District 26 Big Apple Ambassadors

District 26 Big apple award finalists

The Big Apple Awards, now in its eighth year, is a citywide recognition program that celebrates the educators of New York City who inspire students, model great teaching, and enrich their school communities. By honoring the success of these teachers, the NYC Department of Education recognizes the countless teachers who go above and beyond to serve our students and families.

In 2020-21, there were more than 7,500 nominations citywide. For the fourth year in a row, District 26 was unique in that every school in District 26 had at least one teacher from their community nominated! After a rigorous application process including an essay, recommendations, and video, 5 teachers were selected as finalists to complete an interview and demonstration lesson.

mission of district 26 Big apple ambassadors

As Big Apple Ambassadors, we aim to:

  • Build collaboration within and across schools

  • Share promising pedagogical practices

  • Build coherence from Pre-K through 8th grades

  • Increase student voice in all content areas

To ensure positive experiences for all children.

Big Apple Ambassadors are excited to serve as resources for our school and district communities. During the 2018-19 school year, Big Apple Ambassadors were asked to consider how they could enact their mission within their school or district community. You can get to know our Big Apple Ambassadors more through their bios below .

Meet our Big Apple Ambassadors for 2021-2022

Jennifer Schecter

MS 158, Music

Ms. Jennifer Schecter has taught instrumental music at Marie Curie Middle School 158 since 2004. Under her tenure, the MS 158 Band has been called upon to perform for former DOE chancellor Dennis D. Walcott and was honored with a special visit by singer/songwriter Josh Groban, who came to MS 158 to donate instruments and hear the band play. The band has achieved numerous gold and gold with distinction ratings at NYSSMA level III and was featured at the 2018 Borough Arts Festival. An avid grant writer, Ms. Schecter has amassed over 500,000 dollars in grants for musical instruments, as well as materials and facility upgrades for the Arts Department. Schecter’s leadership activities at MS 158 include coordinating the College Access for All Assemblies, the Band Buddies Music Mentoring Program and serving on the Attendance Team, Collaboration (Welcome Back) Committee and the Senior Committee.

One of Ms. Schecter’s fervent passions is to inspire other educators to build successful music programs in New York City Schools. Ms. Schecter has taken on more than twenty student teachers and has mentored young band directors all over Queens. She currently serves as a mentor through the Paul Simon Music Fellows Program. Schecter has presented workshops on urban music education in Columbus OH, Chicago, IL and Rochester, NY. As a Big Apple Ambassador, Schecter initiated the District 26 Music Professional Learning Committee where she facilitates professional learning activities for music teachers in the district. She also coordinated the first ever District 26 Night of Music, which involved over 300 students in grades 1-8, representing 12 schools across the district.

Schecter is a DOE Music Professional Development Facilitator and recently served on the Music Standards Writing Team and the Chancellor’s Strategic Arts Planning Committee. Ms. Schecter is the associate conductor of the Queens Borough Wide Band program and has conducted regional band festivals in Nassau and Rockland counties. Additionally, she teaches music education courses at CUNY Hunter and Queens colleges.

In her spare time, Ms. Schecter plays French horn in the Brooklyn Wind Symphony, is an active black belt member of her Taekwondo school, is a wife to a middle school social studies teacher here in D26 and is a mom to Mikayla, age 7 and Shoshana, age 18 months.

Meredith FORMICA

MS 172, Social Studies

Meredith Formica is a product of New York City schools having grown up in south Queens. As a student she found inspiration and motivation from her own teachers, particularly her high school social studies teachers. They empowered her voice and pushed her to think critically, providing her confidence. In her 13 years teaching in New York City she has strived to do the same for her own students. She strives to blaze a passion for learning by ensuring a sense of community enabling her students to take risks and embarrass their curiosity, this is evidenced by the sharing of ideas and opinions in her classroom through open and honest discussion and communication. Students in Meredith’s classes have opportunities to build their self-worth. They are aware of how to both foster their own growth mindset and grow positive relationships with their peers.

Throughout Meredith’s tenure in the New York City Department of Education she has grown her pedagogic and leadership skills as a mentor and Lead Teacher.

In addition to her work in the classroom, Meredith is completing her Administrative Internship and has been collaborating with Queens North Teaching and Learning developing and co-facilitating professional learning cycles focused on Civics, Teaching History While It’s Happening, English Language Learner support practices, and the U.S. History and Global Regents Exams.

Laura Rice

PS 31, Early Childhood

Laura believes that teamwork, and respect for others, are the foundation on which all experiences should be built. When you enter her classroom, it is immediately apparent that she has a passion and love for her students and her job.

Principal says “Laura Rice goes above and beyond her job title. She is a member of the SLT, helps create costumes and scenery for plays and bakes delicious goodies for the office for every occasion. She is a presence at every PTA meeting. She has coordinated the self-sustaining after school program allowing working parents to have the time they need knowing their children are safe in her care.

During Remote Learning, Ms. Rice created her own YouTube channel, where she created daily videos for her students and their families. She turned her dining room into a virtual classroom, where the background changed with each Unit of Study, and the Schedule-of-the-Day included: checking the weather, feeding her turtles, songs and exercises, a read-aloud, a hands-on activity or project, and shout-outs to announce celebrations, or to offer support!

Family participation and involvement in their child’s learning are welcomed and encouraged in Ms. Rice’s classroom. Families are invited to share special interests, special talents, be guest readers, and to join in all classroom and school-wide events.

At the end of each unit of study, families are invited into the classroom for a celebration, where students share all that they have learned! In addition, Ms. Rice writes a weekly newsletter to families, sharing the events, projects and “celebrations” (Lost teeth, new babies, skills achieved, etc.) that have occurred over the course of the week.

