Northwest PA Collegiate Academy

Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy is a magical place.  My colleagues and I were welcomed there after school on Thursday March 13 so that we might audition students from across Western PA for the PMEA Region Orchestra.  As we entered classrooms across Collegiate Academy, we were all taken aback.  Even though the teachers and the students had left for the day, every classroom was alive. 

My audition room was a Chemistry classroom.  As the teacher was leaving for the day, I joked about allowing a group of right-brained musicians into such a well cared for classroom.  He laughed and said that he had been a member of the marching band, so it was okay. I pointed to a “Coach” sticker on his podium and asked what sport he was involved with. He laughed again. He was the coach for the Science Olympiad team.  That week, they had won the regional competition and were heading to States.  Good things were clearly happening at Collegiate Academy.

I decided to ask the Associate Dean, Kenneth Nickson, Jr., if I might speak with some teachers over lunch to find out what they do to make this school so special.  Mr. Nickson was incredible.  He sent out an email to the faculty and over the course of the next 5 hours, I got the education of a lifetime. 

Collegiate Academy is situated in Erie PA.  It is an urban college-preparatory magnet school.  Approximately 500 students apply for 225 freshmen positions.  While most of the students hail from Erie proper, students outside of the city limits are able to apply and pay tuition to attend.  The students are highly motivated.  The teachers are highly motivated.  The administrators are highly motivated.  Good things are happening at Collegiate Academy.

As I headed to lunch, I became more and more nervous.  Would these faculty members think that I was a nuisance, usurping time from their lunches?  Did I really have anything to add to their conversations?  What questions should I be asking?   I didn’t need to worry.  Within minutes Pam Wiley had taken me under her wing. 

Ms. Wiley is a tour de force.  She is not only passionate about students’ wellbeing (in the broadest sense of that term) but is also an incredibly thoughtful educator, well versed in the demands and rewards of our profession.   Ms. Wiley quickly provided me with the framework of the public education system in Erie, the challenges and the amazing work that is done throughout the entire district.  She explained the complexities of a public school district that services an urban area rife with economic challenges.  She spoke about great teachers at other schools in the district and then gave me a quick narrative of Collegiate Academy’s history. What Ms. Wiley did not tell me was that she had been critical in the winning of a $1.2 federal grant that will fund fitness centers and training at all 4 of Erie’s high schools.  Instead, she shared stories from the annual sophomore lock-in, an overnight that she organizes but that involves almost every faculty member. Good things are happening at Collegiate Academy.

Freshman Michael Allen, 15, of Erie, performs sit-ups on the incline ab machine Jan. 7 in Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy's newly updated fitness center in Erie. New equipment has been funded by The Carol M. White Physical Education Program Grant, a federal grant for $1.2 million over 3 years. Central Career & Technical School, East High School and Strong Vincent High School will also receive fitness equipment through this grant. SARAH CROSBY/ERIE TIMES-NEWS

Freshman Michael Allen, 15, of Erie, performs sit-ups on the incline ab machine Jan. 7 in Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy's newly updated fitness center in Erie. New equipment has been funded by The Carol M. White Physical Education Program Grant, a federal grant for $1.2 million over 3 years. Central Career & Technical School, East High School and Strong Vincent High School will also receive fitness equipment through this grant. SARAH CROSBY/ERIE TIMES-NEWS

This was but the beginning of my education.  Over the next hour and a half as the students ate lunch and competed to see who knew the most numbers in pi (after all it was 3-14-15…pi day), I was continuously impressed and amazed by the depth, breadth and caring of the faculty members that I met.  Our conversations ranged from the new teacher evaluation system to the cost of Advanced Placement tests, from the difficulty of creating consistent foreign language experiences in elementary and middle schools to challenges in for the arts, from the stress of being a “school of overachievers” (an expression used by many throughout the day) to the enervation of having an administration that encouraged faculty to run with their ideas.  With every moment, I became more curious and more inspired. 

I should mention that Collegiate Academy does not operate on a bell system.  Also, none of their clocks work.  It is a weird thing.  Students seemingly sense the time and move to their next class.  While I wished that I had worn my watch, I eventually found that the whole lack of focus on bells and clocks was somewhat refreshing. Miraculously, the students all seemed to be where they were supposed to be.  They all were moving responsibly to their next learning opportunity.  The clocks, however, did provide for conversation throughout the rest of the day.

After a quick stop in Mr. Eric Mentges’ highly creative Latin class, I headed to see the student government in action.  The student government is run by a veteran teacher, Mr. Russell Taylor and consists of a Student Senate (nine elected members) and homeroom representatives.  Unlike our own government, the Collegiate Academy government operates by consensus.  To say that the art of debate and conversation is alive and well at Collegiate Academy, is an understatement.  Over the course of the 30 minutes that I was in the room, the student government organized a comprehensive clothing drive for children in the Erie elementary school system.  Since 2003, Erie has had an 800% increase in the population of refugees from Bhutan and Nepal.  As the students discussed the logistics of collecting and cleaning the clothing, I was struck by their attention to each other’s points of discussion, their efficiency in making those points and their overall passion about the task before them.  Good things are happening at Collegiate Academy.

