Champion Teacher, Strong Programs at Andrew Jackson School

Filed under: Education,Featured News,Latest News,South Philadelphia |

by Eldon Graham

5th-grade math and science teacher Jayda Pugliese is the crème de la crème of educators after winning a prestigious national award at equally impressive Andrew Jackson Elementary School. Photo by Eldon Graham

5th-grade math and science teacher Jayda Pugliese is the crème de la crème of educators after winning a prestigious national award at an equally impressive Andrew Jackson Elementary School. Photo by Eldon Graham

Excellence on the job is an achievement that all too often goes unrecognized. But when a local teacher was recognized last week, it was as heart-warming as it was well deserved.

Jayda Pugliese, a South Philadelphia 5th-grade math and science teacher at Andrew Jackson Elementary School, was the recipient of the Milken Educator Award, the nation’s pre-eminent teacher-recognition program. The award is designed to honor exemplary teachers, principals and specialists; winning educators, such as Pugliese, have been surprised with a $25,000 prize since 1987.

But parents and children at Jackson School weren’t surprised. This modest, blue-collar neighborhood K-8 public school fields many other stars besides Pugliese and is held up as a model in the School District.

Pugliese didn’t know what she was walking into at what she thought was a normal assembly, in the school gym. “Honestly, I was completely shocked,” Pugliese said. “I was overwhelmed with so much emotion that I began to cry. I kept saying to myself, I cannot wait to tell my husband and family. After that, I knew that at some point, [Lowell] Milken of the Milken Family Foundation was going to invite me to speak to all of the individuals within the room. I was attempting to gather my thoughts for something to say.”

There is no application process; “we find you,” Milken Family Foundation cofounder Lowell Milken said during Pugliese’s award ceremony. The award was created by the Milken Family Foundation, founded by former Wall Street financier Michael Milken and his brother Lowell.

Going forward, Pugliese says she cannot begin to even imagine how this will affect her. “From the amount of attention that I have received, to now being a part of a large professional community of Milken Educators, this is going to positively impact my credibility within this field,” she said. “I know that winning this award will open up many doors in the future if I decide to move out of the classroom and into an administrative position. I do aspire to become a principal one day.”

She described how honored she feels. “Winning this award validates to me that all individuals regardless of their background can achieve success through hard work and determination,” she said. “I do not believe I see myself any differently than I did before. I see myself as a motivated, dedicated and hard-working teacher who loves her job and her students. To me, winning this award tells me that others recognize my passion for this profession and that I must be doing something right.”

Pugliese is the daughter of an auto mechanic and a homemaker who worked at a McDonald’s to help support her daughter’s education. She attended St. Mary Interparochial School in Center City, then St. Maria Goretti High School.

Pugliese’s dedication to teaching stems from a number of people and experiences that helped her find her calling. “First, there is my mother, Tammy,” she noted. “My mother is a very calm and patient woman, and has always enjoyed children. Growing up, my house was always open to the local neighborhood kids to eat, play and be safe. Her kindness was so inspirational, and I believe that is why I am so caring with all of my students.”

But she drew much from those who taught he as well, from elementary school through college. “Many of my teachers were so innovative in their teaching methods and really instilled into me a love for learning. I enjoyed learning so much, that I wanted to share that love with others,” she said.

Adversity Becomes Motivation

Her final inspiration to become an educator is a personal aspect. It involves her disability. “I struggled with being bullied a lot in school, and even more so, some adults told me that I would never amount to anything because of my disability.” She continued, “I am hearing impaired. I believe that being told that at such a young age could destroy a person’s motivation. I never listened to other individuals and always believed that if I worked hard at what I wanted in life, good things will come my way. I know there are many students in today’s society who are bullied for a variety of reasons, and I always tell my students, I used to be one of you.”

She also discussed how her past she tries to teach her students about compassion. “I guess that is why I do character education lessons every month with my students that highlights the importance of kindness and tolerance.”

Growing up with her disability was “very challenging.” She went to a regular school that didn’t have any accommodations for her. She felt as though there was no open-communication environment for her. But these challenges spurred her to work harder and do right. Her calling was to be an advocate for children and mold them in a positive image “I just want children to be accepted, regardless of their background,” she says.

