

So here they are. Eleven school leaders we can’t stop cheering about. Eleven education victories worth sharing.
Ms. Wilson, a Massachusetts first-grade teacher: In Massachusetts, Sofia Wilson is elevating students’ academic progress, and being part of the ambitious campaign to turn around a failing school with increasingly dramatic results at Boston’s UP Academy. The first grade teacher is one of a handful of charter school educators giving a leg up to kids hailing from one of Boston’s toughest neighborhoods. UP Network founder Scott Given says: “15,000 students with K-8 who are in Massachusetts are attending a school that is chronically underperforming…we want to be an organization that does something big about that issue.” Read our full story about Sofia Wilson and UP Academy.
Mr. Carvalho, a Florida superintendent: Miami’s Alberto Carvalho has revolutionized his city’s schools, making Miami-Dade County Public Schools one of the best districts in the nation. The superintendent has used his leadership to grow the number of magnets, charters and “choice” schools in Miami-Dade exponentially. This allows more students to procure an independent, personalized learning plan, ranging in specialty from conservation biology to the performing arts to vocational training. As if that wasn’t enough, he also serves as a principal for one of the district’s top schools. Read our full story about Alberto Carvalho and Miami-Dade County Schools.
Ms. Nauiokas, a Bronx principal: New York’s Haven Academy has been a leader in the Bronx, where it’s having a huge impact in lifting up some of New York’s neediest students. Principal Jessica Nauiokas manages this remarkable charter school, where two-thirds of the student body is tied to the foster care system. With the support of her staff, Nauiokas’ aims to grow a positive student culture, in time helping students leave behind stigmatized parts of their lives. Read our full story about Jessica Nauiokas and Haven Academy.
Mr. Hernandez, a California principal: Severe drought in California hasn’t just impacted crops, it has endangered the future of many schools in the state’s Central Valley. As Baldomero Hernandez, principal and superintendent of the West Side Elementary School District, will tell you plainly, it has been a tough job holding the community together. As the drought has worsened, migrant farmer families have continued to flee their homes in search of jobs, but Hernandez is still at the head of the class, inspiring his staff to be earnest advocates for the community and its way of life. Read our full story about Baldomero Hernandez and California’s drought-stricken schools. Also watch our exclusive documentary:


Mr. Bonner, a New Jersey educator: While many professionals eye a career-changing jump to Teach For America, few have the dedication of U.S. Coast Guard pilot Chris Bonner. The veteran of more than 20 years hung up his wings to manage classrooms with extraordinary challenges, where some kids arrive far behind and teachers are expected to catch them up. For him, the pressure of a classroom wasn’t that different than stress as a pilot – it’s just another career dedicated to selflessly serving others. Read our full story about Chris Bonner and his New Jersey classrooms.

Ms. McKenney, a New Hampshire superintendent: In a bid to make her state’s standardized tests more meaningful, Valerie McKenney, superintendent of the Epping School District, oversaw one of four pilot programs in New Hampshire where students instead completed local competency-based exams – tests that tied more closely to their day-to-day classroom work. If successful, her program may have a major influence in holding New Hampshire schools accountable, measuring student progress, and grading teacher effectiveness. Read our full story about Valerie McKenney and New Hampshire’s competency-based testing.
Mr. Hirst, a Montana superintendent: One of the most inspiring school turnaround stories of the year came from Montana, where Greg Hirst inspires Heart Butte School students to break a cycle of poverty that has persisted for generations. Stretching his limited funding, the superintendent-slash-French teacher who runs the Blackfeet reservation school is enriching class offerings at a time when many schools are cutting course choices. Best of all, his growing curriculum is incorporating pride in tribal identity for students whose history has traditionally been marginalized. Read our full story about Greg Hirst and Heart Butte School.
Professor Ford, a Tennessee researcher: Gifted education has been slow to evolve in America, and many of the country’s gifted ed programs struggle to identify and adequately engage talented minority kids. As far as Donna Ford is concerned, the issue has already become a national crisis. The Vanderbilt University professor has extensively studied the gap between white students and their underrepresented peers of color, asking deep questions about the broader gifted student pipeline. It’s a personal fight for Ford, who is pushing to get her son placement in a gifted program that will help him excel. Read our full story about Professor Ford and the race to overhaul America’s gifted education.
Ms. Brown, a Boston executive director: Tough, tenacious and possessing a photographic memory, Linda Brown, founder and executive director of Building Excellent Schools, has become known as the “grandmother” of America’s best charter schools. Her secret sauce for building excellent schools involves admitting roughly a dozen fellows a year, all aspiring charter school leaders, who observe some of the nation’s top charters to help design new schools. To date, Brown has assisted launching 79 schools dating all the way back to 2003. Read our full profile of Linda Brown and Building Excellent Schools.
Ms. Quezada, a New York early education teacher: Sobella Quezada, a Teach For America educator, is one of a growing number of "second-generation" TFA members. Growing from a student taught by TFA teachers to a TFA member herself in New York City, Quezada says she now wants to pay forward the inspiration she received as a student. In addition to helping kids reach new learning and developmental milestones, she hopes her work in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood will broaden her students expectations for their possible futures, including college. Read our full profile of Sobella Quezada and Teach For America.
Mr. Martin, a Newark educator: “Progress” was a rampant theme in many of our stories throughout 2015, but nowhere was that progress more inspiring than in Newark, New Jersey, where Andrew Martin has helped KIPP redefine the Garden State’s educational advancement. Including reforms that expanded access to high-performing charter schools for the city’s most disadvantaged students, Martin has been a vocal proponent for education programs that can be the “great equalizer”. So far it’s working for Martin’s school, which sends more African-American students to college than any other Newark school. And in an exclusive essay for The Seventy Four, he laid out the data behind Newark’s great education success story. Read Andrew Martin’s essay about school choice in Newark.
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