Four Bronx high school teachers claimed the first annual Sloan Awards for Excellence in Teaching Science and Mathematics on Thursday, November 5. On Thursday, November 12, dignitaries visited each in his or her classroom. The Sloan Awards, presented by the Fund for the City of New York on behalf of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, are based on the Sloan Public Service Awards.
Fredrick Nelson of Wings Academy, Michael Holmes of the High School of American Studies at Lehman College, Richard Lee of the Bronx High School of Science and Nicola Vitale of Banana Kelly High School and three teachers from other boroughs were chosen from applications submitted by parents, students, teachers and school administrators.
Each teacher accepted $5,000 and an additional $2,500 for his or her school’s math and science program.
“What these great teachers share is a passion for [math and science] and a commitment to their students,” explained Mary McCormick, president of the Fund for the City of New York. “They create rigorous…environments in which students learn to excel and to love science and math. They embody the excellence that is found in public school classrooms throughout the city.”
Nelson was raised in Jamaica and came to New York in 2000 for a Master’s degree at City College. The chemical engineer to-be changed course when he became a remedial math tutor and discovered that he had a knack for instruction. Nelson met a Wings Academy teacher at City College and an unexpected career took shape.
A seven-year veteran of Wings Academy in West Farms, the Clason Point resident launched an AP Calculus course and has pushed a handful of students to fours and fives on the AP Calculus exam, remarkable at a school where 94 percent of students qualify for free lunch. His success has inspired other teachers to expect more, Nelson said.
“The culture [at the school] has changed,” he added. “Teachers want kids to take AP courses and go to college.”
Nelson relies on understated but firm instruction, and is known to spend extra hours on preparation. His greatest challenge is to conquer students’ “math phobia,” Nelson said. He lives for students’ “eureka moments.”
Nelson remembers when he told a struggling student that he’d score a five on the AP Calculus exam. The student shook his head, Nelson said. But nine months later, the student did earn a five.
“I told he was capable but he didn’t believe me,” Nelson said. “Then he went and got a five. He told me that I was the first teacher to show so much interest and confidence in him, that he wanted to live up to my expectations, that he wanted to do well for me.”
Today, the student is a sophomore at Baruch College in Manhattan and boasts a 3.9 grade point average.
“Our work often goes unrecognized,” Nelson said. “To have someone, an external entity, appreciate what I do means a great deal to me.”
American students do poorer in math and science that students in many other countries, city Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein said. But they possess the same potential for success.
“The real lesson is that when students have the right teachers…they can do anything,” Klein said.
Nomination for the 2010 Sloan Awards will be accepted from December 1, 2009 through March 31, 2010.