Growing up in a South Philadelphia neighborhood, at 6th & Fitzwater Streets, is especially meaningful to her. She now works at an institution less than 10 minutes away from her childhood home.

“I did not always want to stay close,” Pugliese recalled. “There was a brief time that I wanted to join the Dept. of Defense Education Activity, which are schools that serve military families who are stationed all over the world. I wanted the experience of traveling while also doing a job that I love.”

Unforeseen, but pleasant, circumstances influenced her decision-making. “I changed my mind when I met my husband, Frank Gentile. Now, I have spent my entire career serving the children in Philadelphia, and I am so honored that I am able to serve the community in which I was raised,” she said.

The hallways of Andrew Jackson Elementary School, littered with the flags of many nations to show how the school embraces the cultures that embody the school. It truly is “mini United Nations.” Photo by Eldon Graham.

The hallways of Andrew Jackson Elementary School, littered with the flags of many nations to show how the school embraces the cultures that embody the school. It truly is “mini United Nations.” Photo by Eldon Graham.

It is an understatement to say that the principal at Jackson School, Lisa Ciaranca Kaplan, is very happy for Ms. Pugliese. “It’s exciting,” Kaplan enthused. “To have a teacher recognized for the importance of teaching, it is a very validating achievement, it just an incredible honor. I feel validated, and that someone of the Milken foundation gave that type of recognition [to one of my teachers].”

Kaplan also spoke about Pugliese’s dedications to teaching her students. “You don’t become a teacher because you think you going to get wealthy from it; you do it for so many other reasons.”

“It’s celebrating a Philadelphia teacher who has worked very hard and to be celebrated on a national level is very important and they are like the unsung hero” Kaplan knows what an honor it is to receive national recognition. In 2015, she was awarded the Escalante-Gradillas Prize for Best in Education, also a nationally recognized award for which she won as Best Principal in the nation. She also won the Lindback award in 2013.

Andrew Jackson’s Other Strengths

Pugliese is not the only bright spot in Jackson School. The mission statement for the school is “Working United Towards Excellence,” which Kaplan created mission seven years ago with the school’s diverse community in mind. The school is home to 29 different cultures and 14 different languages – the faculty refers to it as a “mini United Nations.”

Educating students is their priority. From an early age student are taught to do even simple things in a step-by-step method. They even have a system of students entering the building and opening the door. They use that as a learning exercise for younger students to help them learn and do it the right way.

The community is considered a big part of the school. There is an opportunity for other individuals to bring after-school programs to the school such as the Spanish club and robotics.

The school also has programing partnerships with local colleges and universities such as Drexel University, Pennsylvania State University, Swarthmore College, Haverford College, La Salle University, Temple University and Saint Joseph’s University.

Temple University helps run the robotic club to give students a constructive aspect of creating and building together after school. Penn State helps run the school’s Spanish Club. With the help of the organization program Active Cross Cultural Training in Our Neighborhoods (ACTION), they have programs that will allow student to immerse themselves in different language other than their primary.

Last school year, Jackson piloted a program called the World Heritage Week program. The event provided a sample for students to engage with different people and activities about culture and heritage. With the diverse neighborhood surrounding the school, many cultures were explored.

5th-grader Chelsea Liu and 6th-grader Joslyn Hernandez are two students who truly enjoy attending Andrew Jackson Elementary School and all that it offers with its rich diversity. Photo by Eldon Graham

5th-grader Chelsea Liu and 6th-grader Joslyn Hernandez are two students who truly enjoy attending Andrew Jackson Elementary School and all that it offers with its rich diversity. Photo by Eldon Graham

The organization Musicopia has a partnership with the school, in which it teaches students about diverse musical styles and traditions from around the world and of all genres. It gives students a sound hands on experiences of interactive music education using actual musical instruments.

Last Saturday, students of Jackson School played for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at the University of the Arts. Two of the students that had the opportunity to play for Sanders were 5th-grader Chelsea Liu and 6th-grader Joslyn Hernandez. “It was the best thing to have happened to me” Hernandez said, smiling and recalling her time playing for Sanders at such a big venue.

