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Recognizing teaching excellence in Bridgeport

April 27, 2019

BRIDGEPORT — It was that part of math class where third graders took over and teacher Ashley Lupo was more than happy to turn the dry erase marker over to a student who normally doesn’t raise his hand.

“Majesty is a very quiet kid,” Lupo confided. When he volunteered, his teacher saw it as an opportunity to make him feel more confident.

Across the city, in Laurinda Rua’s freshmen AP World History class at Central Magnet School, 11 sets of hands shot up when they were asked to say if the fundamental goals of Stalinism were achieved or denied based on primary source documents they had been asked to review.

Asked if they were ready for the AP exam coming in less than three weeks, freshman Amber Szymanski offered, “We will laugh at the exam.”

On May 8, there will be applause, not laughter, when Lupo and Rua receive this year’s Theodore and Margaret Beard Excellence in Teaching Awards. Presented jointly by the Fairfield County Community Foundation and Bridgeport Public Education Fund, the Beard award is now a total $20,000 prize for each teacher given over three years.

Nominated by their peers and selected by a panel of judges after a rigorous review process and classroom visits, the award targets Bridgeport classroom teachers. Recipients become teacher leaders and part of the Superintendent’s Leadership Roundtable.

Outstanding teaching awards will also go from BPEF to eight other teachers at the event: Jennifer Babb and Lisa Petruzelli at Beardsley School, Sharisma D’Amico from Bridgeport Military Academy, Alexandra Lage from Waltersville, Nicole Lynk from Cross, Catherine Mordecai from Barnum, Melissa Sproles from Winthrop and Nanci Zibell from Marin.

Harding Principal Dane Brown will receive the George Bellinger Leadership Award and Chris Myers of Urban Impact will receive the Elizabeth M. Pfriem Civic Leadership Award.

“Good teachers need to be recognized,” said Patricia Anekwe, director of Central Magnet, who nominated Rua for the Beard award.

“She is amazing,” Anekwe added.

Anekwe ought to know. Four of the teachers she has nominated for the award, which began in 2002, have gone on to win.

Always raring to go

Between tackling AP World History for freshmen, something rarely done — College Board spokeswoman Jaslee Carayol said fewer than 10 percent of AP World History test-takers are freshmen — to helping students increase reading levels two to four years in the span of one, Rua keeps students on their toes and engaged, Anekwe said.

Students learn to bring their A game to class.

Rua said she is often surprised to hear that her students act differently in other classes. Or that some students find her intimidating.

“I asked why,” Rua said. “It’s just the way I approach them. I am always raring to go.

“I am a firm believer that learning doesn’t just happen,” Rua said. “I always have a plan.”

When things don’t go as planned, though, Rua’s 18 years of experience as an educator has taught her to think on her feet.

When then-Principal Andy Karcich hired her, he asked what made her think she could teach in an urban school.

She grew up and went to school in the Frog Hollow section of Hartford after her family moved there from Portugal when she was 5, she said. Her sleep was often interrupted by neighborhood shootings.

“These kids are me,” said Rua.

She describes going to college so unprepared she dropped out after a semester.

“I will not let that happen to my students,” she said.

In addition to AP World History, she teaches two sections of American History, a college readiness course and a course in college writing.

When her students spend a class period interpreting World War II propaganda posters, there is no class lecture. They have watched video lectures at home, that Rua personally purchased, and know to pay attention to the role race, gender and age plays in the images they critique.

“They come into class with the context for today’s activity,” she said.

The method gets a thumbs up from Danielle Phillips, a Central junior.

“She’s passionate, very structured,” Phillips said. “She knows what she wants to teach students and does so from multiple perspectives.”

Determined

After subtracting and adding their way through a two-step math problem, Lupo’s class of third graders at Beardsley School collectively figured out how many pieces of candy remained.

“Nice work,” Lupo said. “I want you to stand up if you think you are getting better at word problems. If you are not standing up, don’t give up. You are going to get better at them.”

Lupo calls it a great class. Some years she has had up to 28 students. This year she started out at 25. It is now down to 18 including one new student from Haiti who came in February.

One student, Zaire ByField, 9, offered two thumbs up when asked to describe his teacher. He couldn’t explain why.

Beardsley Principal Sharon Pivorotto had no problem pointing out that it is Lupo’s patience and perseverance that make her stand out.

“She never gives up on a student,” said Pivorotto, who recruited Lupo eight years ago. “Ashley firmly believes that every student in her room can grow. When you look at her data, they do indeed.”

Lupo grew up in the city and now lives here with her husband and 3-year-old daughter. She wants people to see the same potential in her students that she does.

The class just finished the state Smarter Balance test for the first time. It was stressful all around.

“I’m hoping they were able to show what I know they know on a test that really is not an accurate way to see their talents,” Lupo said. “I have students who are talented artist and writers. By the end, they were fried.”

Asked about her successes, Lupo reaches back to that new student from Haiti. He came with no English and no formal schooling.

“His English has exploded,” said Lupo. “He is participating. To see the joy on his face.”

Conversely, Lupo and the class have picked up a bit of French and Creole thanks to Google Translate.

Her advice to new teachers is don’t be shy about seeking help. She does it all the time. In social studies, the class is working on biographies of historical figures. Lupo’s grade level partner gave her the idea to do wax museum “presentations” in May.

“Press a button and the (student) will come to life and speak in character (of the figure they studied),” Lupo said.

Lupo has good ideas of her own. To cement the concept of numerators and denominators, Lupo wrote a fraction rap song with hand motions. The class practiced it daily before math.

Weeks later, she said, “I am willing to bet they still remember the song.”

lclambeck@ctpost.com; twitter/lclambeck