As a veteran early Childhood Educator, Ms. Rice welcomes colleagues to visit her classroom, where she can share ideas, curriculum connections, resources, and her abundance of experience.

The bottom line is that Ms. Rice is passionate about children and about PS31Q.

DANIELLE RODGERS

PS 98, 1st Grade

Danielle Rodgers is completing her 15th year of teaching in the DOE. She is a compassionate educator, who is highly respected by her colleagues, administration, and family community. She started her career as a 4th grade teacher in an ICT classroom in Brooklyn, NY. Within her first year of teaching, Danielle knew her lifelong dream of becoming an educator was going to be more than she ever hoped it could be. Danielle treasured working with her students, and quickly realized that she also loved supporting her colleagues. Danielle eventually transferred to P.S. 201Q and became a 1st grade teacher. In addition, she worked as a Lead Teacher and a Peer Collaborative Teacher before becoming a full-time Instructional Staff Developer for two years. She valued the opportunity to plan professional learning cycles for her colleagues, provide one-on-one coaching session in and out of the classroom, as well as support her colleagues with the implementation of Thinking Maps across content areas.

As much as Danielle loved her role as an Instructional Staff Developer, her true passion was teaching in the classroom full-time. In 2018, Danielle transferred to P.S. 98Q as a 1st grade teacher. It was there that Danielle was able to fulfill her love of the classroom and her desire to support her colleagues. In addition to her responsibilities as a classroom teacher, she is currently a lead teacher and mentor for her colleagues, a member of the Instructional Leadership Team, and Data Specialist. She continuously participates in discussions around school-wide professional learning opportunities and ways to advance the curriculum and instruction to improve student outcomes. One of her proudest accomplishments was organizing school-wide classroom inter-visitations that supported teacher practices across grades. Danielle is looking forward to all she will accomplish throughout the next twenty years of her teaching career!

Vincent Savino

PS 203, Kindergarten

Vincent Savino is in his sixteenth year of teaching and fifth year at P.S. 203. He has spent time teaching first grade, third grade, and is currently wrapping up his fifth year teaching kindergarten. Given the nickname, “Mr. Rogers”, Vincent teaches with a mindset that each child is an individual, with individual needs. One of his biggest joys is getting to know his students likes and aspirations, and using these sharings to motivate learning. In his spare time, Vincent enjoys drumming, working on his Jeep, creating spray paint art, and spending time with his wife, son, and daughter.

Meet our Big Apple Ambassadors for 2020-2021

Samara Rizzotti

PS 46, 5th Grade

Nearing the completion of her 15th year as a teacher at PS 46Q, and taking part in virtual learning in a school year disrupted by Pandemic, Samara Rizzotti has had to marshal all of her teaching and technology skills. This has allowed her to establish effective online teaching and communication with her students, and collaboration with her colleagues during this period of extended remote learning.

Having been a participant in many committees and professional development over the years, Mrs. Rizzotti has established herself as a respected educator in the school, and also an effective voice in leading teacher and parent workshops. Her appointment to District and DOE committees has allowed her to share her insights, as well as gain broader perspectives from these interactions with colleagues throughout the City.

In the classroom setting, Mrs. Rizzotti believes that teaching isn’t just about academic intelligence. Her mission is to also promote social and emotional growth for students. When students feel emotionally confident and supported, their learning and academic achievement will follow. Her signature idea, the “Compliment Car Wash,” teaches students to be kind to one another while feeling joy of giving and receiving compliments. This technique was highlighted in People Magazine’s Online Edition entitled “Beyond the Classroom”.

Although Mrs. Rizzotti has spent most of her career in the 4th Grade ICT setting, her last two years have been at the 5th Grade level. As her students prepare for their first big transition to middle school, it is a priority that she fosters and instills a sense of responsibility, accountability, and independence. In addition, to prepare students for college and their careers, she is constantly researching new technologies such as student engagement, organization on online platforms such as Google Classroom and its applications. This exposure and familiarity will introduce them to the ever-changing technology driven world. These lessons couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.

Alisa Schwartz

PS 46, 1st Grade

Alisa Schwartz is proud to be in her 14th year of teaching at P.S.46Q, her former elementary school. She began her career as a science cluster teacher for grades K-2 and a reader’s theater cluster teacher for grades 3-5. In 2008, she became a first grade teacher, and for the past 3 years, first grade ICT.

She enjoys spending her days laughing, learning and growing with her students. They inspire her every day to teach in new ways, to reach every student. It is important that her children know that they are supported, loved and safe in school. She uses tools, such as the mood meter and the calming corner, to help them identify and discuss their feelings. She also has an open line of communication with their families via Class Dojo and Google Classroom. Family engagement and support is so important to a child’s academic success.

Mrs. Schwartz is the first grade team representative on the School Wide Instructional Team. She collaborates with grade representatives and administrators in order to ensure that everyone reaches their goals together. In addition to discussing school wide initiatives, they analyze TCRWP reading levels and enVision 2.0 math data across the grades to make sure that all students are receiving the supports they need to succeed.

Alisa is also a member of the Bronx Zoo’s Teacher Advisory Council. There, she advises the education department in the development of their programs and materials. This year, she helped to create a teacher’s guide that coincides with the Rodrigues fruit bat episode of the television show “The Zoo” on Animal Planet. This digital resource guide provides teachers with information and activities that they can share with their students about these interesting animals. Her work on the TAC allows Alisa to combine her two passions – education and animal conservation.

