Judith Daniels is one of the most dedicated educators in the city. The Brooklyn Public School 81 parent coordinator was hit by four stray bullets while walking families out from class in 2014. But Daniels rebounded and continues to give everything to her job — for the sake of her students. As a parent coordinator, Daniels serves as a liaison between families and PS 81. She’s a tireless promoter of her school, holding at least 20 public events each year — among them presentations to prospective students and their families and fund-raisers — to build the relationship with the community.
On a cloudy afternoon in October 2014, four bullets hit Daniels in the legs. The shooter was gunning for someone else. The attack was made all the more horrifying because it happened as she was escorting families from the school, less than a block away from campus and with kids all around her. The experience left scars, both physical and emotional. Two bullets are still lodged in her legs. “I do hear shooting now and then — that sound stays with me,” she said.
PS 81 is a neighborhood favorite for its friendly and welcoming approach, and the family-like atmosphere cultivated by Daniels. For her dedication, Judith Daniels is a Daily News Hometown Hero.
10 educators chosen out of 200 as Daily News Hometown Heroes
Public School 721 physical education teacher Joseph Stewart uses an inventive athletics program to give students with disabilities new perspectives on their lives. Stewart, 39, began assembling various sports teams at the Manhattan school for kids dealing with severe challenges in 2006, just four years after he started working there. He dubbed his teams the City Hawks, and uses them to give kids with cognitive and developmental disabilities the chance to compete in organized sports. When the dedicated teacher began City Hawks, he created track and field teams at the school on W. Houston St. near Hudson St. Stewart’s programs were so popular that he soon expanded them to other schools and added basketball, volleyball, flag football, soccer and other sports, coaching them all. In 2014, he created a City Hawks floor hockey team for disabled students from PS 721 and the private Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, the Bronx. In March, the floor hockey team traveled to the Special Olympics Winter Games in Austria and defeated a Chinese team in the semifinals, winning a bronze medal. Stewart’s ongoing efforts improve the lives of scores of students enrolled in his athletics program from a dozen schools across the city.
Above all, Stewart believes in the power of sports to knock down barriers and build bridges. “Racial differences, economic differences, cognitive differences disappear when the cage on the helmet comes down over their face,” he said of his students. “I think it’s really the best form of inclusion. People really are on equal playing fields.”
For his help in instilling confidence in kids with disabilities, Joseph Stewart is a Daily News Hometown Hero.
Dedicated teacher Tisha Gomez, 42, inspires students with her classes on eyewear at the School of Cooperative Technical Education on the Upper East Side. Gomez teaches her students how to create eyeglasses — providing needy pupils with prescription specs made by their peers and giving students the skills they need to work in the prescription eyewear industry. Many of the 16- to 21-year-old students in her classes have learning disabilities, have been held back or have experienced disruptions in their education. Gomez teaches them how to fill prescriptions for eyeglasses by cutting lenses and consulting with patients on lens types and frames.
“My students come from the inner city and they need a career to support themselves,” Gomez said. “This class gives them a trade that’s needed.” Gomez has a policy of making free glasses for any student at her school. Now, her classes produce up to 400 pairs of glasses for students each year.
For her passionate commitment to helping students and her creative and practical classes centered on vision, Tisha Gomez is a Daily News Hometown Hero.
For 25 of the 30 years that Mindy Morales has been teaching in city schools, she has been at the little-known East River Academy on Rikers Island, giving her all to prepare incarcerated students for life outside of jail. That alone makes Morales one of the longest-serving educators in one of the most difficult posts in the city schools system. But even more exceptional are the results she’s achieved with her students. Morales has managed a 98% high school diploma equivalency exam pass rate among students who took the test, and has rolled out her school’s first-ever SAT prep courses to prepare inmates for the important college entrance exam.
“”No matter where a kid is, they deserve the best education they can possibly get,” Morales said. “I know that I can do that for these kids.” At the East River Academy, she focuses on preparing students for the high school diploma equivalency exam called the Test Assessing Secondary Completion — or TASC. “This is our first year where kids are actually going to college from here — from jail,” Morales said. “My kids have exceeded my expectations.”