After the meeting, Mr. Taylor took me on a tour of the Student Art Gallery and Emporium.  As with so many things at Collegiate Academy, this room became a reality because someone made an off-handed comment about the artistic talents of the arts students deserving more recognition.  Voila…a room full of student art.  Although the SAGE is designed to showcase student art, some of the artwork (as well as snacks and water) is available for sale.  Where will the proceeds go?  To fund new atomic clocks for the school, of course.

The school day was over but I had one more stop to make.  I wanted to meet Mrs. Doreen Petri.  I had seen her from afar during lunch.  She was checking the recycling and composting bins in the lunchroom.  Mrs. Petri is a petite woman with more energy in her pinky than I have in my entire body.  If environmental science is primarily about understanding processes and systems, Mrs. Petri teaches by example.  Her approach to teaching is rooted in understanding and changing systems. Seven years ago, Mrs. Petri created an energy education program in her classroom.  The school district saved thousands of dollars simply by having students initiating change not only with their peers but, more importantly with the adults.  Since that time Mrs. Petri has helped to create and institute a sustainability movement within the school district.  Science curricula from elementary school through high school addresses issues from Erie’s “food deserts” (the schools are plating urban gardens) to recycling (as I witnessed at lunch.) Oh…and since none of the clocks were the correct time, she asked that they be unplugged to save energy.  Her vision is empowering.  Good things are happening at Collegiate Academy.

Because good things are happening at Collegiate Academy, good things are happening for Erie Public Schools.  Every single faculty member at Collegiate Academy spoke about Erie as an entire community, not simply their school.  The commitment to the wellbeing of the city, the refugees, and the other schools in the district was palpable. 

Good things are happening but it is not always easy.  My day began with a teacher saying “you can sum us all up in one word…students, staff, teachers…overachievers.” 

Good things are happening because the faculty is working at warp speed to prepare students from a wide variety of backgrounds to face the challenges of the future.  They are happening because the administration values the faculty’s talents and ideas.  Good things are happening because the students are invested in their learning and proud of their school. 

However, good things can be difficult.  Collegiate Academy has committed, passionate teachers who are balancing the needs of their classrooms, curricula and students with local, state and national initiatives…and paperwork.   Throughout my day two concerns were voiced consistently. These teachers were concerned about equal funding in education and they were concerned that they would not be able to sustain creative teaching in their own classrooms.  Creativity drives Collegiate Academy.  For the sake of the vision of the teachers, the administrators and the students, let's hope that it remains central to the Collegiate Academy experience.  Inspiring things are happening at Collegiate Academy.

And most recently....


Finding my voice

When I was named PA Teacher of the Year for 2015, my first thought was “what about my kids?”  In some States, the Teacher of the Year takes a sabbatical from the classroom.  Fortunately, in Pennsylvania, this is not the case. I absolutely love my time with my students.  I rely on their honesty, their energy and their humor to keep me grounded.  Having said that, my orchestra program is fairly ambitious in scope and I wasn’t sure that I would be able to balance the two worlds.

I also wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted my voice to be throughout the course of this year.  I know what my passions are.  I am passionate about kids.  I am passionate about music.  I am passionate about public education and equal educational opportunities for all students.  I just didn’t know how I wanted to translate these passions into my experiences over the course of this year.  I also wasn’t sure if I had anything to bring to the table.

I am now fairly certain of the path that I would like to follow.  From the time that I was named, I knew that I was not the PA Teacher of the Year.   That is crazy.  There are so many talented, dedicated and phenomenal teachers in this Commonwealth who work tirelessly day after day to make a difference in students’ lives.  I am simply a representative of all of those teachers.

I would like to put faces and stories to the daily lives of teachers so that the public may have more of an understanding of school is form a teacher’s perspective.  I want to travel to schools across PA and hear from teachers about their experiences and I want to give a common voice to these diverse experiences.  I want to write, speak and blog about them.   I want to champion the great teaching EVERY DAY in this Commonwealth.   These teachers face increasing pressure from societal issues that impact their classroom every day to a myriad of new educational initiatives and the ever-present challenge of testing.  Yet, they find creative ways to continue to provide stability for their students and infuse their classrooms with the joy…and work…of learning.

So, my blog is going to change.  I am hoping to share these stories and I am hoping to share more of my daily existence as I balance being a teacher and being PA ToY.  Stay tuned for my reflections on meeting the faculty at Collegiate Academy in Erie PA and send me good vibes as we perform Kiss Me Kate five times this upcoming week!