EllIE Chung-GLUS

PS 94, Spec Ed/CS4All

Ellie is in her eleventh year of teaching and her fourth year at PS 94Q. She has taught in ICT classrooms, and currently works in a 12:1 setting under her special education license. The principle that every child is gifted and talented in their own special way permeates her teaching style. Her mission is to help each child find their own learning style that helps them access a rigorous curriculum. By espousing a growth mindset in her classroom, she hopes her students will learn the critical lesson that they can overcome any challenge with persistence.

In addition to her teaching duties, she joined the CS4All Cohort 2 team in 2018, and became a CS4All Lead in 2019. As a CS Spotlight school, she has enjoyed helping her fellow teachers integrate computer science concepts into their classrooms, especially through the use of programmable robots. As the Remote Learning Lead, she guides her colleagues through weekly PLCs and holding tech office hours, introducing digital tools so that teachers can reach all students during the remote learning phase.

Since 2016, Ellie has coached for a FIRST Lego League team, the RoboPandas. The team has advanced to the citywide championships and won an award every year since. The team is most proud of its 3rd-place Champions, 1st-place Robot Performance, and 1st-place Core Values awards. Additionally, the RoboPandas were chosen to participate in the 2019 District 26 STEM fair.

Ellie also advises her school’s Tech Squad, a group of student volunteers who support students and teachers with new tech tools. Moreover, she was the activity facilitator for the 2019 STEM Family Fun Night at the New York Hall of Science. She planned and hosted the first Hackathon at PS94 where she involved a local engineering firm and the Francis Lewis HS Robotics Team to work together to judge students’ projects on climate change mitigation.

Being an active member of her school community is what drives Ellie to do her best at PS94Q.

Jennifer Schecter

MS 158, Music

Under her tenure, the MS 158 Band has been called upon to perform for former DOE chancellor Dennis D. Walcott and was honored with a special visit by singer/songwriter Josh Groban, who came to MS 158 to donate instruments and hear the band play. The band has achieved numerous gold and gold with distinction ratings at NYSSMA level III and was featured at the 2018 Borough Arts Festival. An avid grant writer, Ms. Schecter has amassed over 500,000 dollars in grants for musical instruments, as well as materials and facility upgrades for the Arts Department. Schecter’s leadership activities at MS 158 include coordinating the College Access for All Assembly and the Band Buddies Music Mentoring Program.

One of Ms. Schecter’s fervent passions is to inspire other educators to build successful music programs in New York City Schools. Ms. Schecter has taken on twenty student teachers and has mentored young band directors all over Queens. She currently serves as a mentor through the Paul Simon Music Fellows Porgram. Schecter has presented workshops on urban music education in Columbus OH, Chicago, IL and Rochester, NY. As a Big Apple Ambassador, Schecter initiated the District 26 Music Professional Learning Committee where she facilitates professional learning activities for music teachers in the district. She also coordinated the first ever District 26 Night of Music, which involved over 300 students in grades 1-8, representing 12 schools across the district.

Schecter is a DOE Music Professional Development Facilitator and recently served on the Music Standards Writing Team and the Chancellor’s Strategic Arts Planning Committee. Ms. Schecter is the associate conductor of the Queens Borough Wide Band program and has recently conducted regional band festivals in Nassau and Rockland counties. Additionally, she teaches music education courses at CUNY Hunter and Queens Colleges.

In her spare time, Ms. Schecter plays French horn in the Brooklyn Wind Symphony, is an active black belt member of her Taekwondo school, is a wife to a middle school social studies teacher in the district and is a mom to Mikayla, age 6 and Shoshana, age 7 months.

Ciara Morse

PS 94, Physical Education

Ciara Morse will begin her fifth year as a Physical Education teacher at PS 94Q. She was named a finalist for the Big Apple Award during the 2019-2020 school year. Ciara views her role of physical education teacher as the health, social, and well-being facilitator for all learners in the school community. She strives to motivate and engage all students and their families in fun, participatory, and inclusive learning experiences that will enable them to understand and value the power of leading a healthy, skilled, and active lifestyle. She aims to evoke positive responses and attitudes so they can become confident learners who achieve success in all aspects of their lives.

Ciara’s greatest satisfaction is knowing that her efforts to prepare and execute creative, age-appropriate, and skill-based lessons that promote an active and healthy lifestyle are making a difference, no matter how big or small the evidence is. It is exciting to see a student accomplish a personal physical goal or a pair of students providing positive and constructive feedback to each other about a particular activity. When the pandemic required remote teaching and learning, she was thrilled to receive homemade videos in which all family members were participating in a physical activity. The videos reinforced the importance of building healthy interpersonal relationships with all members of the school community as well as to value individual learning differences, cultural backgrounds, and personal interests.

Ciara’s involvement in extra-curricular activities at PS 94Q has provided numerous and varied opportunities for her to maximize relationships with all members of the school community. For the past four years, she has served as the Advisor of the Student Council. In this role, she is responsible for promoting student leadership and participation in school and community service. The Student Council has organized and participated in a variety of service projects ( i.e., “Socktober” collection for St. Mary’s Children’s Hospital; Coin and Toiletries Drive for the Ronald McDonald House; “Jump for Heart” to raise money for the American Heart Association; “Pennies for Patients” for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society; Toy and Food Drive for Fort Greene SNAP; Fun Runs at St. John’s University, Fort Totten, and Alley Pond Park). Ciara and the students have also participated in the NYC-DOE/DOT city-wide video competition entitled “We Are Walking” and won 2nd Place in 2018 and Honorable Mention in 2020. She is especially proud that PS 94Q has earned the NYC-DOE “Move to Improve All-Star” award for the past four years. She and the students have also participated in NYC-DOE CHAMPS BOKS/CHAMPS Basketball before and after school programs. Ciara’s inspiration is also derived from ongoing collaboration with her colleagues and families as they plan, organize, and implement such academic initiatives as the Dr. Seuss Theme Night, Evening of the Arts, Family Fitness Nights, Family Fitness Mornings, Field Days, and field trips to the Billie Jean King Tennis Center and Kids N-Shape.

