The efforts of many teachers who work tirelessly to ensure that food and clothing are provided to immigrant families often go unnoticed. The same goes for students who don’t make the honor roll but do dramatically improve their grades and attendance.
Notice was paid Thursday evening as students, families, and teachers gathered in the Bregamos Community Theater in Fair Haven to honor students and teachers for a “New Haven Rising Star Awards Ceremony.”
A nonprofit advocacy group called Educators for Excellence held the ceremony to recognize the achievements of 19 teachers and 12 students who made major contributions to the community or substantial progress during the year.
“We held the ceremony so that we could get the students’ faces out into the community. I want to see the students everywhere — on the sides of buses, in supermarkets — so that they always feel that they’re recognized. We especially wanted to highlight students who don’t necessarily find school easy: Those kids don’t need as much recognition. That’s why we focused on kids who made significant progress throughout the year,” said Eva Schultz, a teacher from Mauro-Sheridan Science, Technology and Communications School.
“It feels good,” student Devonnte Davis said about receiving an award. “I worked hard this year, and I’m excited. I like technology, and I’m looking forward to continue studying that.”
Many of the students and teachers who received awards aren’t usually given a platform for recognition.
“A lot of these kids have experienced trauma. Many of the children here are from alternative schools and they get suspended. Students aren’t always recognized for behavioral and social progress; the focus is almost always on academic achievements. We wanted to take a look at students and teachers who are going the extra mile,” said Jennifer Quaye, outreach director for Educators for Excellence.
Norine Polio, who teaches English at East Rock Studies Magnet School, does more than help her students: She received an award for providing food, clothing and emotional support for entire families who recently immigrated to New Haven from places like Syria and Puerto Rico.
“We need to ask ourselves what the district can do to support teachers. What Norine did was remarkable, but we can’t expect teachers to come out of pocket like she did,” Quaye said.
Quaye said Educators for Excellence provides material needs to teachers and students by going on school visits, giving lunches to teachers, and supporting teachers advocating for change at the local, and even national, level.
Providing material needs for students and teachers is essential for obtaining a quality education, Mayor Toni Harp emphasized in a keynote address.
“Education is something that people cannot take away from you,” Harp said, looking out into the crowd. “Many students have faced trauma that adults haven’t. We cannot believe that expulsion and suspension is the answer, but we need to acknowledge that everyone learns differently. I had to work harder than other students when I was younger, but that’s okay. You were born to something wonderful that no one else would do.”
Understanding that students learn differently is especially important in a community like New Haven, which has a large number of black and latinx students. In a world where students of color are more likely to get suspended, reducing the number of suspensions and commending students for their progress is of utmost importance.
“You need to elevate the community that you live in. If our kids see people who look like them and stay in New Haven like me, then we can uplift the community,” said Quaye, who was born and raised in New Haven.
Creating change in the community is an ongoing process.
“We need to speak truth to power and make sure that there’s a change in our community,” said Scott X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut NAACP. He raised his hands, gesturing to punctuate his remarks. “Harriet Tubman helped slaves escape bondage by leading them to the north, but she didn’t stop there. She went back 19 times and helped her community. Nineteen times. Take that as a lesson: Get active and involved in your community.”