Meet the Recipients

2016-17 Big Apple Award Recipients    

The 2016 Big Apple Award recipients were chosen from a pool of more than 4,600 nominations, representing a diversity of grade levels, subject areas, and each of the five New York City boroughs. In addition to continuing their outstanding work in the classroom, these model educators will also serve as Big Apple Fellows during the 2016-17 school year.

Anna Bennett

5th Grade teacher, P.S. 059 Beekman Hill International, Midtown East (02M059)

“Rigor and love” is the mantra Anna Bennett uses to start each morning, and it has also been at the center of her instruction for the past ten years in New York City public schools. Her goal is “To challenge students to take risks, work their hearts out, and do it all with an open mind and a lot of love.” To accomplish this, Ms. Bennett gains insights into her students’ social and emotional needs by playing with them and observing them during recess – what she calls “kid watching.” In her classroom, she creates opportunities for each student to shine. Students lead their own seminars and sign up to learn from one another, while Ms. Bennett uses checklists and rubrics to help them set, monitor, reflect on, and revise their own academic goals. During the 2014-15 school year, 96 percent of her students passed the state math test and 88 percent passed the ELA test. Her principal notes, “She has a knack for seeing the best in everyone. Students who may have previously found themselves on the fringes of classrooms find themselves at the heart of Ms. Bennett’s community.” Ms. Bennett has been able to share these practices by mentoring new colleagues and hosting hundreds of visitors from other schools in her classroom.

Michele Fienga

High School English teacher, James Madison High School, Madison (22K425)

Michele Fienga is a proud graduate of New York City public schools and was inspired to be an educator by her father who taught for more than 30 years. She explains that she and her father, along with many other teachers, shared “a commitment to life-long learning and professional growth. We had a commitment to what we believe education should be.” Ms. Fienga places the humanity of herself and her students front and center in the classroom. She wants her academic environment to reflect her students’ lives, feelings, and personality in order to meet them where they are. “I became a New York City public school teacher not only because I want to provide young people with the skills they need to be successful,” she says, “but also because I want them to understand themselves first.” Ms. Fienga sees literature as an important conduit for self-exploration. In her class, students feel empowered to take ownership of their own learning, through small-group and whole-class discussion class structures. Ms. Fienga prefers to conduct one-on-one conferences that allow her to consider the “whole child” when thinking about her students’ success. It is no wonder that her principal comments, “Every time I visit Ms. Fienga’s classroom, I walk out with a huge smile on my face.”

Carmine Guirland

High School Equivalency Science and Mathematics teacher, Pathways to Graduation @ Bronx NeON, Concourse (79Q950)

Carmine Guirland brings a doctorate in neuroscience and years of experience as a laboratory researcher to his classroom, where his goal is to share his passion for science with young people. After teaching for years in a Bronx middle school, Mr. Guirland is currently in his third year teaching at Pathways to Graduation, a program for students ages 18-21 to help prepare them to earn their High School Equivalency Diploma. Since 2014, Mr. Guirland has supported more than 30 students to successfully earn their diploma. The number of graduates doubled from his first year to his second year in the program. His students praise him for maintaining extremely high expectations, while Mr. Guirland emphasizes a student-centered, collaborative inquiry approach. He varies projects so students can work independently, in pairs, or in large groups, and sets time aside for individual conversations to get to know each student and their preferred learning styles. As a member of the District 79 Content Leadership team, Mr. Guirland designed units of study to develop the district-wide science curriculum. He also serves as the Pathways to Graduation Professional Development Committee science representative, preparing and facilitating professional learning workshops for colleagues.

Jonelle Hinchcliffe

High School Math teacher, Westchester Square Academy, Schuylerville (08X558)

After building a career in advertising, Jonelle Hinchcliffe wanted to do something more meaningful with her life. She became a teacher. Now, with 10 years of experience, Ms. Hinchcliffe teaches geometry for students in grades 9-12. She describes herself as “relentless,” focused on making the content she teaches accessible - no matter what. “My students know that if they ask for help, I’m going to sit down and explain it to them until they get it,” Ms. Hinchcliffe says. This commitment to academic success has led her to try several different instructional strategies to engage her students: interactive notebooks, online software, smartboard clickers to receive immediate feedback, and this year she integrated a “flipped classroom” structure. Ms. Hinchcliffe spent many hours during the past summer recording and organizing a library of 12-minute videos mapped to each geometry lesson. Students now watch their mini-lesson for homework, which opens up time for learning activities in class. Currently, Ms. Hinchcliffe’s students have a 94 percent passing rate. She also serves as a Model Teacher with the Learning Partners Program, opening her classroom for inter-visitations on a daily basis, and coaches the school’s running club.