District 79 Superintendent Tim Lisante, who nominated Morales for the award, said she gives her teens hope. “So many of the students have hit rock bottom and given up,” Lisante said. “But I think she’s rejuvenated her students to the point where they want to continue with their education.” Morales does whatever she can to nurture her students. “When they’re in my room, they’re my sons and I treat them as such,” Morales said. “I try to make my classroom feel as much like home as possible.”
Not only is Mindy Morales celebrating three decades of teaching in city schools; she is also a Daily News Hometown Hero.
Carrie Lynch, a dedicated social studies teacher at Khalil Gibran International Academy, created a food pantry at her school so no child would go hungry. She helped them find eyeglasses and jackets when it got cold. “We look at them as our students, but we also see them as our kids,” said Lynch, 34, who has been teaching at the Brooklyn school for nine years. “I tell my students that there is no shame in poverty. If they set goals for themselves and work hard, they can go really far,” she added. “They’re coming from a war-torn country and we want to make sure they have a safe space here,” she said. “We put our politics aside and just look at each other as humans.”
Lynch once noticed that when students returned to school after summer vacation, they looked like they had lost a lot of weight and were unkempt. That inspired her to use an online crowdsourcing platform called Donors Choose to raise $600 for a food pantry for the school. She also started a garden club, in which she and the students grow fresh vegetables for families in need. “Some families need the food to get them through a rough patch, while others have been using the pantry for a while,” she said. “Any gesture of kindness is important. We don’t keep track of who’s taking how much.”
For her great commitment to helping her students when and how they need it most, Carrie Lynch is a Daily News Hometown Hero.
None of the students at the Manhattan Academy for Arts and Language can speak English when they enter the school. In fact, many start without any significant formal education or literacy skills. But tireless English teacher Lauren McCoy has figured out how to meet the needs of all her students, quickly building their literacy and language ability. McCoy is now teaching one of the school’s first-ever Advanced Placement classes, which she helped launch in 2016. She’s taking students who just learned English to the next level, where they write strong rhetorical and analytical essays and take the AP exam.
“I was teaching classes to prepare students for the English Regents, but then realized we wanted to aim higher than that and make them college- and career-ready,” said McCoy, whose passion for teaching and language motivate her work at the school in Murray Hill, where she has been a teacher for four years. McCoy, 28, realized the struggle of learning a new language when she started studying Spanish as a freshman at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. Her commitment to the language led her to study abroad in Quito, Ecuador, and, after she graduated, to teach English in the Dominican Republic. “I didn’t make the readings easier, but gave them the tools they needed to understand the readings,” said McCoy, who will be teaching a second AP class in the 2017-18 school year. “I’m hoping that having more AP classes at school pushes students to challenge themselves even more,” McCoy said.
For her extraordinary efforts to help her students learn English, Lauren McCoy is a Daily News Hometown Hero.
Amy Spears set aside her math lessons to perform CPR on an unconscious student in a heroic on-campus act, earning the adoration of her grateful school community. Spears, 45, a seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher at Louis Armstrong Middle School in East Elmhurst, Queens, displayed quick thinking and bravery last Oct. 20, saving the life of a sixth-grader who had stopped breathing and was suffering cardiac arrest.
The 22-year city educator was teaching just after lunch period, when three students appeared in her classroom doorway asking for help. The trio, who had spotted Spears through her open classroom door, told the popular math teacher their friend needed help. Just down the hall from Spears’ classroom, Melanie Fana was lying on the floor. She was turning blue amid an apparent convulsion. Spears spotted the stricken student — and ran. “When it happened, it just happened, it was something I just did,” she said. The teacher immediately called for help and began doing CPR. Spears said she acted from instinct and didn’t stop to consider the gravity of the moment. “When EMS came, I felt like I was just going to fall, because I didn’t realize what was going on until they came,” Spears said. “The assistant principal sat next to me and just told me, ‘You can do it, you can do it.’” Spears began performing CPR and used a defibrillator on Melanie with the help of teacher’s aide Michael Lopez. “After I took the CPR training, I was a little nervous about whether I would be able to do it in a crisis,” she said. “… I’m glad I could.” Spears said she later learned Melanie uses a pacemaker. The device had failed her, causing her to suffer cardiac arrest. She’s still amazed that she was able to save the girl. “If you asked if I could do that before it happened, I would have said no,” Spears said. “She visits me every single day to get her hug in for the day,” Spears said of the grateful student. “I’m just so thankful that she’s OK.”