Ciara truly endeavors to make physical education classes exciting and memorable for the students every day. Her lessons are tactile, have an element of surprise, are movement-oriented, challenging yet fun and reflect her awareness of what each individual needs and seeks to help them feel appreciated, loved, and valued. It is important to convey to the students that we are all connected and that we should experience and accept each other’s similarities and differences. Ciara’s overall goal is for each student to experience the connection to themselves, their classmates and to the world around them and to take ownership of that connection. As the sole physical education teacher, she feels extremely fortunate to have cultivated meaningful relationships with all of the students and their families at P.S. 94Q.

Nadia Abuzahria

MS 216, Social Studies

Nadia Abuzahria started her journey as a 7th grade Social Studies teacher at George J. Ryan Middle School 8 years ago. Known for her innovative teaching, Ms. Abuzahria’s classroom has become a showcase for other teachers in and outside the school building. From 2015-2017, she served as a Model Teacher in the Learners Partners Program in which she shared best practices with partner schools. Currently, she is a teacher leader and her classroom is used for inter-visitations and evolved into a learning lab for teachers and outside visitors of all subjects.

From 2013-2019, Ms. Abuzahria became one of the Advisors of the Student Organization and helped revamp the Student Organization by unifying a student body of Senators for the Ryan Congress to ensure equity among students. While an Advisor, Ms. Abuzahria promoted school spirit and a community-based school culture by implementing a Spirit Day Calendar focusing on spreading Awareness and Diversity within Ryan throughout each month. She helped plan days like Unity Day, Breast Cancer Awareness, Diversity/Multi-cultural Day, and Autism Awareness Day. She assisted in events such as the Ronald McDonald Charity and the S.O.’s annual trip to a nursing home. Ms. Abuzahria played an integral part in having the S.O. Senators become model students and leaders for the school and school community. She took the initiative by delegating students from the Student Organization to lead Professional Development about Diversity in Ryan.

Nadia is passionate about teaching empathy and diverse perspectives in her classroom. One of her class mottos is the word impact. Her teaching philosophy is illustrated in her instruction as well as in the classroom. She believes in promoting student voice, student choice, and student ownership. She infuses real-world connections and technology within her lessons. She creates rigorous tasks and student-centered projects in which students engage in various roles and hands-on learning such as being Crime Scene Investigators, Directors, Real Estate Agents, and perform in an annual Christopher Columbus Mock Trial. Students love when she uses student surveys and student data to implement Chef Abuzahria lessons filled with differentiated student menus.

Ms. Abuzahria is a strong believer in Social-Emotional Learning. Her classroom is filled with motivational quotes and diverse pictures of New York to represent our home. Her classroom has a stress relief section, a success table, and an area for socio-emotional organizational hacks. She also promotes student movement and she utilizes Brain Power throughout her lessons to promote focus, mindfulness, team building, and emotional well-being. Ms. Abuzahria presented Professional Development for the staff about stress-relief strategies for adults and students to further endorse SEL.

Currently, Nadia Abuzahria is a member of the Instructional Team, Interdisciplinary Team, 8th Grade Activities Committee, GEMMs Team as a teacher role model, Social Studies Team, and the Grade Team Leader. Ms. Abuzahria continues to play a key role in the Ryan Community. She was the first to initiate Professional Development about Diversity. As a member of the Senior Committee, she implemented and created a new Ryan tradition called the Senior Appreciation Walk Ceremony. Her goal is to continue to make a positive impact on her students and the school community while creating more innovative ways to teach our 21st-century learners.

Jiyun Chun

PS/IS 178, 5th Grade Math

Jiyun Chun is a 5th grade teacher at PS/IS 178 teaching departmentalized math for both fifth grade classes. She has been teaching for 18 years and has taught 2nd through 5th grade as a classroom teacher and provided academic intervention support services to students in grades 3-5 in literacy and math for many years before returning back to the classroom. She is trainer in Algebra for All, participates in District 26 math professional learning communities in cohort one and is on her school’s Instructional Lead Team. She also works with her 4th and 5th grade math club members once a week.

She always found learning, teaching and exploring with numbers and math fun and exciting but her passion for teaching math was revitalized two years ago when she was provided with the opportunity to attend the summer Algebra for All training. She now teaches math to 5th grade classes focusing on mathematical practices, real world connections and discourse. She engages her students in daily routines and opportunities to justify and reason their thinking through rich tasks, engaging in games to reinforce concepts and writing and providing feedback. As a result, her students leave her room feeling excited about math. Many of her former students approach her in the hallway to just let her know how much they miss the way she taught them math. Many of her explicit teaching examples are relevant to student’s lives and connected to the real-world. During an ordinary trip to see a show you can spot Jiyun’s students measuring the ceilings, estimating the number of lightbulbs in an arena and calculating the cost of gas! She takes pride in knowing that students hold on to the learning and memories they have created together.

It brings her pure joy to see students becoming excited and passionate about math. Her goal is to share this passion not just with the students she works with but with other teachers in the building as well as families.