Nila Johnson

Pre-Kindergarten teacher, 1199 Future of America Learning Center, Fordham Manor (64XAPN)

Nila Johnson has 20 years of experience teaching in New York City schools, in addition to her years teaching in the Philippines and Nigeria. She draws on this wealth of experience to ensure her lessons resonate with her pre-kindergarten students. Ms. Johnson’s classroom is structured around Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, with different immersive environment areas such as a music studio, a publishing house, and a sushi house to engage students’ varied interests and learning styles. Ms. Johnson carefully monitors her students’ choices during center time, and designs instruction to include materials that cater to their interests and lives. That means a lot of hands-on learning, from bringing in chopsticks for students to practice with to an investigation of high fructose corn syrup in which the class studied its physical characteristics, met a corn farmer, and worked with parents to investigate their refrigerators at home to locate food items with high fructose corn syrup. Ms. Johnson carefully evaluates each students’ strengths and areas for growth at the beginning of the year. For a classroom of four- and five-year olds, success can be defined very differently from student to student, but as Ms. Johnson explains, “For my students, success is confidence.”

Jamie Lefkowitz

1st Grade ICT teacher, P.S. 028 Wright Brothers, Washington Heights (06M028)

“I want to be a superhero,” Jamie Lefkowitz says. “Not the kind who scales buildings or has superhuman strength, but the kind who creates a classroom where all of life’s hardships disappear and students are always eager to learn.” Ms. Lefkowitz recognizes the reality of her student’s hardships, half of whom have special needs and nearly 40 percent of whom are English Language Learners. “They are the real superheroes,” she acknowledges. Since joining Teach For America eight years ago, Ms. Lefkowitz has worked to strike a balance in her classroom between structure and freedom; her goal is to maximize learning time while fostering independence and collaboration. She maintains a focus on college and career success, inviting professionals from diverse fields into the classroom so students have the opportunity to learn from and interview them. In 2014-15, all of Ms. Lefkowitz’s students either met or exceeded their reading benchmarks. She founded her school’s Public Relations Committee, which entails planning events for families, a pen pal program, workshops, and speech and language screenings.

Bushra Makiya

8th Grade Math teacher, I.S. X303 Leadership & Community Service, Morris Heights (09X303)

In 2003, Bushra Makiya was working in Baghdad with USAID, supporting the organization’s work on assessing and revitalizing Iraqi schools. The experience convinced her that she wanted to be more directly involved in education – specifically in the classroom. Ms. Makiya has since spent 12 years teaching in NYC public schools, where she emphasizes the creation of a risk-taking culture, normalizing errors and encouraging students to debate between several potential answers to a math problem. In this design, students serve as the math authorities while Ms. Makiya plays the role of facilitator. To reinforce this dynamic class structure, she created a training program to empower student leaders hold peers accountable for listening, contributing to the dialogue and moving beyond procedural thinking to a higher-level understanding of mathematics. Ms. Makiya also designed a data tracking “ReMix” system in which students record their own mastery of Common Core standards after each unit and are then provided re-teach opportunities to review their gaps and to take new assessments to demonstrate improvement. This system is now used school-wide. 100 percent of her students have passed Algebra I in the last three years. Outside of her classroom, Ms. Makiya serves as a Peer Collaborative Teacher and a Math for America Master Teacher, supporting her school community in the transition to Common Core, establishing a new teacher mentoring program, and providing school-wide professional development.

Angela Manekas

4th Grade teacher, P.S. 232 The Walter Ward School, Lindenwood (27Q232)

The daughter of two retired physical education teachers, Angela Manekas has taught at P.S. 232 for the past 11, and this year is working with a talented class of fourth graders. Inspired in part by her father, who taught at a school for the deaf, Ms. Manekas’s students sign the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. Her principal views her as an expert guided reading teacher, and encourages other teachers to observe her classroom and collaborate with her on this technique. During close reading, student groups use color-coded annotations and generate higher-order thinking questions to hold one another accountable to learning objectives. In order to engage students and parents in at-home reading, Ms. Manekas collaborated with the school’s literacy coach to develop book logs that encourage students to write about their reading three times per week, responding herself once per week. In the 2014-15 school year, 91 percent of Ms. Manekas’ students demonstrated proficiency on the New York State math exam, including 69 percent scoring Advanced. A marathon runner in her personal time, Ms. Manekas coaches her school’s New York Road Runners Young Runners Program, sharing this passion with 20 to 30 students in grades third through sixth. Three of her students attended the 2015 NYC Marathon to cheer her on.