For her fearless dedication to her students and ability to think on her feet, Amy Spears is a Daily News Hometown Hero.
Manhattan’s Harvest Collegiate High School, founded by idealistic educator Kate Burch five years ago, has a 98% college enrollment rate. It operates a well-rounded curriculum focusing on science and art, and offers unusual courses with names such as Love and Rage. Burch, a Manhattan native, said she’s bent on proving a diverse high school that does not screen students for admission can succeed in her hometown. “The diversity of the city is an asset in our schools and not a barrier,” said Burch, 37, who graduated from Trinity High School on the Upper West Side and has worked in city schools since 2003. “Many of our students say the diversity in our school is part of their profoundest learning,” she added.
Harvest Collegiate opened in 2012 in Union Square, and graduated its first class in June 2016. It does not screen students by academic abilities, so students arrive from a variety of social backgrounds and with a mix of scholastic skills. Students come from families native to more than 25 different countries. Almost one in three has a disability, and more than half qualify for free lunches because their families meet federal poverty guidelines. “We see and treat all of our students as intellectuals,” said Burch, and her unusual approach seems to be working. Harvest boasted a 96% graduation rate in 2016, and students gained entrance to such prestigious universities as Columbia, Howard and Bard.
For building a high-performance, integrated school in a segregated school system, Harvest Collegiate principal Kate Burch is a Daily News Hometown Hero.
Michael Masefield wanted to give his Bronx students access to fresh food and a break from city life. So he built a farm with vegetables and a chicken coop on school grounds, and taught his students how to grow crops and raise animals. All of his students have serious learning disabilities or behavioral issues, and few of them have ever worked in a garden before. But Masefield said working with underserved students comes easily to him. “These kids are used to being seen a certain way, but I give them the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “A lot of times, they just haven’t had the right outlets, or people didn’t give them a chance.” The farm boasts a chicken coop with seven birds, plus a greenhouse for seedlings.
Masefield uses an indoor classroom space to grow hydroponic crops and help students cook food from the farm. For those students who do work on the farm, a transformation often takes place. “Kids who have violent backgrounds become really calm when they hold a chicken,” Masefield said. “And kids who have a hard time explaining a math problem can do very well when it comes to explaining what’s going on at the farm.”
For giving kids from some of the toughest neighborhoods a fresh perspective on food and their lives, Michael Masefield is a Daily News Hometown Hero.
City educator Patricia Minaya had a dream: She wanted to give girls from all walks of life access to careers in business. After working as a public school teacher and administrator for years, she finally founded the Urban Assembly School of Business for Young Women, in 2005. More than a decade later, many of the girls who were once students are becoming successful businesswomen. “I feel that what I am doing is essential,” said Minaya, 43. “I’m giving back to young women the same way people gave to me.”
Minaya went to college and became a teacher, determined to help kids from working-class backgrounds like her own. Eventually, she had a bigger dream to create her own school. She collaborated with Urban Assembly founder Richard Kahan to create the city’s first public high school for girls focused on business. The school now enrolls nearly 300 students, most of them black and Hispanic teens from underserved neighborhoods. The landmark Charging Bull statue stands just in front of the campus, smack in the heart of the Financial District. Minaya wouldn’t trade it for the world. “We make a difference every day,” she said. “We’re impacting the lives of students, and also their families — and the future of this country.”
For helping girls achieve their career dreams, Patricia Minaya is a Daily News Hometown Hero.