Princeton honors outstanding secondary school teachers

Princeton University will honor four outstanding New Jersey secondary school teachers at its 2007 Commencement on Tuesday, June 5.

This year's honorees are: Bruce Grefe, Creative Arts High School, Camden; Nina Lavlinskaia, High Tech High School, North Bergen; Raymond Page, St. Anthony High School, Jersey City; and Peggy Stewart, Vernon Township High School, Vernon.

The teachers were selected for the award from among 73 nominations from public and private schools around the state. Each teacher will receive $5,000 as well as $3,000 for his or her school library.

"Among the many impressive nominations we received from around the state, the winners of this year's awards demonstrated exceptional levels of innovation and dedication," said John Webb, director of Princeton's Program in Teacher Preparation, which administers the awards. "These four teachers are committed in profoundly special ways to nurturing the minds of their students and to enhancing the quality of education available at their schools. They are truly extraordinary educators who not only apply the highest caliber of professionalism to their work, but also go far more than the extra mile to strengthen both their students' learning experiences and the academic life of their schools."

The staff of the Program in Teacher Preparation selected 10 finalists, each of whom was visited at work by an observer. Finalists were selected by a committee chaired by Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel and including Webb, two Princeton professors and two external education professionals.

Princeton has honored secondary school teachers since 1959. The University received an anonymous gift from an alumnus to establish the program.

Following is information about the honorees:

Bruce Grefe

Bruce Grefe has helped bring to life the richness of art and education for his students and the local community in nearly four decades as a teacher in Camden's school system.

During his eight years as an art history teacher at Creative Arts High School, and his previous 30 years of experience in Camden's schools, Grefe has used the study of art as a basis for broader explorations of history, science, economics and other factors that shape society and influence artists.

"Perhaps it is because the visual arts is my base discipline that I can see so easily how interdependent all knowledge is," said Grefe, who last year received the New Jersey Council for the Humanities' Teacher of the Year Award.

"Drawing from the theoretical to the specific, the general to the particular, I require my students to demonstrate a richer understanding than simple imitation or regurgitation manifests," he said. "After initial instruction I believe in tutoring, guiding and coaching students from their level of achievement toward the level of mastery I expect."

Davida Coe-Brockington, principal of Creative Arts, said Grefe's ability to incorporate his broad expertise into his lessons helps students -- as well as the younger teachers that he mentors -- enhance their critical thinking.

"Whether he is teaching and modeling the skill and practice of drawing and painting, providing historical and cultural background in art history or giving the greater context or fascinating detail of a time period for a movie in 'History Through Film,' his thorough knowledge gives students an added dimension to the subject," Coe-Brockington said. "Through his demonstrations and intellect, his students gain information not ordinarily found in textbooks."

Sophomore Jose Arocho Jr. said, "Mr. Grefe tried to show us how to rationalize and reason [on] our own so that one day we may be able to survive in the real world."

Of his freshman art history course with Grefe, Arocho said, "With his quick wit and extraordinary knowledge, class was never a bore. He taught like an actor on stage with the class as his audience. I can honestly say that I watched my classmates' (who carried no interest for history) eyes light up as they learned of topics like the Baroque period, Gothic art and art criticism."

For Grefe and his students, art also has been a tool to uplift the local community. He has led students in painting murals for several sites throughout Camden, including a municipal children's garden, a hospice for critically ill children, a minor league baseball stadium, the public library and the city board of education. In recognition of these efforts, Grefe was awarded the Camden County Freedom Medal for community service in 2005.

Grefe earned a bachelor of arts degree from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia in 1968.

Nina Lavlinskaia

Every year, students at High Tech High School gather for an exciting game that brings out their school spirit and competitive drive. It's not a football homecoming game, but rather a science-focused take on a popular game show, dubbed "Biopardy!"

Teacher Nina Lavlinskaia devised this version of "Jeopardy!" to arouse interest in science among students in her classes and across the school. "The wonderful part of this event is that the whole student body is involved," she said. "Students in the Science Club, of which I am a mentor, carefully schedule all events and take care of the decorations, music and presentations. Students from my [Advanced Placement] biology class coach teams of students from my regular biology classes. The art department helps to decorate our Resource Center, where the event takes place. Everyone in the school is invited to attend.

"The best part of 'Biopardy!' is that students study two to three times harder than they normally would," Lavlinskaia added.

Since coming to High Tech, Lavlinskaia has inspired many students to work harder, as her AP biology class has become one of the school's most popular classes. Last year, more than 60 percent of High Tech students who took the AP biology exam achieved a perfect score. In recognition of her students' achievements, Lavlinskaia was named High Tech's Teacher of the Year in 2003 and received a national Siemens Award, which honors commitment to students and the Advanced Placement program, in 2006.

In addition to enhancing students' knowledge of biology, anatomy and physiology, Lavlinskaia "is also gifted in supporting students as they make life choices," said Karol Brancato, principal of High Tech. "She is equally adept at recognizing the underachiever who wants to blossom and the exemplary student who is missing a passion for learning."

As educators struggle to reverse declining interest in science, Brancato noted that Lavlinskaia has contributed to nearly 20 percent of High Tech's graduates choosing science majors in college -- a particularly notable achievement for a school where 40 percent of students are considered "at risk" and more than 70 percent are from minority backgrounds.

