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High school teachers win Schapiro Award for excellence in teaching

Award nominations are submitted each year by graduating Northwestern seniors

This year’s Morton Schapiro Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Awardees have transformed students’ lives in ways still unfolding, yet already evident and profound.

Given annually to five teachers based on nominations submitted by graduating Northwestern seniors, the Northwestern Schapiro Award honors excellent high school teachers from around the world for their professional and personal commitment to students. The awards carry a stipend of $5,000 for each teacher and $5,000 for each of their high schools.

The 2023 Schapiro Award recipients are Deepshikha Ahlawat, Colette Beausoliel, Joseph Graciosa, Jason Stanford and Michael Van Krey. They will be honored during Northwestern’s 165th Commencement Ceremony on Monday, June 12 with the award named for Morton Schapiro, the 16th president of Northwestern.

Sponsored by the Office of the President with cooperation from the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) and supported by the Associated Student Government, the awards recognize the transformative power of teachers in our lives and communities. 

To choose winners, a selection committee — comprising Northwestern faculty, staff and students and chaired by Timothy Dohrer, assistant professor and director of the Master of Science in Education in SESP — considers essays from graduating seniors about their former high school teachers. Nominated teachers also submit letters of recommendation and teaching portfolios, which explain their philosophies on education.

“Through their thoughtful teaching and guidance, this year’s honorees made transformational impacts on five of our graduates,” said Northwestern President Michael Schill. “Their lessons in perseverance, intellectual curiosity and empathy helped build for these students a foundation for success at Northwestern and in life.”

Deepshikha Ahlawat

Nathaniel Narbonne High School, Harbor City, California

Deepshikha Ahlawat
Deepshikha Ahlawat

Academic and personal stressors made Almaya Wiley-Yancy’s senior year in high school particularly challenging. She knew she needed to talk to someone. After encouragement from her older sister, she reached out to her counselor and teacher, Deepshikha Ahlawat.

Ahlawat was not only understanding, but continuously looked for ways to support Wiley-Yancy and her family. She connected Wiley-Yancy, now a senior in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, with a local community program that offered support to families, and she would check in on her periodically to ensure that the situation was improving. This experience with Ahlawat shaped Wiley-Yancy's educational career at Northwestern.

Ahlawat has been a social studies teacher for 28 years, including nine years in her native India. Her enthusiasm for the subject matter is contagious, and her lessons are well-planned, thought-provoking and interactive. She has a unique ability to make complex historical concepts understandable and relevant to her students. She also has been a leader in Narbonne High School's efforts to integrate technology into the classroom — instrumental in the design and implementation of several digital learning tools that have greatly enhanced student learning and engagement for the entire Narbonne community.

"Watching my students overcome such massive trials and tribulations inspired me to keep honing my own professional skills in order to become the best teacher I could be for them," Ahlawat said.

Wiley-Yancy remembers spending countless hours in Ahlawat’s classroom eating lunch and discussing current politics during her two years in AP World History and AP Government. 

“Her classroom was a safe space for me and the first place where history piqued my interest,” Wiley-Yancy said. 

She is grateful to Ahlawat for teaching her to ask for help during difficult times.

“Learning to advocate for myself as a low-income student has been challenging, but the receptiveness of Ms. Ahlawat gave me the confidence to do it.”

Colette Beausoliel

John F. Kennedy High School, Tamuning, Guam

Colette Beausoliel
Colette Beausoliel

“Beyond explaining what she knew, Ms. Beausoliel showed us how we could use our questions to conduct research to learn more,” Yvan Chu recalled. “[She] inquired alongside us, teaching us how to think and approach problems.”

This approach taught Chu, a senior in the McCormick School of Engineering, how to be a critical thinker.

Colette Beausoliel, a pioneer in STEM education in Guam, helped instill the confidence many students needed, including Chu, to pursue their interests in STEM.

John F. Kennedy High School in Tamuning, Guam, is located in a low-resourced district, and funding was not readily available to participate in STEM competitions outside Guam. Beausoliel established and led the robotics program, spending countless hours fundraising for students to attend competitions and designing the robotics and pre-engineering curricula. 

Chu and his team qualified for nationals in the Real World Design Challenge. Beausoliel wrote solicitation letters and proposals to sponsors and pooled together $10,000 for them to attend the competition in Washington, D.C. Beausoliel's dedication to her students is evident in her willingness to tutor students in physics almost every lunch period while also teaching environmental science for credit recovery classes and coaching STEM competition teams after school and on weekends.

“Enthusiasm to learn for the sheer joy of it enables me to transform the classroom, by creating a space where curiosity, questioning, researching, creating, laughter and joy have free reign,” Beausoliel said. “This setting supports all students.”

By teaching her students to investigate their curiosities, Beausoliel empowers her students beyond the classroom.

Today, Beausoliel leads a team of JFK High School students that won the NASA TechRise Student Challenge. In coming months, the students will measure the concentration of microplastics and other environmental information from high-altitude balloons, gaining insights on plastic degradation as a part of the NASA-run program. 

Said Chu: “Through our conversations, I began to see that the people shaping the world were no smarter than myself nor the people around me.”

