Chester Upland teacher Sara Ferguson became a symbol of self-sacrifice and dedication when she and her colleagues announced this month that they would work without pay to keep the bankrupt district's schools open.
Tuesday night, that devotion to her students earned Ferguson a seat in Michelle Obama's box to listen to President Obama's State of the Union address. With her will be a mix of mayors, manufacturers, military heroes, and community activists.
Ferguson was invited to be a guest of the first lady, White House spokesman Brandon Lepow said, because she represents "the need for quality education."
Lepow did not say how Ferguson came to the attention of the White House, but the brief bio issued by the Obama administration quoted Ferguson from a story in The Inquirer.
"We are adults; we will make a way," she told the paper this month. "The students don't have any contingency plan. They need to be educated, so we intend to be on the job."
At the time, the district had all but run out of money and its teachers were preparing to work without pay. While the district remains in crisis, its finances have been temporarily stabilized with a court-ordered $3.2 million payment from the Corbett administration. A long-term solution has yet to be reached.
Ferguson, 48, grew up on Fourth Street in Chester; she is in her 21st year teaching at Columbus Elementary School. Her grandfather, mother, and father were district teachers, too.
"There was never a question in my mind what I was going to do," she said Tuesday in a phone interview from Washington.
No one could better represent the district, said Janet Russello, who just retired after spending 39 years in Chester Upland, 18 of them as a principal. "She is an excellent teacher - every principal's dream," Russello said.
Teaching in Chester Upland can be a struggle, with a revolving door of administrators and oversight boards, constant worries about running out of money and students who, Ferguson said, "go through things that children shouldn't have to go through."
But she is paying back a debt she owes to "so many people in and out of classrooms who taught me so many things," she said. "So every day I do the best for the students in Chester."
Asked if she spent much time worrying about what to wear for the speech, Ferguson said she bought a new outfit, but was not caught up in the hoopla.
"I guess as a teacher," she said with a laugh, "I'm used to dressing up every day for the children."
Contact staff writer Dan Hardy at 215-854-2612 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @DanInq.