Updated 5:15 p.m.
In a city where schools are beset by low graduation rates, teacher retention issues, a lack of playgrounds and uncertain funding, making the most of childhood education takes superstars willing to go above and beyond.
Since launching our Who’s Next series four years ago, Billy Penn has been honored to feature more than 500 of Philly’s most promising young leaders. In this edition, we invite you to get to know some of the city’s most impressive education professionals under the age of 40.
These dynamic teachers, grant writers, project coordinators, principals and founders may have vastly different day-to-day schedules, but they’re all aiming to lift up the overall education climate in Philly.
Below, check out this year’s 16 outstanding honorees in the field of education, listed in alphabetical order. Pick up tickets to meet them in person at a networking happy hour on Tuesday, Feb. 26.
Native Ohioan Ayris Colvin remembers her high school self as “a girl with a bad attitude problem,” but two teachers — Kim Warfield and Jennifer Lewis-Thorton — and a guidance counselor, Debra Sellers, helped inspire a lifelong dedication to educating kids like herself. “The way I wanted to reach students specifically from inner-city areas, and poverty was through strong relationship building,” Colvin said. After graduating with a masters from Temple, and working as a Special Education teacher at a couple of different Philly-area schools, Colvin was nominated for a two-year PhillyPLUS residency that in 2015 placed her at Building 21, a secondary school with a unique approach to personalized learning pathways. She hasn’t looked back since, and now serves as the school's principal.
South Jersey native JuDonn DeShields taught in D.C. before becoming homesick — and sick of schools overly obsessed with test results. In Philly at the time, the Big Picture Learning network was launching with a imagined education model focused on strong relationships and real-world learning. DeShields was especially interested in a position at El Centro de Estudiantes, which serves teens and young adults who've spent time outside school for “nontraditional” reasons (pregnant, parenting, court-involved, etc). He remembers thinking, “Oh! This is dope! How can I get involved with this right now?” DeShields has now been at El Centro for nine years, for the past five as principal. “It is hard because the principal does a lot,” he said, “but in my mind, a good principal simply puts the people around him or her in the best place to do the actual work.”
Gerald Dessus has known he’s wanted to teach since the seventh grade, when an English teacher at his Allegheny County school introduced him to the Bluford Series, a collection of YA novels set in a high school in a fictional California city. “I was able to connect with characters that looked like me and shared similar experiences," Dessus explained. "I wanted to provide that opportunity for students in Philadelphia.” After earning his masters at the University of Kansas in 2016, he became a middle school teacher at Mastery Charter Shoemaker and helped pilot an all-new curriculum focused on past and current issues of social justice. Under Dessus’ guidance, students have been deeply evaluating important movements and moments in civil rights history, including Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Occupy Wall Street, South African apartheid and the Black Panther organization.
As a grant and development specialist for the School District of Philadelphia for the past two years, Dena Driscoll helps score additional money to fund local schools. Her team raises around $50 million a year from competitive federal, state and private grants. Driscoll, who was raised in Jersey and came to Philly for college — a bachelors in history at LaSalle and a masters in museum education at UArts — told Billy Penn that while she's always been interested in child development and education, it was previously from an "outsider point of view." Over the last decade, Driscoll has learned the nitty-gritty of trying to make sure schools can achieve their needs. "Not all of our schools have playgrounds, not all of our schools have items they need to succeed, not all of our schools have a librarian. It is disappointing when we can’t fulfill those needs," Driscoll said.
When Marvin Dutton was growing up in the Frankford section of Northeast Philadelphia, he experienced the trauma of a child exposed to high rates of poverty and crime, he said. One parent struggled with substance abuse, and he lost his brother to gun violence. Throughout those challenges, Dutton found strength by giving back to the community and becoming an educator and entrepreneur. While working for the Children's Defense Fund and attending Penn State Abington, Dutton served as a community literacy consultant, implementing reading curriculums for community-based organizations, including churches and schools. In 2013, Dutton launched Marvin's Education Services, which began as a kindergarten preparedness program, but soon blossomed and expanded into schools across Philadelphia and New Jersey. It now also provides after-school programs and, as the company's most significant component, contractual substitute service. In 2015, Dutton received the Presidential Volunteer Service Award from President Obama.