MaryBeth Meenan

2nd Grade Autism teacher, P.S. 102 Bayview, Elmhurst (24Q102)

Marybeth Meenan began her professional life as an accountant, but ultimately decided to return to school to become a teacher – a choice she calls “The best decision of my life.” Her previous career serves her well, though; as a former accountant, Ms. Meenan finds that collecting and analyzing student data comes naturally to her. Ms. Meenan, has now been teaching for ten years. This year she teaches a class of seven students with autism, each of whom are appreciated for their uniqueness. Through daily use of Applied Behavior Analysis, she employs specialized strategies to develop both academic skills, such as decoding and comprehension, and socialization skills, such as problem solving and taking turns. Ms. Meenan incorporates positive reinforcement to praise students demonstrating positive interactions promoted by student behavior charts. Her impact on these children is undeniable, as each of her students has advanced at least three reading levels this year.

Dana Monteiro

High School Music teacher, Frederick Douglass Academy, Harlem (05M499) 
- Big Apple Arts Award Recipient

On a trip to Brazil, Dana Monteiro was amazed and inspired by a visit to a samba school rehearsal where 250 drummers performed simultaneously. Despite having little background knowledge of this art-form, Mr. Monteiro decided he wanted to bring that experience back to his students. 10 years later, Mr. Monteiro now leads a massive program of samba performance groups – some as large as 75 students – and many of whom have performed all over the city for organizations such as TED Talks and the Clinton Global Initiative. Many of the students have had the opportunity to perform abroad or with local music ensembles. Mr. Monteiro’s program emphasizes peer instruction: older students share their knowledge and skills with younger classes each year and peer groups form each lesson to give constructive feedback. Since that initial journey, Mr. Monteiro has made 20 return trips to Brazil in order to continue researching participatory music education. He emphasizes the value of inclusivity in learning, saying, “Each day our building shakes with the sounds of drumming, because every student knows how to play an instrument.”


The Big Apple Arts Award is made possible by generous funding from Lincoln Center Education.

Dominique Nute

6th Grade Math teacher, One World Middle School at Edenwald, Edenwald (11X529)

Growing up in Chicago, Dominque Nute remembers “How it made me feel when I did not sense I was receiving the education that I thought I deserved.” She learned early on the value of a good education, and she understands the frustration for students struggling to meet their academic requirements while dealing with challenges outside of the classroom. This is why Ms. Nute makes the most of her time in the classroom, where she has taught for eight years. “She understands that every second matters,” her principal says. “Students are engaged and focused on mastering objectives at all times.” Ms. Nute provides frequent, individualized feedback to each student in the room and pairs them for small-group instruction based on their assessment data. In each of the last two years, 80 percent of her students finished in the 90th percentile or higher for growth on the state mathematics exam. She serves as a Peer Collaborative Teacher, working with colleagues to implement best practices through coaching and professional development around maximizing instructional time. Ms. Nute also mentors new staff members.

Angela Saccaro

2nd Grade teacher, P.S. 55 Henry M. Boehm, Staten Island (31R055)

When Angela Saccaro was five years old, she already knew that she wanted to be a teacher. And now, after 23 years as a New York City educator, her enthusiasm remains contagious. Each morning, she and her students open the school day by singing, “Today is a great day to learn something new.” That new learning might occur via a STEM investigation or by studying a complex text. Throughout these different lessons, Ms. Saccaro promotes metacognitive thinking so that her students are able to articulate “Where they are, where they need to go, and how they are going to get there.” In 2014-15, one quarter of her students began the year reading below grade level; by June, all students were reading at or above grade level. Ms. Saccaro serves on her school’s Inquiry Team and collaborates with her colleagues through vertical planning. Her goal is to create a group of lifelong learners with high self-esteem. One student’s parent was thrilled by Ms. Saccaro’s love of teaching expressed through the time she took to read and respond to detailed letters written by the parents. “Ms. Saccaro always has a smile on her face. Her classroom is filled with learning and love,” the parent said. Ms. Saccaro’s principal sums it up by saying, “Angela Saccaro teaches like every student’s life depends on it.”

Aleksey Shats

3rd Grade Special Education teacher, P.S. 024 Andrew Jackson, Flushing (25Q024)

When Aleksey Shats moved with his family from Ukraine to the United States at the age of 11, he attended New York City public schools. Later in life, he remembered how his teachers were able to help him develop the skills and knowledge he needed to attain success, and was motivated to become an educator. Now in his seventh year as a special education teacher in New York City public schools, Mr. Shats focuses on making the curriculum accessible to his students, many of whom are English Language Learners. He supports colleagues in math, social studies, and English to write units of study aligned to the Common Core Learning Standards and incorporates learning scaffolds to enable all levels of students to navigate complex texts. Sixty percent of his students with individualized education programs achieved grade-level proficiency on the math state exam; an additional 25 percent accomplished this in reading. Mr. Shats also seeks to include students’ parents and families as active learning partners by identifying supports that can be provided at home and monitoring students’ progress. “I hope that my students are not only encouraged by their ability to be successful at mastering grade level content,” Mr. Shats shared, “but also learn the value of their education and are encouraged to set high, achievable standards for themselves.”

