Introducing the finalists for our 2017 Champions of Learning Awards

You can and should make reservations now to attend our annual Champions of Learning Awards celebration on Saturday, April 1. Meanwhile, we’ve been introducing the finalists, working our way through one category a week in alphabetical order over the past six weeks.  Now it’s time for the final drum roll! Champions of Learning logoThis week we close our series with this year’s Special Tribute, which goes to Bill Isler.

Mr. Isler retired last year after nearly 30 years as head of The Fred Rogers Co. and its predecessor, Family Communications. In addition to serving since 1987 as President and Chief Executive Officer of the iconic children’s programming company, he’s been a career-long educator and advocate for children.  Mr. Isler joined Family Communications in 1984 and was the first Executive Director of The Fred Rogers Center, where he still serves on the advisory committee.

He began his career as an educator, teaching fourth and sixth grades at Annunciation Elementary School on Pittsburgh’s North Side and later became a pre-K programming director in the Mon Valley. Mr. Isler went to the Pennsylvania Department of Education in 1976, serving in a range of leadership posts including Senior Program Advisor for Early Childhood Education, Commissioner of Basic Education and as Executive Assistant to the Secretary of Education.

In addition to his leadership role at The Fred Rogers Company, Mr. Isler was a 15-year member of the board of Pittsburgh Public Schools, and served as president for five years.   During his tenure there, he earned a reputation for bringing a voice of reason during a time of fractious debates over school closings and for building consensus.

Finalists for volunteerism are: Kathy Forte, a parent and volunteer at Belle Vernon Area Middle School in Belle Vernon Area School District; Dennis Webber, Board President of the Greenville Area School District; and Julie Berry, a Certified Public Accountant who volunteers at Greensburg Salem High School in Greensburg Salem School District.

Forte jumped into the fray to head up a fundraiser when Belle Vernon merged two schools to form its current middle school and was looking for ways to fund more activities.  Her nomination said she not only devoted countless hours of time and energy to make the event successful, she also enlisted local police and others to make the event a community affair.

Webber’s nomination called him a trusted and long-serving leader whose vision has helped bring facilities upgrades and innovations such as the College-in-High School program to Greenville while also taking responsible approach to managing the district’s finances.

Berry’s nomination came because she shares her professional expertise with students, not only with lectures on accounting, but also by providing internships and job-shadowing experiences. Her nomination called her “a wonderful resource in our learning community and an inspiration to students.

Finalists for our award in Leadership–Randy Miller, Curriculum Director for Laurel Highlands School District; John Boylan, Burrell School District’s high school Principal; and Michael Perella, Principal of Pittsburgh Concord K-5.

Miller’s nomination praised him as a “hard-working and thoughtful leader…who is able to demonstrate on a regular basis the ability to put into action the visions and missions” of his district.

Boylan earned distinction as a leader with “a mindset that values learning not only from successes but also from mistakes.” His nomination praised his dedication and characterized him a relentless advocate for students.

Among other factors, a marked turn around in staff perceptions of the working environment and culture at Pittsburgh Concord contributed to Perrella’s nomination. In addition, he is credited with interventions, including a writer’s workshop, that improved student achievement.

Finalists in the category of Community Partners are The Isaiah Project, The Learning Lamp/Ignite Education Solutions and Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens.

The Isaiah Project earned its nomination improving academic achievement, graduation rates and economic security among at-risk youth in Pittsburgh’s so-called Hilltop neighborhoods. It does so through a combination of mentoring, vocational training, job placement and other supports.

The Learning Lamp and its sister organization, Ignite Education, work with families and youth, offering services ranging from day-care to after-school programs, and fills educational gaps for students of all ages and abilities through programs to provide credit recovery, behavioral support and drop-out prevention.

Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens was nominated for its Fairchild Challenge, which offers 6th through 12th grade students a series of challenges throughout the year that help integrate science, technology and art.

Classroom Teaching finalists are: Robert Rodrigues, a high school history teacher in Chartiers Valley School District; Scott Andrews, a 6th grade teacher at Colfax Elementary School in South Allegheny School District; Lorraine Sciacca-Finch, who teaches family and consumer studies at Chartiers Area Middle School; and Lauren Rowe, an art teacher at West Mifflin High School in West Mifflin Area School District.

Rodrigues’ nomination credited him with bringing innovations to Chartiers Valley, including a program that enables students to earn college credits in high school; a Socratic Seminars program and a Civic Education program from Carnegie Mellon University. Both in the classroom and through activities he’s initiated outside it, Rodrigues doesn’t just teach history, his nomination said, commending him for going above and beyond classroom duties and “using his extensive knowledge base to show us how history shapes our lives today.”

Andrews’ nomination called him one Colfax students’ favorite teachers. It credited him with creating a sense of community in the classroom, setting high standards and making all kids in his classroom feel recognized and connected. Among other ways, Andrews always takes pains to know something personal about each and every one of his students, whether it’s the name of their dog or their favorite baseball team.

Sciacca-Finch won accolades for being as much of a resource to colleagues as she is to teachers and for going  the extra mile to bring innovations to her classroom with grants and lend her talents for costuming to school theater productions. Her nomination called her “an outstanding educational leader, a distinguished teacher and a champion of students.”

An art teacher, Rowe earned her nomination not just for the creativity she brings to the classroom, but also for the passion she brings to a program called Stand Together whose mission is to de-stigmatize mental illness and substance use disorders. She was praised as an educator and role model for being someone who is willing to “take on tough issues.”

In the category of Business Partnerships, the finalists are—Industrial Scientific Corp., Hilcorp Energy Co. and Blueroof Technologies.

Industrial Scientific garnered its nomination for collaborating with Montour School District to launch a “Women in STEM” program. Mentors at the company have “opened their doors, given of their time and shared their expertise” to give female students opportunities to explore engineering and other STEM careers by working on authentic projects.

The nomination for Hilcorp said the company has worked with the Lawrence County Career & Technical Center to prepare interested students for oil and gas industry jobs with experience using equipment and opportunities to visit drilling sites.

Blueroof’s nomination reflects a 15 year partnership that has brought students from McKeesport Area School District opportunities that combine hands-on STEM projects with community service.

Finalists in The Arts are Prime Stage Theater, an arts organization that works with schools to help build literacy as well as a love of literature and drama and Heidi Charlton, an art teacher in the Allegheny Valley School District and after-school instructor with Art Expression, Inc.

Charlton’s nomination credited her with a teaching style that “focuses on the total student,” making art instruction an opportunity for social and emotional development as well as learning artistic technique.

Among other reasons cited for Prime Stage’s nomination are its commitment to providing free learning opportunities to students in economically distressed communities and helping them “discover worlds and people who support them beyond their community” thorough its Discover Your Inner Hero program.