"I always say that I was born this way to do this work," said Darlene Hemerka, staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center. Hemerka, who has cerebral palsy, spends her days advocating for teens with disabilities in the Philadelphia School District. Unlike many of the teens that she assists, Hemerka was fortunate to have a supportive family that never saw her disability as an obstacle, and went to a school that was well-equipped to accommodate her needs and make her feel like she was included. "I think, for some time I thought that everyone sort of experienced that," she explained, but as she got older, she realized that was far from true. She decided to go to law school, and work to ensure students could get the services they deserved. With seemingly boundless energy, Hemerka teaches students and their families about secondary transition services and works to ensure the district is living up to its legal and moral mandate to help all children.
Hailing from a long line of teachers and educators, Brandon Holiday felt he was almost predestined to follow this path. After attending Widener University for a degree in social work, Holiday moved to Philly in 2015 and got a job as a community projects coordinator for YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter, which serves dropouts between the ages of 18 to 21. Holiday is dedicated to accomplishing his goals of inspiring and uplifting Philadelphia youth — particularly young men of color — through a holistic approach, focusing on advocacy and community empowerment. At YouthBuild, he developed a Men’s Conference, which focused on healthy relationship building, mental health, financial literacy and volunteering. Holiday is now at Overbrook High School, where he's developed and implemented a Wellness Wednesday program that gathers students for yoga, meditation and self-care workshops.
Known to students as "Mx. Luebbert," Fairmount native Maddie Luebbert is the fourth generation in a long line of teachers. Near the end of their graduate school program at Penn in 2017, they prepared to lead a class for the first time. "I was thinking about how and when to show myself in the classroom and what that might mean," they said. With other colleagues, Luebbert organized the Caucus of Working Educator's Queer Organizing Committee to create the space that they and other LGBTQ school staff lacked. Luebbert considers themself fortunate, because their principal at Kensington Health Sciences Academy is actively trying to make it more queer competent and friendly — which they recognize is not necessarily the norm. Via the Caucus' monthly Monday meetings and a large email list, people have been able to reach out to share resources or troubleshoot, and are able to come together and pick each other's brains on how to create more inclusive possibilities for both educators and students.
Searching for jobs to help support his mom when he was 14, Frankford native Nasir Mack stumbled upon Philadelphia Youth Network's summer Work Ready Program. Thanks to the program, he landed a year-round internship with local engineering firm Pennoni. A career in engineering wasn't exactly right for him, he realized, but finding a way to give back through entrepreneurship and education was. "Opportunity is the best thing you can give someone," Mack said, describing his plans to found a fashion and music company that provides apprenticeship and educational opportunities. As a current sophomore at Temple, He's working toward that dream by being involved in the Fox Student Philanthropic Society, which raises money to help students in need and educates people on the power of philanthropy. Mack is the youngest sitting member of the board of the Philadelphia Youth Network.
Tim McAleer hails from Long Island, N.Y., but he fell in love with Philly at first sight. "I can still recall seeing the skyline while visiting my brother at Temple University, and feeling its mystique," he said. He scored a teaching position in Juniata, where he formed a curriculum that taught via real-world examples. During a summer gig giving tours the summer of 2013 on a double-decker bus, McAleer realized they could be a powerful way to make an impact on the city's youth. In 2016, McAleer launched Founding Footsteps and Teach 2 the Core, which work hand-in-hand. Teach 2 the Core is an eight-week summer program in which 14 students research, write and learn how to present an African American History tour. When the "top student" is selected, they have the chance to present their tour as their own. One-third of the proceeds go to them, one-third goes to the nonprofit that sponsors Teach 2 the Core, and the other third goes to help out another community organization.