Helen Sink

Middle School Science teacher, P.S. 007 Samuel Stern, East Harlem (04M007)

Ten years ago, looking for a new challenge, Helen Sink evolved her career from NYU Medical School research scientist to New York City public school middle school science teacher in East Harlem. In her classroom, Ms. Sink uses multiple strategies – reflecting and revising and retooling as needed - to meet students’ changing needs and interests. She uses humor to keep students engaged in rigorous activities like fetal pig or cat dissections. Socratic discussions are regular features of her practice, as Ms. Sink generates a series of questions to push students to more complex understandings of scientific concepts. As a Model Teacher, Ms. Sink conducts inter-visitations with colleagues to help improve their practice, particularly focusing on spiraling and techniques for reinforcing content. She is also currently piloting an after-school beginner coding course for her middle school students. Ms. Sink’s students have demonstrated high levels of achievement, attaining a 100 percent pass rate on the Living Environment Regents exam, including 94 percent of students scoring 80 percent or higher. Ms. Sink is also particularly proud that her courses give students the foundation to continue succeeding in science, going on to take advanced or honors science courses and, in several cases, pursuing careers in STEM.

Zaharoula Skulikidis

High School Social Studies teacher, Long Island City High School, Astoria (30Q450)

A lifelong Queens resident, Zaharoula Skulikidis attended New York City public schools from Kindergarten through 12th grade, and went on to complete undergraduate and graduate degrees at Queens College, CUNY. She has spent the past 14 years teaching Global and U.S. History at Long Island City High School, where she also serves as a Peer Collaborative Teacher facilitating data discussions, supporting her colleagues to create lesson plans and collaboratively strengthen teaching practices, and conducting inquiry using Hochman writing strategies across content areas. Her principal praises her as “The kind of professional educator and human being that I would want my own child to be taught by, ” and sees her dedication and perseverance as models of the spirit of her school’s mascot, the Bulldog. Ms. Skulikidis keeps her classroom humming with student activity, and each unit incorporates art or music to bring history to life. Her students have attained a very high passage rate on both the Global and U.S. History Regents exams for the past five years. When reflecting on these achievements, Ms. Skulikidis argues, “Success is way more than passing the Regents. Success means students going on to college and fulfilling their dreams. Success means they are excited about learning, and they show up ready to engage because the history of the world is relevant to them.”

Chelsey Tubbs

5th Grade English Language Arts teacher, KIPP STAR College Preparatory School, Manhattanville (84M726)

When Chelsey Tubbs applied Teach For America in 2007, she specifically wanted to teach in New York City because she saw the opportunity to try new and innovative practices to better serve children here. “I became a teacher to combat the academic inequities facing urban schools and students of color, the same issues that I faced as a child,” she says  Ms. Tubbs brings very high expectations to her class of 31 fifth graders, many of whom enter her classroom reading far below grade-level. She has created a culturally responsive curriculum that emphasizes character education and provides unique learning experiences, such as a partnership with Columbia University where her students learn to write computer code. Ms. Tubbs also holds monthly parent and family workshops to model ways students can be supported after school. Her principal raves about the culture of reading she has created, saying, “She has inspired her students to want to put in extra time by constantly sharing data with them, celebrating their growth, and holding them accountable for their learning. The transformation is powerful.” For each of the past four years, Ms. Tubbs’s students’ reading growth has ranked in the top ten of all KIPP teachers nationwide, as measured by the Measures of Academic Progress test. In 2014-15, her class ranked third nationally.

Sara Yerry

2nd Grade Dual Language teacher, Brooklyn Arbor Elementary School, Williamsburg (14K414)

Sara Yerry was attracted to the New York City Teaching Fellows because it afforded her the opportunity to unite her passions for child development and the Spanish language. In addition to her 11 years in the classroom, Ms. Yerry serves as her school’s Dual Language Coordinator, mentoring colleagues, fundraising, hosting parent and faculty meetings, and mapping out the curriculum for multiple grade levels. She also leads school recruitment efforts for both students and educators. Ms. Yerry creates a multitude of opportunities for her students to practice oral language skills by partnering English Language Learners with native speakers. To encourage even more language interaction, she taught her students sign language to help them to communicate even in the face of language barriers.  Ms. Yerry’s impact on her school’s dual language students has been substantial; students in dual language classrooms at her school have outperformed their peers in monolingual classes by 25 percent this year. Additionally, some of her own students who looped with her from 2013-14 to 2014-15 have grown by as many as 12 reading levels in just two academic years. Ms. Yerry is a firm believer in dual language instruction, saying, “I witness the beauty of two-way language instruction. Students in my classroom are joyful language learners who understand cultural diversity.”