Jiyun believes that academic success is important but her main focus is to instill kindness and empathy throughout her lessons and interactions with students. She hopes that students strive to be their best selves and to be good people. These qualities are ones that can carry them through life in a positive way and better the world. Investing in people has the best mathematical outcomes…”goodness” that multiplies benefits everyone!

Judith Felice

MS 216, Mathematics

Judith Felice is an eighth-grade math teacher at The National Blue Ribbon School, George J. Ryan Middle School 216, in Fresh Meadows. As a first-generation college graduate, Mrs. Felice passionately believes that every child can achieve their professional and educational dreams despite hardship or adversity. She empowers her students with problem-solving strategies that will support their lives as successful citizens.

In her fourteen years of teaching, Mrs. Felice has designed her math lessons to be project-based and to inspire independence via collaboration in all of her students. She believes that all children can learn and has a high success of student growth in her ICT classes. From lessons that require students to demonstrate the height of a volleyball over time or an activity that challenges students to build giant touch screen cell phones, Mrs. Felice instills in her students that math is the gateway to incredible opportunities in life.

In addition to providing students with rigorous instruction, Mrs. Felice is also passionate about supporting her community by empowering young women to become leaders in today's society. She is the founder of GEMMs, Girls Empowerment Movement in Mathematics, a club that allows for self-growth and challenges young women to take risks building confidence to conquer not only mathematically-driven problems, but also life’s hurdles. In GEMMs, her students not only explore constructing creative solutions to math problems, but they also cultivate their personal growth as women through mentor discussions, listening to former students give advice on high school, and celebrating each other’s successes.

Outside of her middle school, she is a college professor teaching other young educators on how to best teach mathematics in elementary school. She is also a local, national, and international professional development facilitator on best teaching practices. In her personal life, she enjoys good food, travel, and urban hikes. #rewardsofteaching #foreverforward

Meet our Big Apple Ambassadors for 2019-2020

Jo Ann Westhall

PS 31, Computer Science

In 2004, Jo Ann joined the DOE as a classroom instructor at P.S.31Q. By 2013 she had taken on the role of Technology Cluster at that school serving students in grades Pre-K-5. It was at this time she began looking for opportunities to expand the school’s curriculum to include Computer Science (CS) to address 21st Century skills for students beyond the traditional lab setting and provide early exposure to STEM fields for underrepresented students. In 2015-2016, she began extracurricular work with CS4all as a Computer Science Curriculum and Pedagogy Fellow working on classroom intervisitations and a citywide Blueprint to help support an initiative to bring CS to all classrooms throughout NYC. Through this partnership as a CS Fellow and a subsequent partnership for the school with SEP Jr. (Software Engineering Program) she pursued a vision for CS integration that expanded to all classrooms at P.S.31Q. Mrs. Westhall helped grow this expansion in the role of PD Lead supporting other teachers in the school adopting CS integration leading to recognition of P.S.31Q as a NYCDOE Showcase School model.

Today, Jo Ann Westhall continues her work with CS4all, serving as a Teacher Trainer supporting citywide professional development to expand the initiative across the city. She continues to serve as the UFT Chapter Leader and part of the School Leadership Team at her school. For the upcoming 2019-2020 school year she commits to serving as a Big Apple Fellow, working as part of a teacher advisory team, meeting monthly with the School’s Chancellor Richard Carranza.

Justin Barilla

PS 133, 5th Grade Math

Justin Barilla has been teaching at PS 133Q for the last 13 years, teaching 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade. His true passion for teaching math surfaced this school year as he was instrumental in facilitating the implementation of the departmentalized model in 5th grade, serving as the grade’s math teacher. Mr. Barilla is currently part of a 2-year cohort around building best practices in the math classroom and creating environments for students to build conceptual understanding. Mr. Barilla also serves as the building’s lead teacher in math, leading PLC’s and helping to support teachers across grade levels.

Justin is passionate about teaching students the “Why” behind math concepts and engaging them with exploratory problem solving. His lessons are directed toward inquiry-based learning where students grapple around various real world tasks, using their prior knowledge and application through mathematical discourse. Justin is also part of a district cohort where he collaborates with his middle school colleagues to make the transition from elementary to the middle school math classroom seamless. Mr. Barilla initiated the creation of the school’s student council and has grown the program over the course of the last 4 years. He is proud of the collaborative efforts between both the school and local community. It has been most rewarding for him to view the growth and development of student leaders within the school and district. One example is Mr. Barilla’s creation of the PS 133 Math Mentors program. This program became an opportunity for 5th grade student leaders to put their math abilities to work in a peer to peer mentorship. As a member of this year’s Aspiring Leaders Program, Mr. Barilla was inspired by the great leadership work and collaboration happening within the district and looks forward to continuing to share his love of math with students, teachers, and administrators.

Jennifer Schecter

MS 158, Music

Ms. Jennifer Schecter has directed the instrumental music program at Marie Curie Middle School 158 since 2004. Under her tenure, the MS 158 Band has been called upon to perform for former DOE chancellor Dennis D. Walcott and was honored with a special visit by singer/songwriter Josh Groban, who came to MS 158 to donate instruments and hear the band play. The band has achieved numerous gold and gold with distinction ratings at NYSSMA level III and was featured at the 2018 Borough Arts Festival. An avid grant writer, Ms. Schecter has amassed over 500,000 dollars in grants for musical instruments, as well as materials and facility upgrades for the Arts Department. Schecter’s leadership activities at MS 158 include coordinating the College Access for All Assembly and the Band Buddies Music Mentoring Program.

