Four outstanding N.J. secondary school teachers to be honored at Princeton Commencement

Princeton University has announced the names of the four outstanding New Jersey secondary school teachers chosen to be honored at its 2024 Commencement on Tuesday, May 28.

This year’s recipients of the Princeton Prize for Distinguished Secondary School Teaching are Ahmed Hassanein of Joseph H. Brensinger Elementary School, P.S. #17, in Jersey City, Sandra Keel-Huff of Orange High School, Bess Spero Li of Crossroads South Middle School in South Brunswick, and Theresa Riccardi of High Point Regional High School in Sussex.

They each will receive $5,000, as well as $3,000 for their school libraries.

“These four prize winners remind us that there are truly exceptional people who are teaching in the nation’s schools,” said Todd Kent, director of Princeton’s Program in Teacher Preparation, when the recipients were announced. “These incredible teachers were selected for the impact they have on their students and on their school and local 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.

Ten finalists were selected by the Program in Teacher Preparation staff and visited at their schools by Rosanne Zeppieri and Anne Catena, members 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; Jennifer Jennings, professor of sociology and public affairs and a faculty associate of the Office of Population Research; 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.

“The selection committee is delighted to recognize these remarkable educators for their sustained records of teaching and service," Colagiuri said. "These are the kinds of teachers one remembers long after the time in their classrooms. They care deeply about their students, invest fully in their teaching, and inject energy and creativity into their communities.” 

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

Ahmed Hassanein

Ahmad smiling

For more than 20 years, Ahmed Hassanein has demonstrated his dedication to his students in the classroom and far beyond. The science and health teacher, who teaches 6th through 8th graders at the Brensinger School in Jersey City, was chosen as the Jersey City District Teacher of the Year in 2018.

“He understands his students, the environment that they live in, and is determined to assist them,” said assistant principal David Bernero.

Hassanein mentors students in a multitude of ways, from overseeing the Lego Robotics team, the STEM club and the guitar club to coaching football and soccer in the afternoons and using his lunch period to meet with students who need extra academic assistance.

Said a colleague, “Mr. Hassanein embodies the idea that instruction is often only a small fraction of what it means to be a teacher.”

A supervisor elaborated: “He stepped up to coach flag football, when he knew nothing about it, because kids wanted to play and we didn’t have a coach. He’s our American Ted Lasso.”

A former student remarked that Hassanein sought to get to know each of his students individually to help him fully engage them in class. His hands-on learning approach draws students in, while his high standards challenge them. “He pushes us to our limits because he believes in our abilities,” the student said.

Sandra Keel-Huff

Sandra smiling

There wasn’t enough time in the 42-minute class period at Orange High School for students in the AP Environmental Science course to complete the laboratory portion of the class, so Sandra Keel-Huff volunteered to come in on Saturdays to oversee the labs.

The teacher of biology and environmental science for grades 9th through 12th has made it her purpose to incorporate high-quality lab assignments into all science classes to open doors for her students to college and careers.

“Her commitment to mentoring and leading our science department has been exemplary,” said assistant principal Dairon Montesino, who noted that Keel-Huff has only been at the school for three years (though she has been a teacher for more than two decades). She serves as the adviser for the National Honors Society, participates in after-school tutoring, and has worked on improving collaboration among teachers.

Her involvement in students’ lives goes far beyond the classroom. “She calls their house to check in with the kids during break,” said one colleague. “She’ll attend sporting events just so they know she is there.”

“I know I can talk to her about anything,” one student said. “She’s down to earth, she understands everyone has a life, she cares.” Adds another, “She gives us her 100 percent and wants us to give 100 percent. She keeps trying, [she] doesn’t give up on you.”

Bess Spero Li

Bess smiling

Bess Spero Li left a two-decade career in the private sector to become an educator. As a 7th and 8th grade social studies teacher at Crossroads South Middle School in South Brunswick, she has brought creativity and passion to the classroom to help students feel connected to history.

“She seamlessly immerses students in past events, challenging them not to lose the thread connecting our present moment to the past,” said one colleague.

“Mrs. Li has put in time year after year to teach a fuller or richer history that integrates hidden voices,” said social studies supervisor Jonathan Medina, who recalled how she highlighted the accomplishments of women and people of color in her lessons.

Her rapport with students extends to their lives outside the classroom, as she encourages them to pursue their passions and offers pep talks to those who may be struggling. “Mrs. Li’s power is in sprinkling life lessons that kids can heed for the rest of their lives,” Medina added.

Students relish their one-on-one interactions with Mrs. Li. “It is not uncommon for students to talk to her outside of class about matters academic and personal alike, as she is both a mentor and a friend to them,” one student said.

Mrs. Li holds a master’s degree from Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs and is a graduate of the Princeton Teacher Preparation Program.

Theresa Riccardi

Theresa smiling

Over 24 years as a theater and choir teacher at High Point Regional High School in Sussex, Theresa Riccardi has ignited a passion for the performing arts in numerous students.

“When I walked through those choir room doors, I knew I was ‘home,’” recalled one student. “We had a teacher that cared for us far more than our musical or theatrical talent. She cared for us as if we were her own children.”

A colleague called Riccardi “the face” of the school’s performing arts program. She crafted a comprehensive four-year theatre program, “introducing students to the rich tapestry of theatrical arts from introductory levels to advanced studies,” said Jacqueline McCarthy, the school’s supervisor of humanities. “Her remarkable contribution includes orchestrating an astounding 48 productions, comprising both plays and musicals.” Under her supervision, the choir has been invited to perform at benefit concerts at Carnegie Hall three times.

One colleague remarked that Riccardi “brings out the best in the students, so that they shine in ways they didn’t know they were capable of doing.”

Riccardi mentors teachers at her school as well as at other schools. She attends numerous high school and middle school productions and competitions to connect with others in the field.

"Because of Theresa, the entire community feels invested in what the high school is doing,” said a colleague. “She is a gift.”