When Raquel Perez needed a safe place to stay, she turned to her teacher, Marleen Signer.
Signer brought Perez, now a senior, into her own home and helped her find a permanent place to live. That was just one of the ways that Signer’s help has been transformative for Perez and countless other students.
Signer, who has taught children with special needs for 39 years, was honored at the Hubbard Life-Changing Teacher Awards Wednesday. As a teacher in the Indianapolis Public Schools McFarland School, she not only helps students master academic skills like reading and writing, but also helps them learn to navigate the world — from riding the bus to getting a job.
“When I graduate this May, I will be the first person in my family to finish high school,” wrote Perez in a nomination for Signer. “I was going to drop out at 14 before I met my teacher. I didn’t like coming to school and I didn’t know how to read. She has made me a completely different person.”
Signer was one of four teachers and, for the first year, two principals who received the $25,000 award in a ceremony Wednesday at the Eiteljorg Museum. They were selected from 10 finalists for the teacher award and four finalists for the principal prize. The honors are funded by Indianapolis philanthropists Al and Kathy Hubbard, who were inspired to create the award after reading a newspaper column about a life-changing IPS teacher.
“Exceptional teachers — the ones who elevate their students and their profession — are the single most important factor in the effort to improve education,” said Ann Murtlow, President of United Way of Central Indiana.
Other winners included:
Stella Vandivier, who works with children who have committed serious crimes at the Marion County Jail School.
Vandivier’s students often have emotional and mental issues, and they can be years behind academically. But despite these challenges, she consistently brings joy to her work, according to students who nominated her.
“It’s very easy for us all to get depressed,” Vandivier said. “But … We are always going to put on that act of being happy.”
Antonia Powell, a sixth grade teacher at School 99, who uses a “tough love” approach with her students to push them toward success.
“She is able to guide and nurture students to become the best they can be,” wrote Daniel Kriech, who works with Powell. “Not only does she believe they can, she backs it up with a never ending daily effort to make sure success is always within their reach.”
Outside the classroom, Powell has transformed the lives of her three nieces who she took in when they were in need of care.
Daphne Draa, a visual art teacher at Center for Inquiry II, helps students take risks and find joy in art. She mentors students, offering academic and emotional support.
“The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my students is about resilience and perseverance,” Draa said. “That just gives me so much joy and hope for the future.”
Draa encourages her students to use art to advocate for their beliefs.
“Thanks to this teacher, my daughter Elizabeth takes risks, sets goals and believes that her voice matters,” wrote parent Judith Cebula in a nominating letter for Draa.
Winning principals included:
Julie Bakehorn, the former principal of School 54, who now leads Arsenal Technical High School, helped the School 54 dramatically improve student performance. The school went from an F to an A on the state accountability scale by holding to student to high standards and focusing on data-driven instruction.
“It’s more than just academics at this school. Ms. Bakehorn pushes for student involvement in extracurricular activities,” wrote Judith Carlile, a data coach who worked with Bakehorn at School 54 and followed her to Arsenal. “Her philosophy is ‘You want students to do well in the classroom? Well, get them involved in activities outside your classroom!’”
Margi Higgs, principal of School 91, is retiring this year but she is leaving behind a changed school. When she arrived, it was a struggling school, but she has refocused the Montessori school, creating a welcoming and collaborative environment, according to parents and teachers who nominated her.
“This principal has made a success story out of my son, who has developmental disabilities,” wrote parent Leesa Hertz. “She treated him as a regular student, helped him make academic gains, set an example of acceptance for him, and had a vision for his success right from Day One.”
Carter Bell, Rousseau McClellan School 91
Maggie Brown, Project SITE
Cassie Davis-Woodall, Key Learning
Para Lee Gale, Charles Fairbanks, School 105
La Meca Perkins-Knight, Theodore Potter School 74
Rebecca Pfaffenberger, Rousseau McClellan School 91
Ami Anderson, ROOTS
Christine Collier, CFI 84
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.