One of Ms. Schecter’s fervent passions is to inspire other educators to build successful music programs in New York City Schools. Ms. Schecter has taken on twenty student teachers and has mentored young band directors all over Queens. She currently serves as a mentor through a the NAfME mentoring program. Schecter has presented workshops on urban music education in Columbus OH, Chicago, IL and Rochester, NY. As a Big Apple Ambassador, Schecter initiated the District 26 Music Professional Learning Committee where she facilitates professional learning activities for music teachers in the district. She also coordinated the first ever District 26 Night of Music, which involved over 300 students in grades 1-8, representing 12 schools across the district. She is a DOE Music Professional Development Facilitator and recently served on the Music Standards Writing Team and the Chancellor’s Strategic Arts Planning Committee. Ms. Schecter is the associate conductor of the Queens Borough Wide Band program and has recently conducted regional band festivals in Nassau and Rockland counties. Additionally, she teaches music education courses at CUNY Hunter and Queens colleges.

Terri Ackerman

PS 162, Pre-Kindergarten

Terri Ackerman has been teaching Pre-K at P.S. 162 for 3 years after having taught kindergarten, first, and second grades for 22 years. As a Pre-K teacher, she hosts visits from other Pre-K teachers to share strategies for increasing CLASS Instructional Support Domain scores. This year, Terri began enhancing her students’ love of books by instituting a literacy initiative she refers to as “Pre-K Book Angels,” which provided each child in her class with a free book every month throughout the year.

When Terri was a second grade teacher, her passion for sparking young children’s love of math led to her being awarded complimentary school-wide access to participate in the First in Math® Online Program which she introduced and coordinated for the school. Furthermore, Terri was successful at motivating her own second grade students to persevere on their own time, and her class quickly became the top ranked second grade class in all of New York State and worked to maintain that title all year! Terri also taught the Math 24®Game to students in grades 1-5 in an after school program, as well as volunteered to hold practice Math 24® sessions for students during her lunch and prep periods.

After Terri was introduced to Pi Day by her son (who was a math major at MIT), Terri introduced and shared materials for a school-wide Pi Day celebration. Her enthusiasm not only motivated her former first and second grade students to exercise their working memory muscles by memorizing between 60 and 200 digits of Pi at home, but her current pre-k class was motivated, as well! In fact, Danica McKellar (famous actress and mathematics author) actually sent a personal video message to Terri’s pre-k class to be shown on Moving Up Day to express how impressed she was that Terri’s class learned 60 digits of Pi from her Pi song!

Barbara Lorenzo & Jennifer Malave

PS 221, 3rd Grade

Barbara Lorenzo is celebrating 17 years of teaching. She currently works at P.S. 221 in a 3rd grade ICT classroom with Jennifer Malave. She has taught in a variety of settings, including self-contained and ICT, with grades Pre-K through 4th. She also pursued her TESOL certification so that she could meet the needs of all her students. She is a member of the Data Based Individualization Team, Social Emotional Learning Committee, as well as the Special Education Team and ELL Team.

Jennifer Malave is a 20-year veteran of P.S. 221. She currently teaches in a 3rd grade ICT classroom with Barbara Lorenzo. She has previously taught in kindergarten, first, and second grades. As a Thinking Maps Trainer, she supported P.S. 221 teachers with the training and resources they needed to implement the Thinking Maps initiative. Currently, she is a co-facilitator of P.S. 221’s Student Organization, as well as a member of the Social Emotional Learning Committee.

Although Barbara Lorenzo and Jennifer Malave have only been working together for two years, they truly are a team. They combined their last names to become one-Team Malenzo. They pride themselves on modeling positive team behavior, so that their students celebrate, encourage, and empower each other. Social and Emotional Learning plays a critical role in Team Malenzo’s classroom. “The Power of Yet” is their class motto. All students feel confident to take risks and excel in their rigorous learning environment. Team Malenzo uses many tools to support their student’s social and emotional learning. For example, they use a class Mood Meter, personal Mood Meters, and take-home Mood Meters to manage their emotions at school and at home. They also utilize a Class Strategy Wall to regulate their emotions. With this knowledge, students are aware of their feelings and often times work together to recognize and manage their emotions. Barbara and Jennifer are also strong proponents of Sanford-Harmony, a Social Emotional Teaching Program that cultivates healthy relationships between children. This program is a part of their weekly routine, and has increased their students’ ability to problem solve and embrace diversity. The focus on social emotional learning has helped promote equity, and ensure an equal chance for success for all of their students.

Contact Team Malenzo for support in ICT Partnerships and Social Emotional Learning.

Vanessa Polonio


PS 376, 1st Grade

Vanessa has had a diverse teaching career spanning 19 years teaching grades K-4. She started teaching in high-needs schools in the South Bronx and Woodside. Currently she is working at PS 376Q, the newest addition to District 26. She utilizes this varied experience to be a grade leader, mentor and constant collaborator with her staff. For example, she is a member of the Consultation Committee, CARE Team, School Leadership Team, Hiring Committee, BRT team, Green Team, and the Sunshine Social Committee. “What we learn with pleasure, we never forget,” is a quote that drives Vanessa’s instruction. As an educator, she creates interactive and rigorous lessons. She engages and challenges her students by utilizing technology, instructional strategies and resources, with enthusiastic energy. Vanessa provides many opportunities for her students to choose their activities and work cooperatively in groups.

