Wahab Ashraf, Nancy Picinic Ricca, Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber, Maria Maloupis, Bob Fenster

Four outstanding secondary school teachers honored at Princeton Commencement

Princeton University honored four outstanding New Jersey secondary school teachers at its 2023 Commencement. From left: Wahab Ashraf, Nancy Picinic Ricca, Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber, Maria Maloupis and Bob Fenster.

Princeton University honored four outstanding New Jersey secondary school teachers at its 2023 Commencement on Tuesday, May 30.

This year’s recipients of the Princeton Prize for Distinguished Secondary School Teaching are Wahab Ashraf of Science Park High School in Newark, Bob Fenster of Hillsborough High School, Maria Maloupis of Lyndhurst Middle School, and Nancy Picinic Ricca of Pascack Valley High School. They each will receive $5,000, as well as $3,000 for their school libraries.

“These four prize winners represent the incredible work that is taking place in our nation’s schools,” said Todd Kent, director of Princeton’s Program in Teacher Preparation, when the recipients were announced May 16. “These amazing individuals remind us all that great teachers have the power to change lives and lift communities.”

The selection committee, in reviewing the applications, considers recommendations from colleagues and students as well as evidence of the teachers’ accomplishments in the school and the community.

The 10 finalists were selected by the Program in Teacher Preparation staff and visited at their schools by Rosanne Zeppieri, a member of the program staff. The four winners were then selected by a committee chaired by Elizabeth Colagiuri, deputy dean of the college, that also includes Kent; Stanley Katz, a lecturer with the rank of professor in public and international affairs at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs; and William Miron, principal of Millburn High School in New Jersey and a 1978 Princeton University graduate.

“This marks the 65th year that Princeton University has received nominations to recognize four of New Jersey’s outstanding schoolteachers at Commencement,” Colagiuri said. “I must say that the recipients have each demonstrated extraordinary skill in the classroom, profound dedication to improving the lives of their students, and significant track records of service to their schools and communities. Their work is nothing short of inspirational.”

Princeton has honored secondary school teachers since 1959 after receiving an anonymous gift from an alumnus to establish the program. 

Following are testimonials from their students and peers, and their official citations from the Commencement ceremony.

Wahab Ashraf

Wahab Ashraf

Wahab Ashraf

Wahab Ashraf teaches College Prep and Advanced Placement biology at Science Park High School, a magnet school for students in the Newark School District interested in pursuing STEM careers.

A colleague said Ashraf, who has taught at the school for eight years, sets the bar high for his students. “Mr. Ashraf’s AP Biology students will consistently score 4s and 5s on the AP exam, as a direct result of his instruction,” the colleague said. “It is clear that Mr. Ashraf not only pushes his students to greatness, but also genuinely cares about them as human beings.”

Principal Darleen Gearhart said Ashraf’s lessons are “phenomena-driven, inquiry based and require high cognitive demand from students,” adding, “his classroom and students are filled with the pure joy of learning, so much so that alumni always return as a demonstration of the strong rapport that he builds with each student.”

Students enjoy Ashraf’s classroom atmosphere, which they characterize as fun, engaging and hands-on. Many are inspired by his teaching to pursue further studies and careers related to biology. Said a former student: “He was able to take big concepts and create activities that would require us to think like a biologist, but also be creative. Mr. Ashraf has nurtured my love and passion for the sciences, which has led me to explore a career in the healthcare/medical field.”

Ashraf was named his school’s Teacher of the Year in 2017-18 and 2021-22. He also teaches mathematics at Rutgers and New Jersey Institute of Technology, and he received the Rutgers University Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2022.

Commencement citation: With a seriousness of purpose and a dedication to developing each classroom as a family of learners, Wahab Ashraf has become “the glue of the science department” at Science Park High School, in the words of one student, and an icon to the full school community, according to colleagues. His demanding AP Biology course is the most popular course at the school, and in just eight years he has inspired a cadre of students to pursue college degrees and careers in science and health care. “He allowed me to discover my passion,” said a former student who is now a university biology major. “If it weren’t for Mr. Ashraf, I would not be who I am today.”

Bob Fenster

Bob Fenster

Bob Fenster

A 30-year teaching veteran at Hillsborough High School, Bob Fenster uses a “history lab” approach in his AP U.S. Government and Politics and U.S. History I Honors classes, giving students ownership over their studies and allowing them to apply their learning through creative means including escape rooms, artistic collages, history game design, creating social media profiles for historic figures, and podcasting.

Said a colleague: “I’ve seen other teachers attempt some of these approaches, but they often miss the mark, forgetting about core pedagogical principles, something Bob’s assignments never lack. As a consequence of this creative approach, Bob’s classroom environment is truly vibrant and alive.”

“Mr. Fenster’s students are highly engaged in his classes, perform exceptionally well on the Advanced Placement exam, and many of his alumni have gone on to become teachers or work in areas of public policy,” said Principal Jeffrey DiLollo.

Said a former student, “Even three years after my time in his history class, I still remember many of these lessons, the information they helped me learn, and the research and writing skills they helped me build.”

