At an emotional, inspiring evening ceremony that brought tears to many and uplifted everyone, four outstanding Indianapolis Public School teachers who literally changed, for the better, the lives of their students, were named the winners of the 2014 IPS/Hubbard Life Changing Teacher Awards. They are: Tina Ahlgren, a math teacher at Shortridge Magnet High School for Law and Public Policy; Cynthia Hartshorn, a choir and drama director at Arsenal Technical High School; Rhonda Pierre, a math teacher at Harshman Magnet Middle School; and, Deb Wolinsky, a math and resource teacher at Broad Ripple Magnet High School. The four received checks for $25,000 each at the ceremony held at the Eiteljorg Museum downtown. As each winner was named, WISH-TV/Channel 8 Reporter Julian Grace, an IPS graduate who was taught by one of the winning teachers, read some of what nominees said about the winners and introduced a video tribute about the winners’ impact on their students. Each winner not only received their check but a red glass-etched apple commemorating the event, which was sponsored by United Way of Central Indiana. Al Hubbard, Chairman of Indianapolis-based E&A Companies who with his wife conceived the idea of honoring IPS teachers who’ve impacted students’ lives said, “The stories of how devoted these four Life-Changing Teachers are to not only helping students achieve in the classroom, but also to their entire well-being, are beyond remarkable. Our entire community owes them immense gratitude for their sacrifices and their impact on shaping young people.” United Way President/CEO Ann Murtlow remarked, “United Way’s focus on education as the foundation for a better life has taught us that teachers are the single most important factor in a student’s success. So this opportunity to recognize four extraordinary educators and to inspire others to their high level of service is profoundly meaningful.” The awards ceremony was the culimination of the effort which was announced last November where the Hubbards announced they would invest up to $400,000 to honor exceptional teachers each year for three years. Here’s profiles of these four Life Changing Teachers.
“Every day she makes me want more education. She is the reason I want to learn,” wrote a student who joined six others who nominated Tina Ahlgren as their life-changing teacher. Described as someone who uses engaging techniques, Ahlgren’s approach is also effective and measurable. Student scores in Ahlgren’s Algebra 1 classes helped Shortridge raise its grade from F to B. “Whether she is dressing up with goggles and ski poles to explain a slope or going to the store to buy a new shirt for a student, she is always thinking of her kids,” wrote a colleague. Two students told poignant stories of how Ahlgren went above and beyond to change their lives. A young woman relayed that she had to stop going to school in her sophomore year when she had her baby. As her Algebra teacher, Ahlgren had worked with her after school to break down the class work “until I got it.” After the baby was born, Ahlgren visited the new mother and child in the hospital, become a godmother, and has since helped her student get back in school. Today, she is approaching graduation while working full time. A young man recalled times when he “came to school and acted a fool…but Ms. Ahlgren never gave up on me.” Ahlgren gave him lunch money and paid his cell phone bill when he could not, and even helped him make up weeks of missing assignments when he was in juvenile detention. Later, when her student got accepted to college, Ms. Ahlgren drove him to Vincennes University, joined him in meetings with administrators, and paid his room and board down payment. Without Alhgren’s support, “I would never have graduated from high school,” wrote the student.
Throughout 41 years of teaching, Cynthia Hartshorn has used choir and drama as a means to impart life skills in preparation, practice, leadership, determination and more. Her influence prompted 15 people to nominate her as a life-changer. Nominations praising Hartshorn gushed from the pages. One student who grew up on the near west side has since become a leading man on Broadway. Another transferred to Tech because of her. Others credit her for keeping kids off the streets and out of trouble by welcoming them to be part of a team that loved and appreciated them. Still other young adults recall Hartshorn teaching them that they must “work for the things they want most and be determined and bold in pursuing them.” “When I think about the woman I want to become some day, I think of Ms. H,” wrote one student. “She is a force of goodness for a lot of kids who need goodness in their lives,” wrote another former student. Hartshorn encouraged her to audition for the Up with People Cast which led her to more than 80 cities in six countries and ultimately changed “how I view the world.” Hartshorn’s students admit she “can be demanding, but that’s because she knows what her students can do if they are challenged,” That observation came from a graduate who said he and his peers stay in touch with their teacher even though they graduated 16 years ago. Hartshorn’s reputation as an impactful educator is borne out by more than happy memories of applause-worthy performances. The graduation rate in her choir students never dipped below 95 percent, when that stat for the whole school has ranged from 41-60 percent in recent years.
She oozes passion for teaching math. She connects with students, and deep diving into problem solving when her students are having a hard time. In just six years teaching math, Rhonda Pierre’s reviews expressed in 13 nominations were ardant. But those words are backed up by equally compelling results. Over the past two years, 100 percent of Pierre’s Algebra students passed their end of course tests. And, 82-89 percent of her pre-Algebra students passed the ISTEP+ math. “She’s not only making students learn math, she’s teaching all her students to LOVE math, despite any difficulties…” observed an instructional coach assigned to Pierre. A student recalls seeing classmates progress “from failing in her class to passing,” then improving in other classes too, she added. A colleague described how Pierre formed a bond with a high functioning autistic student who struggled to socialize with others and engage in class. “She holds him to high standards while giving him the scaffolding he needs to be successful. Now, he contributes to every class, and knows he is accountable for his own learning.” Pierre helped another autistic student set up a system to manage his homework by taking the time after school to label and organize his binder, and becoming a mentor who makes sure he stays organized and on track. “She knows her content and shares it with students in an entertaining way,” wrote a former student. “Not only does she care about our education and our future, she cares about our present … Mrs. Pierre is the ideal teacher,” he concluded.
In almost four decades of teaching, Deb Wolinsky’s caring for each student was a common theme of nominators. And, it’s the kind of caring that comes without an expiration date on commencement day. One former student related how she even returned to her math teacher for help passing her first college math course. Another recalls how her teacher devoted every Tuesday and Thursday to checking her homework. Without that help, the student doubts she would have graduated. Yet another student credits Wolinsky with sparking in her a love for service-learning. Wolinsky encouraged the young girl to join Key Club. When her single mother could not afford the dues, Wolinsky paid them. Though the student’s family sought help from various human service providers including the Julian Center, a Salvation Army shelter and Dayspring Shelter, Wolinsky’s student relates that she was “strengthened by Ms. Wolinsky to continue in service projects to others, while I was homeless myself.” After graduating from Broad Ripple, the student went on to college at Butler where her teacher’s influence inspired her to rekindle a Kiwanis collegiate club. She subsequently supervised more than 11,000 students in Indiana University’s Bloomington service learning program and even started a new nonprofit organization that provides personal development workshops for Indianapolis Public Schools students. “Ms. Wolinsky has not only made a difference to my life, she has strengthened me to mentor others,” wrote her former student. Wolinsky’s impact on students amounts to more than gratitude. It shows up in meaningful data too. Over the past five years, every one of her graduating seniors has been accepted into a post-secondary institution.
The other Hubbard Finalists were: Elizabeth Althardt, second- and third-grade teacher at ROOTS Satellite program; Nicole Fama, Title 1 teacher and dean of student behavior at Arlington Woods School 99; Erin Lizer, Spanish teacher at John Marshall Community High School; Jeffrey Powell, architecture and construction engineering teacher at Arsenal Technical High School; Antonia Powell-Brown, math and sixth-grade teacher at Arlington Woods School 99 and Apple Quick, Project SITE creator and teacher. These Finalists each received $5,000. Here’s a Photo Gallery of all of these Great Teachers.