As a Reading Recovery Teacher, Vanessa gained the ability to analyze running records and use that data to create personalized lesson plans for each of her students. This differentiated instruction lets her students feel successful in their learning. They feel more autonomous when they use checklists to make sure their work is ready to publish or hand in. They get to be the teachers when they provide their partners with feedback to help them improve their work. Vanessa also believes in educating her students emotionally. She cultivates leaders through classroom roles, mindfulness, cozy corners and mood meters. Recently, her strong belief in the power of technology has led Vanessa to become a CS4all PD Lead teacher. She is teaching her students to use computational thinking to solve a problem through plugged and unplugged activities. In this role she hopes to close the gender and culture gap in the computer science field. She is looking forward to collaborate with her district peers to achieve this goal.

meet our big Apple Ambassadors for 2018-2019

Grace Ballas

PS 159, 2nd Grade

Grace Ballas is a second grade teacher at P.S 159. She is celebrating 19 years of teaching where she has worked as a Reading Specialist, served as an Academic Intervention Coordinator, and has taught first and second grade. At P.S. 159, she was a part of the Learning Partners Team, which was an initiative put together by former Chancellor Farina bolstering collaboration and sharing best practices with partner schools. She has been a grade leader, member of the Consultation Committee, the Literacy Liaison Team, and the Social and Emotional Learning Team. She believes that her enthusiasm, strong work ethic, dedication, love of children, and belief that all children can learn distinguish her as an educator. She is most proud of the success of her students year after year, when more than 90% of her second graders leave her classroom reading above grade level. Her strong background in literacy, extensive training in Readers and Writers Workshop, data-driven instruction, and strong collaboration with parents contribute to that success. In her classroom, she fosters a love of learning and students are intellectually-engaged and challenged. It’s a safe, nurturing, and student-centered environment where the children are encouraged to be active learners, critical thinkers, and risk takers. They are active participants where they hold their own student-led conferences and confer with other peers on particular skills. Her students are celebrated with wall to wall displays of their work containing rubric-based teacher and peer feedback. She strives to teach her students independence, responsibility, and social emotional life skills. Her goal as an educator has always been to instill in her students a love of learning. Mrs. Ballas strongly believes that “KNOWLEDGE IS POWER” and equips her students with a strong, well-rounded foundation and the necessary tools to become college and career ready!

Jessica Ana Kim-Wong

PS 173, 3rd Grade

Jessica Wong is a third grade teacher at P.S. 173Q in Fresh Meadows. Growing up in Paraguay, Mrs. Wong witnessed poverty first-hand. Seeing children walking barefoot and selling fruits on the streets every morning, she quickly learned that not every child had the opportunity to attend school. This injustice shaped her belief that all children deserve a quality education despite their backgrounds. During her 8 years of teaching, Mrs. Wong has worked with various student populations in Boston, Hempstead, and New York City. She designed curricula to meet the diverse needs of her students, shared with colleagues ways to integrate vocabulary instruction in the classroom, facilitated study groups in classroom management and behavior strategies, and attended various professional learning sessions to build her teaching repertoire. Currently, she is the Reading Rescue Coordinator at her school, where she provides support to tutors who work with struggling readers. Outside of teaching, she enjoys spending time with her family and closest friends, particularly exploring cities with good food.

Melissa Niedert

PS 18, Math

Melissa Niedert has been teaching at P.S. 18Q Winchester School for 12 years. She currently teaches second grade in an ICT classroom, and also spent many years teaching third grade. Mrs. Niedert knew from a young age that teaching would be her career choice and was inspired by her mother, a special education teacher. She is the Data Specialist at her school and spends time analyzing the data and determining next steps. Mrs. Niedert loves all subjects, but her true passion is inspiring students to love mathematics. She spends a great deal of time planning out new and exciting ways for her students to learn math concepts. Mrs. Niedert is a math lead in her school and is proud to be working on a school initiative to foster students learning through the use of games and routines in the classroom. She is a member of variety of school committees and has worked on community service projects such as Alex’s Lemonade Stand where she has helped raise over $2,000 to fight childhood cancer.


Pat Ryan

PS 133, 2nd Grade

Pat Ryan is proud to be a second-grade teacher at P.S. 133Q. She has also taught fourth grade and science. Each day she is continually inspired by her students. Ms. Ryan is dedicated towards educating and creating happy, responsible individuals by sparking their interest and engaging them in innovative learning each day. Her love and respect for the environment is instilled in her classroom allowing students to participate in positive learning experiences such as creating and cultivating a class garden, learning about water and our other natural resources, the need to conserve and protect them. It influences students’ ideas and impacts the choices they will make in life. Each year her students explore their role in protecting the environment by learning about New York City’s water supply system. Students enter the DEP’s citywide Art and Poetry Contest to share what they have learned through their poetry with the New York City school community. Over the years, she has had numerous students winning the DEP Poetry Contest as Water Ambassadors.

As a fourth-grade teacher, she led Project WISE (water inspired science education) working cooperatively in an upstate school partnership to increase the communication and understanding about their mutual roles and responsibility in protecting the New York City’s water supply system. Ms. Ryan has been a grant recipient of Green Connections and the Watershed Agricultural Council. She also received the Dr. Eugene Ezersky Outstanding Environmental Education Award from the Environmental Education Advisory Council. She has been a member of the Public Education Advisory Group for the Catskill Watershed Corporation Grant Committee since 2004. Currently she is a member of the PS 133Q Leadership team, a participant in the District 26 Teacher Team Cohort and a liaison for Teachers College Reading and Writing Project for her second grade team. She is dedicated to instilling a love of learning while providing an environment that stimulates and engages her students to stretch their boundaries, take risks within a safe environment while developing their critical thinking skills to help them reach their potential. One of her passions is teaching students about science, nature and creating learning experiences they will always treasure.