Both girls have a deep passion of music, which led them to seek out the music program at the school. “I joined because I love music” Liu said. “It’s a good thing to do after school at a young age” Hernandez added.

The piano is their instrument of choice. Both girls have favorite songs they like to play. Liu’s favorite song to play is “Sweater Weather” by the band The Neighbourhood, while Hernandez favorites the song “Never Forget You” by the Noisettes.

The piano is their signature instrument they use but they also wouldn’t mind branching out to learn other instruments forms of music such as the Drums, vocals, or bass.

The girl love of music stems from their love of the school. When asked what they think about the school, both agreed it is unsurpassed. “It’s the best” Hernandez simply said. Liu concurred, “One of the best schools I know” she said with all her heart.

Shirley Carroll, the school’s Vista Partner and partnership coordinator, keeps track of all the school’s internal and external partnerships. Their programs house student teachers and interns from the various universities.

There is a club known as the Crazy Eights, a numbers club in which students do math. There is an Italian club, an English as a Second Language program for immigrant children. Two teachers with in the school run the art club and there is also a Rotary Club.

One community partner, Cosacosa Art At Large, creates new public art specific to the concerns of Philadelphia neighborhoods.

Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration senior citizens help run a program called learning buddies and also help run the school’s library. Additional local church partnerships are Christian Street Baptist Church and Hope Baptist Church. The latter does a mentorship program for young African American males who attend the school.

Dancing Classrooms Philly has a partnership with the school. Koresh is free flowing dance and movement program where students can be free. City Step is the school’s movement theatre with the use of hip-hop dance.

After Classes…Come the Clubs

Pugliese doesn’t just do STEM classes. She also runs also runs the HYPE club. HYPE stands for “Healthy Youth Positive Energy.”

She explains her reason for starting the club, “Students need to feel overall wellness.” In the club students can discuss environment and social issues. “It’s a good environment to help students to socialize positively.” The program is after school and runs 3-4:30. It allows for relaxation or working on the rooftop garden.

Another program she runs is Steam Makers, a 3-D printing program in which students collaborate and create 3-D objects. Students can design by hands as well as on the computer.

The program is currently in the midst of creating a prosthetic arm, which the students would like to donate to someone in need. Pugliese has her students research 3-D printer methods.

Before the process of making the prosthetic arm, she had them watch YouTube videos of people who have lost limbs to get a sense of how the prosthetic arm should be made and how it should work. Before Pugliese and her students were trying to assist the medical community, they were running business pitches for products that did not exist and tried to find uses for. Other things they made with the printer were glow-in-the-dark bracelets, “Andrew Jackson Elementary School” key chains, luggage tags and jewelry boxes.

Pugliese raised money through DonorsChoose to buy the printer for the school. This is the first time a 3-D printer has been acquired and used not just by a public school, but an elementary school in the United States.

L-R Amanda Casper, secretary of The Jackson Home-School Association; Lisa Ciaranca Kaplan principal at Jackson School; Marina D’Angelo is the president of HSA. All three women are surely dedicated to making Jackson the best and openly communicated school here is. Photo by Eldon Graham.

L-R Amanda Casper, secretary of The Jackson Home-School Association; Lisa Ciaranca Kaplan principal at Jackson School; Marina D’Angelo is the president of HSA. All three women are surely dedicated to making Jackson the best and openly communicated school here is. Photo by Eldon Graham.

The Jackson Home-School Association communicates to its multicultural neighborhood. Parents comprise the current Board of the HSA. Marina D’Angelo is the president of HSA and has a 2nd-grader in the school. Amanda Casper is the secretary, with a 1st-grader, “We want people to see how much of a gem this [school] is,” D’Angelo said.

Together they manage monthly meetings, give news, assist in introducing new teachers, address “big-ticket” issues and hold forums for parents to discuss anything of importance. The meeting are open to everyone. Half the people in the school community read the newsletters that are sent out. Soon they will implement a new texting feature for English- and Spanish-speaking families.

The plan for the future is to hold community meetings closer to home, in the Hawthorne Cultural Center just up the street from the school. Currently meetings are held in East Passyunk at 10th & Mifflin.

You can reach Eldon Graham at egraham@phillyrecord.com.

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