Joseph Graciosa

Eric Solorio Academy, Chicago

Joseph Graciosa
Joseph Graciosa

Lorenzo Rivera remembers Joseph Graciosa, a computer science educator and robotics coach, fighting for his students’ well-being at Solorio Academy High School in the Gage Park neighborhood of Chicago.

“Mr. Graciosa has done more than a salary can compensate,” said Rivera, a senior in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “While a lot of teachers say they wanted to see students succeed, Mr. Graciosa’s actions speak for themselves.”

Rivera recalled how Graciosa would arrive at school early to help students with corrections and tutoring, and stay after school to accommodate students with extracurricular activities.

“I think he was cognizant that many of us had jobs or took on additional stress because students lived in a lower-income neighborhood, and quite frankly, things like violence were present,” Rivera said.

Graciosa, a Northwestern alum, helped build the computer science department at Solorio Academy.

“Our computer science program was essentially nonexistent, but thanks to his tenacity and guidance, students are now able to obtain an associate level degree in my high school,” Rivera said.

“Computer Science must be a subject for all people,” Graciosa said, while underscoring the historically high barrier limiting access for women and people of color. “I truly believe that computer science is a vital tool for anyone engaging as a 21st-century human, as it provides great access, agency and empowerment to those who are sufficiently exposed to it.”

Graciosa also serves as an advisor for Solorio’s DREAM Team, a student group for undocumented students and allies. The group builds community through storytelling, connects students to scholarships and other opportunities and advocates for immigrant rights.

“He embodies our institution’s striving for excellence and inclusion without expecting anything in return,” Rivera said.

Despite the challenges of teaching in a lower-income neighborhood, Graciosa's dedication to his students has made a lasting impact on their lives.

“While he has taught me how to code, I think his life lessons and selflessness have taught me more,” Rivera said.

Jason Stanford

Niles West High School, Skokie, Illinois

Jason Stanford
Jason Stanford

As the long-time sponsor of Niles West High School’s Mock Trial team, Jason Stanford has influenced the lives of countless students. According to Irena Petryk, a senior in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, he creates a welcoming and inclusive learning environment where students can thrive.

Petryk described Stanford as someone who goes above and beyond to provide his students with the resources they need to succeed, including a fund he created to help students procure professional clothing.

“Confidence comes from preparation,” Petryk recalled Stanford telling the Niles West team. “Though I used to roll my eyes at the truism, I’ve come to appreciate the lengths to which Stanford (as the team affectionately called him) went to give his students the opportunities to build their confidence.”

By coaching his students to arrive on time to practices and competitions with their parts memorized and objection responses practiced, Stanford instills a sense of discipline and dedication that serves his students well beyond the classroom.

He is not only an advocate for his students, but also a champion of fairness and equality. Petryk remembered Stanford standing up for team members who were subjected to sexist or racist comments from judges. Furthermore, under his guidance, the Niles West team went from never having won a tournament to consistently taking first place at competitions and placing in the top 10 at international tournaments.

Stanford also worked to make mock trial more accessible for students outside of Niles West, partnering with local attorneys and judges to establish the Skokie Invitational, one of the largest mock trial invitationals in the state, and also expanded Empire Mock Trial to Chicago.

“The most important thing that I learned about the craft of teaching is creating a collaborative learning environment is the key to ensure academic success for all students,” Stanford said.

Petryk said she puts “his lessons to use frequently,” adding, “As I leave Northwestern for new experiences, it is Stanford's kindness, selflessness and dedication that I hope to embody.”

Michael Van Krey

Evanston Township High School, Evanston

Michael Van Krey
Michael Van Krey

Affectionately known as “Van Krey Sensei” to his students at Evanston Township High School (ETHS), Michael Van Krey teaches five Japanese classes a day, runs multiple after-school clubs and is an expert at using technology as an educational tool.

Van Krey was Liam O'Carroll’s Japanese teacher for four years at ETHS. He said his unique and varied classroom activities were as effective as they were fun. 

“Every year, he would create a wonderful week-by-week online syllabus full of assignments, learning expectations and additional resources of his own creation,” said O'Carroll, a senior in the McCormick School of Engineering.

He also used weekly "little assessments" that could be retaken until students achieved mastery and created an e-portfolio for students to keep track of their classroom successes and reflect on what they could improve on in the future.

ETHS’s Japanese language program has been a source of excellence and community for over 20 years. Van Krey's website is a treasure trove of carefully curated lists of Japanese educational videos and other tools, which were invaluable to O'Carroll and his fellow students. Van Krey even entered ETHS into a program whereby students could communicate online with Japanese students, which was a highlight for O'Carroll.

“I teach Japanese not only to hone students’ practical skill of developing multilingualism, but perhaps more importantly, to apply this battery of cognitive tools to realms far beyond the study of a world language,” Van Krey said.

He organizes a biannual trip to Japan for students, which includes a one-week homestay at ETHS’s sister school in Minamiuonuma. Planning this trip requires multiple fundraising events, and Van Krey’s efforts ensure that income is not a barrier to participating.

“I was fortunate to go on this trip in 2018, and it was one of the best experiences of my life,” O’Carroll shared. “When I think of Mr. Van Krey, I think of ‘excellence’ — excellence in teaching, creating community and giving once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to so many students.”