Fenster is a National Teachers Hall of Fame inductee. Among his many honors, he has received the Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau Teacher of the Year Award from the Organization of American Historians (2023), Claes Nobel Top Ten Educator of the Year from the National Society of High School Scholars (2017, 2022), New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance Teaching Award (2022), Paul A. Gagnon Prize from the National Council for History Education (2021), and Secondary Education Teacher of the Year, New Jersey Council for Social Studies (2019).

Commencement citation: If there is a government or politics club to be run at Hillsborough High School, or a concert to organize, or an international exchange to pursue, Bob Fenster seizes the opportunity, in tireless support of his students. Those enrolled in his “U.S. History 1 Honors” class have come to say, “That’s Mr. Fenster for you” when they hear about the latest of his endeavors. A teacher at the school for 30 years, he continues to pursue his own professional development with summer immersions in research and pedagogical enrichment—all in pursuit of the “more perfect” classroom. His student-directed, history-lab approach is “vibrant and alive,” in the words of a colleague. “No one compares in energy, creativity, and innovation.”

Maria Maloupis

Maria Maloupis

Maria Maloupis

Maria Maloupis goes out of her way to ensure her classroom at Lyndhurst Middle School is a place where students can feel comfortable, cared for and safe. Whether they are reading a classic work of literature or gathered at lunchtime for a board game club, students know they are welcome, supported and celebrated when they are under Maloupis’ tutelage.

The curriculum Maloupis has developed and implemented for eighth-grade English Language Arts and the district’s first Public Speaking and Debate course allows students to blossom to their full potential, said Principal Shana Wright. “Maria creates a warm and inviting environment so that even those who rarely raise their hands to answer a question in other classes feel comfortable presenting aloud in front of peers and adults on sensitive topics,” she said.

A teacher at Lyndhurst for the past seven years, Maloupis also oversees lunchtime and afterschool activities for students, including a board games club. She assists with school play direction in the fall and costumes the musical cast in the spring.

Said a colleague: “Her calm and relaxed demeanor allows the students to feel very comfortable in her classroom. They feel inspired to discuss concepts at a deeper level and freely ask questions in order to gain a greater understanding of the concepts.”

A former student said even those who are weaker in language arts can enjoy Maloupis’ classes. “I felt like I could always talk to her, and she would be there to guide me through school and life,” the student said. “She always listens to you, which is sometimes all you need.”

Commencement citation: As a girl, Maria Maloupis found her purpose in literature, devouring nearly every children’s book in the library. Through reading, writing, and language arts, she now empowers her students at Lyndhurst Middle School to realize their own potential while discovering the beauty in motifs and figurative language. A kind and encouraging presence, according to her school’s principal, “Maria creates a warm and inviting environment so that even those who rarely raise their hands to answer a question in other classes feel comfortable presenting aloud.” Students gather in her classroom for board games during lunch, and blossom under her direction in school plays. Said a former student, “Mrs. Maloupis helps everyone.”

Nancy Picinic Ricca

Nancy Picinic Ricca

Nancy Picinic Ricca

Through her 24 years at Pascack Valley High School, Nancy Picinic Ricca has developed rich lessons and experiences for students in mathematics and computer science.

“To me, what separates her is how she expands learning opportunities for her students,” said an administrator. “Bringing former students back to the school to work with current students, harnessing the expertise of community members, creating contests, game days, field trips, Girls Who Code, hackathons — each experience develops students’ confidence and adds depth to their learning.”

Another administrator said Ricca is a skilled practitioner, creating lessons that meet students where they are and make the curriculum more engaging, relevant, accessible and challenging. “It is impossible to think about computer science in our district, and all the successes of our computer science students, without Nancy,” he said. “Nancy is the person who is responsible for the existence of our computer science department, as she created this department from the ground up.”

A self-taught programmer, Ricca has offered courses in C++, Honors Computer Science, Java, AP Computer Science in C++, AP Computer Science A (Java) with WE Service Learning, and Advanced Topics in Computer Science. She also teaches Honors Precalculus.

“Mrs. Ricca changed the trajectory of my academic studies immensely by pushing me to step outside my comfort zone, try new things and welcome a challenge,” said a former student who is now a computer science major in college. “Without Mrs. Ricca’s confidence, perseverance, and support, I would surely be pursuing a different subject.”

Ricca received Pascack Valley’s Teacher of the Year Award for 2019-20 and the CSTA Regional Teaching Excellence Award for 2020-21.

Commencement citation: Well before ChatGPT and the Internet of Things, before the ubiquity of social media, Nancy Picinic Ricca was already advocating for computer science education. She taught her first computer science course at Pascack Valley 23 years ago; today, says a school administrator, “it is impossible to think about computer science in our district, and all the success of our computer science students, without her.” In addition to providing them with rigorous preparation in the discipline, she encourages her students to serve as ambassadors, helping younger learners imagine themselves as future coders. Said a colleague: “Nancy Ricca epitomizes the type of professional educator our children need to find their purpose in our complex, vast, and often chaotic world.”

Commencement 2023