For a while, Flannery O’Connor thought her theology degree from Boston College was totally unrelated to education. But when she joined the Alliance for Catholic Education program, she instantly felt the power of teaching. “In some way, shape or form," she said, "I knew I would be involved with promoting quality education for the rest of my life.” After she received her masters at Villanova, O'Connor found her place at Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School. Like at the other 22 schools in its network, Cristo Rey only accept students below a certain income level — and part of the curriculum includes working to help cover cost of their own education. Over their four years of high school, students gain the experience of four paid internships, which has helped create an eye-popping college acceptance rate — 100 percent for every class since the school opened seven year ago. "The best part about all of this is that none of our families pay more than $200 per month," O'Connor said. Her first two years at Cristo Rey, O'Connor was an admissions director, but now she is back in the classroom teaching theology and serving as an instructional coach.
Lindsay Shafer was raised in a small, rural town an hour southeast of Pittsburgh, but after graduating from Penn in 2003 with a B.A. in Anthropology, she fell for city life and decided to make Philly her home. She then spent 11 years working at Penn in various education-related positions, and eventually obtained her masters there. In 2015, Shafer altered the course of her career by shifting her focus from Locust Walk to City Hall, and she is now the associate education director at the Anti-Defamation League. Her role is to work with school communities to help them create a climate and culture in which all students feel safe and respected, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability and other aspects of identity. “Diversity is a strength, and I would love to see Philadelphia’s schools continue to create environments inclusive for all,” Shafer told Billy Penn.
As far back as she can remember, Victoria Tamburro's family were fans of live and classical musical – and she and her sisters were encouraged to pursue creative expression. “We often performed together in nursing homes and hospitals, especially around the holidays to lift people’s spirits," she said. "I consider these moments to be my first teaching experiences.” By the time she graduated high school in Manahawkin, N.J., she was studying the trombone and euphonium with Philadelphia Orchestra soloist Tyrone Breuninger. She went on to study music education and performance at Temple, and landed a job at Hope Partnership for Education as the middle school music instructor. She loves seeing the sense of confidence and achievement students gain when they master instruments and songs.
Over the past nine years, Holta Tegu has amassed an impressive collection of honors and distinctions in the education field. An Albanian immigrant, Tegu said her drive and dedication was inspired by her parents, who came to the U.S. to provide better educational opportunities for her and her sister. Attending school in Philly, she noticed how stark the differences were between the magnet schools in Center City and those elsewhere in the city. To address and learn more about the disparity, she spent two years at Teach for America after graduating from Penn, and then moved into the classroom. She's now at the People for People Charter School in North Central Philadelphia, where she serves as the assistant principal for grades 5 through 8. After visiting nearly 50 different schools in the city, she believes the district is not nearly where it should be in terms of rigor. "We are essentially doing a disservice to our children by giving them work that is two grade levels under. ... Culturally relevant pedagogy is key," she said. Tegu offers professional development for her teachers every Friday to focus on data and make sure that students are meeting their marks and building upon their strengths in the classroom.
“The momentum right now around early literacy in Philadelphia is incredible,” said Abby Thaker, who directs strategic partnerships for the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Read by 4th campaign. The citywide coalition of parents, organizations and volunteers works to ensure all children in Philly have the opportunity to become strong readers by the time they are in the fourth grade. Thaker's been heavily involved in the campaign over the past three years, working closely with each participating group, finding opportunities where they can align efforts, create new resources, and learn from one another’s experience. “One of our big goals as a campaign is to make sure that all children have access to books in their homes,” Thaker said.
Illinois native Michelle Wallace wanted city life but didn't want to move to Chicago "because that's what everyone did." So after college she packed her bags with camera equipment, and became a Philly transplant in 2013. Her first gig in was an internship at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, working specifically with Teen Photo, the center's free after-school program. It was there that she realized she wanted to channel her art into working with youth, teaching them the basics and advanced skills of photography. "I was 15 when I was first introduced to photography," she said, "and it has become such an important, profound medium in my life, and for life in general." Participants of Teen Photo are given cameras for the whole academic year and part of the summer, and at the end of eight months, their work is turned into a formal gallery exhibition. Wallace and her colleagues are currently aiming to expand the program to allow 100+ students to enroll for the next academic year.