Meet our big apple ambassadors for 2017-2018

Steven Blum

PS 205, Technology

A product of NYC Public Schools, Steven Blum is celebrating his 20th year of teaching at The Alexander Graham Bell School, P.S. 205Q. Mr. Blum is the Computer Science Teacher, Student Government Liaison, Basketball/Cheerleading Coach, UFT Chapter Leader, Sustainability Coordinator, Building Response Team Leader, After-School Program Coordinator and also a member of the District 26 STEM Team.

He holds a B.A. in Early Childhood Education, a Master’s Degree in Computer Technology in Education and is a licensed NYS School District Administrator. Recognized by both the Teacher’s Network and Cornell University, Mr. Blum is passionate about motivating tomorrow’s leaders and very proud to be a part of today’s cutting-edge computer science teaching and learning. He loves computer coding, the New York Mets, and Cool Ranch Doritos. #publicschoolproud


Lauren Chun

PS 18, 4th Grade

Having been inspired by her dad who was an educator for over 30 years in Korea, Mrs. Chun, a fourth grade ICT teacher, is passionate about passing on her dad’s legacy through her teaching. She has been teaching over 17 years in the NYC public school system. She loves to play piano for her church choir and write poetry in her spare time. Many of her students’ work have been published in the Children’s Anthology of Poetry. She is a cultural committee liaison that bridges the gap between parents and the school community. She is the Teacher’s College lead teacher for her grade and has brought PBL ideas to enhance student learning at P.S. 18Q.

She often volunteers her time to attend the Material for the Arts to enhance the arts program at her school and attend Book Fairies Organization to provide children with free books needed to foster a love of reading. Additionally, she is a valued member of the school’s vertical team that creates various reading curricula for the school. Under her direction, the school has raised over $1200 to benefit children with cancer. She considers her biggest accomplishment to be influencing a student who was a selective mute to grow confidence enough to passionately present her poetry at the end of the year.


Theresa Hoffmann

PS 94, 4th Grade

Theresa Hoffmann is a 16 year veteran of The David D. Porter School/PS 94Q. Ms. Hoffmann has served on a variety of committees, has been the facilitator for a vertical planning team and the chairperson of the School Leadership Team. In her role as a teacher leader, Ms. Hoffmann serves as a mentor for new, early career and struggling teachers. Additionally, Theresa implemented a schoolwide initiative on the use of choice boards across grades in order to lift the level of rigor in student tasks. Ms. Hoffmann also participated in and completed the District 26 Aspiring Assistant Principals pipeline during the 2016 school year. Ms. Hoffmann is currently the model teacher where she shares best practices with colleagues by coordinating inter-visitations daily in her classroom. In addition, Theresa works collaboratively with her principal, Ms. Avakians, as a “thought partner” to help her school improve each year. Ms. Hoffmann is passionate about teaching and learning and is a lifelong learner herself. She recently went back to school to obtain Students with Disabilities and School Building Leader certificates. Ms. Hoffmann is affiliated with The National Education Association and is an avid reader. An important aspect of her life is her husband, her two sons and watching her eldest son, play baseball.


Jean Posada

MS 74, 8th Grade Science

Jean Posada is an eighth grade science teacher at M.S. 74. For the last 20 years, her roles included being the school's Sustainability Coordinator, Science Ambassador, SLT member, and Consultation Committee Member. She has co-published in Science Scope Magazine, formed a long-standing partnership with Cunningham Park through her Green Team, and has earned her National Board certification twice now.  Her Green Team has won numerous awards and grants for their work and was involved in a partnership with a middle school in Taiwan through the Eco Schools program. To enhance her student's science experience on a global level, she engages in the I-Earn Collaboration Bridge program, allowing her students to collaborate with another school in the Middle East on a global project.  Ms. Posada believes that all children can reach their full potential when given the chance to do so. She is most proud of the fact she continues to be an active life-long learner; pursuing professional development that keeps all of her students engaged as well as foster their love of learning science.


Laurie Kemme

PS 159, Pre-Kindergarten

​Laurie Kemme is a Pre-Kindergarten teacher at P.S. 159. She has been teaching for 16 years and has taught 5th grade, 4th grade, 1st grade, Kindergarten and Pre-Kindergarten. Ms. Kemme became a teacher to help shape the future and instill a love of learning in all of her students. She has been nominated for the Walt Disney award and for the past 3 years, she has been a Big Apple Nominee. In addition, she has been published in the NYC Field Guide to the classroom library, received a grant from PETCO to obtain a pet for her classroom and received funding from Donor’s Choose for 10 projects. The funding has enabled Ms. Kemme to help bring technology to her room, engaging center materials and improve her students’ expressive language skills. She believes in creating an environment that fosters her students’ learning, social and emotional growth and exploration. Pre-Kindergarten is the foundation that creates the groundwork for lifelong learners. Each grade builds upon the previous years’ work and she looks forward to continuing her work of bridging the gap between all of the grades in school. ​


Jessica Zipkin

PS 186, Instructional Coach

Jessica Zipkin strongly believes that mathematics holds a unique entry point for every student. Students with a strong base of mathematical knowledge will have the greatest potential for future success. As the Castlewood instructional coach for the past 3 years, her personal mission is to support teachers in the creation and facilitation of lessons that involve engaging project-based learning experiences with real life applications. Jessica wants her math lessons to be experiences for the students that they will remember, learn from, and look forward to. As a special educator for 13 years, she has been able to draw upon her knowledge to promote equity within both the special education and general education communities. One of her proudest moments was being a presenter at an NCTM Regional conference. Supporting and working with both the teachers she mentors and the staff within her math cohort has enabled her to share her passion for her subject, and open new avenues of collaboration for her school community.