Annie Rose London, a senior at High Tech, said Lavlinskaia -- or "Dr. Nina" to her students -- "made me fall in love with biology."

"Dr. Nina's enthusiasm is utterly contagious," London said. "I am not alone in this belief
-- she is the only teacher I have ever had who has managed to create a real family that students stay connected to even after they graduate."

Lavlinskaia joined the High Tech faculty in 1997 and has served since 2002 as science department liaison, supervising six instructors. She also is an adjunct professor in the Department of Natural Sciences at Fordham University. She has published nearly 20 research articles and frequently shares her research with colleagues.

A native of Russia, Lavlinskaia graduated with a bachelor's degree in biophysics in 1984 from Voronezh State University and earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1991 from the Institute of Animal Research in Moscow. Prior to coming to High Tech, she was a researcher and instructor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken.

Raymond Page

For Raymond Page, an English teacher at St. Anthony High School, magic is more than just a fun activity that he shares with students in an extracurricular club -- it is an essential facet of the teaching experience.

"Teaching, at its heart, is the art of transformation," Page said. "When great teaching is going on, it is magical, but great teaching is more than a magic trick. In a magic trick the transformation is external -- the woman is changed into the tiger, the woman in the locked box is changed into the man who was outside the box. When great teaching is going on, the transformation is internal."

Over the course of his 30-year teaching career, including 18 years at St. Anthony, Page has successfully weaved "his academic magic among his students because he has vast knowledge, he exudes a caring interest in each student and he willingly puts in the time to prepare, to deliver and to assess," said principal Matthew Glowski.

"Through his compassionate attention he seeks to present before his students a vision of what can be and then teaches them to chisel away at the artificial barriers that have limited their growth," Glowski said. "Those barriers may come from poor schooling, from a learning disability, from a combative home environment, from just being plain poor. Regardless of the barrier, Mr. Page holds them securely until they take command of their destiny."

Page leads classes ranging from St. Anthony's new Advanced Placement courses in language arts and literature to a workshop for freshmen with below-average writing skills. He also organized the school's first Basic Skills Academy. Page is versed in many subjects, having also taught history, math, science and French classes, and sometimes interjects lessons from various religions into his dialogues with students.

Outside the classroom, Page is equally dedicated to introducing students to variety of viewpoints. He designed the Underground Reading Club to get students interested in reading socially relevant works. He also advises the school's literary magazine, Serendipity, and leads the Magic Club.

Page is called upon to meet with new parents to share the educational philosophy and goals of St. Anthony. Glowski recalled that after a recent open house, one parent declared that Page "is my reason for sending my son to St. Anthony."

Reinaldo Correa, a senior, said, "Every morning when I wake up, I think to myself, 'Why should I go to school today?' The first and foremost reason to go to school is Mr. Page. I was once a student who hated going to school. But when I have Mr. Page's class on my schedule, I now hate when I can't go to school."

Page graduated in 1977 from the State University of New York College at Oneonta with a bachelor's degree in secondary English education.

Peggy Stewart

Social studies teacher Peggy Stewart has opened doors to the global community for her students at Vernon Township High School and her colleagues across New Jersey.

The New Jersey State Teacher of the Year for 2004-05, Stewart has broadened her students' perspectives through highly engaging U.S. and world history courses and by developing opportunities for them to interact with people and cultures from around the globe.

"Peggy and I have traveled with students to Europe and China in the past couple of years, and the programs developed demonstrate her teaching abilities," said John Ryan, a fellow social studies teacher. "Our trips to these regions of the world were not tours, but educational expeditions immersing our students into the cultures of the regions and developing a global concept. Peggy continues to challenge her students and her colleagues to become intellectually active participants in the world around them."

Several years ago, Stewart arranged for her students to host visiting students from China, an endeavor that inspired further efforts to promote cross-cultural exchange. She has infused her classes and other educational programs with lessons she has learned through her numerous travels, including recent excursions to China, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia, Brazil and Kazakhstan.

As head of Vernon Township's School-Wide Enrichment Program, she has developed initiatives such as a model United Nations program, the Vernon Political Think Tank, New Jersey History Day and a videoconferencing project involving students in Ohio, Texas and Japan.

After winning the state teaching honor, she worked with the New Jersey Department of Education to organize statewide workshops on how to integrate international education across the curriculum. She also helped form a task force of educators around the state to recommend policies to encourage international education.

"When I made arrangements for students from China to visit our community, I had no idea that it would be the springboard for so much to follow," Stewart said. "Not only did it affirm my belief in the value of teaching students about communication and knowledge of the world, but it also helped influence our school goals. It opened doors for me to collaborate with colleagues around the state and to have an impact on state policy. I believe that these experiences have opened our eyes to the world community."

Former student Michael Buchney said, "Her creativity in the classroom, passion for teaching and respect for diversity set her aside in a class of her own."

Buchney said Stewart takes such personal interest in her students' development that she was "someone I considered more of a friend than just a teacher by the end of my senior year. I learned a great deal not only about history, politics and the international community, but also simply about life. Her passion for history, politics and internationalism fueled mine."

Stewart received a bachelor's degree in history from William Paterson University in 1990 and a master of arts degree, with a concentration in multiculturalism, from Ramapo College in 1997.