The kitchen table

Everyday at 6:30 pm, in my mind I still hear the low whistle sounding throughout the neighborhood of my youth.  It signals a time for me to head home, wash my hands and join my family for our evening meal.  These daily occurrences developed my learning, shaped my thinking, and formed a basis for my teaching.  My parents, two history professors, treated dinnertime as an intellectual sandbox.  Everyone brought his own toys to share, from personal activities to world affairs.  We sifted through these, analyzing motives and imagining possible solutions.  Once everything was on the table, we started building our castles.  Some were small and required little skill in construction but some were far-reaching and involved creative problem solving.  Many of our castles we would tear down and rebuild throughout the course of the meal.  The experience of the kitchen table is my dream for my students.

For teachers across the Commonwealth, our classrooms are an extension of this table. Many of our students do not experience this in their homes.  Their parents are too busy to schedule a regular mealtime or they do not have the means to put food on the table.  As teachers we try to bridge this gap.  We provide a listening ear, an afternoon snack and school supplies.  We tend to our students’ basic needs so that we may access their minds, and more importantly, their imaginations.  Sometimes we are unaware of the kitchen table experience that we are offering to our students.  We simply know that all of our students need a safe environment where they are able to breathe, to ask questions, and to build castles.

This ability to create a magical environment for children who face adult realities at far too young of an age is at the very heart of public education…and public education is at the heart of our ability as a nation to succeed.  We need every mind to be actively engaged and creating in order to compete in a global economy. America has always been a nation of inventors. Inventors are born in wealth and poverty, in cities and rural areas, and to families of all ethnicities and belief systems.  These inventors walk the halls of public education every day. In our schools their futures are shaped.  As teachers, we help them to sharpen their analytical skills and to expand their knowledge base.  We foster their hearts and minds to dream and in these dreams, they begin to shape not only their future but also the future of our entire nation.

In a time when conversations about education are frequently negative, it is even more important that we hold on to this ideal.  My favorite part of the day is when the bell rings and the last student enters my classroom closing the door behind him.  In that moment the outside world with all of its noisy demands and conversations is put on hold and the castle building has an opportunity to take life.  For the rest of the period, my classroom becomes a shared sanctuary for my students and me.  All across the Commonwealth, teachers close their doors and invite their students to the kitchen table.  It gives me great hope for the future

Commonwealth of Education

Having grown up in a regular old State, I love that I live in and now represent a Commonwealth.  This designation, “a society where people ought to work together for the general good,” reflects the idealism and strong sense of community that permeates all of Pennsylvania.  This bodes particularly well for those of us who are deeply committed to the education of every child in this Commonwealth.   Built into the idea of the Commonwealth is the understanding that we are all responsible for the welfare of our neighbors…and their children.

As I approach this year, one of my goals is to raise awareness and understanding of education across the entire Commonwealth.  I am hoping that with more understanding, we can engage in productive discussion and find creative solutions for the problems that face our children.  Any teacher will tell you that differentiation is at the heart of all that they do.  There is no “one size fits all” solution.  Our stories are all different, our needs are different and our talents are different.  I hope to be able to showcase some solutions that are working.  I also hope to be able to educate myself (and others) about the wide variety of educational settings and needs in Pennsylvania.

Everyone has sat in a classroom.  Everyone has had a good teacher and everyone has had a bad teacher.  But we have not all sat in every classroom in this Commonwealth.  We do not know all of the dynamics that enter each other’s classrooms everyday.  So, we need to learn.  We need to share.  We need to work together for the common good.  After all, that is why we choose to live in a Commonwealth.

My first official day...


My students are all very amused that it took becoming Pennsylvania's Teacher of the Year for 2015 to get me into the 21st century.  Nevertheless, here I am.  Ready to blog and tweet my way through 2 years of this adventure.

I was seriously shocked (I think that I still am) that I was named PA TOY 2015.  Over the past few weeks, I have thought a lot about what all of this means.  The truth is that I do not know.  However, I do know that the face of education in Pennsylvania cannot be well represented by a single person.  This Commonwealth is too large and education systems are too diverse for that to be the case.  Having said that the 13 finalists collectively do reflect teaching in Pennsylvania. 

The other 12 finalists are powerhouses...and I mean POWERHOUSES in education.  Their passion and energy is boundless.  Their ability to communicate content is remarkable.  Their connection to kids is  electric. (I know.  I watched them teach.)  And they are funny.  If I met a Genie with a magic bottle, I would ask to be able to bring their talents into my classroom.  They are that inspirational.

I am truly honored to be named the PA Teacher of the Year for 2015.  I am humbled that I was chosen to represent this noble profession.  I am excited to learn about education throughout Pennsylvania and am anxious to shine a light on the exceptional teaching and talents of the other finalists, as well as, all of the wonderful things that are occurring in classrooms across the Commonwealth.

Welcome to the PA TOY story (2015 edition.)