Honoring Philly's 'incredibly good' teachers

English teacher extraordinaire Jada Warfield-Henry in her 9th grade English class at Sayre High.

Michael Franklin makes science, technology, engineering, and math lessons come alive for elementary school students.

Jada Warfield-Henry tells her high school pupils to dream, and then she pushes them to turn their ambitions into concrete realities.

Ivey Welshans takes no nonsense from her middle schoolers, but in return she showers them with love and support.

They are the sort of teachers students remember, exemplars in their profession. They are three of the 60 Philadelphia School District teachers being honored Tuesday by the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation with $3,500 prizes for excellence in teaching.

Philly School District's Lindback winners for extraordinary teaching

The foundation has awarded more than $3 million to city educators since 2008; it has expanded its reach to honor elementary and middle school as well as high school teachers this year.

Recognizing extraordinary educators operating in challenging circumstances is critical, said David Loder, a Lindback trustee.

“All of us need to recognize that the Philadelphia public schools are serving an incredibly important function, and there are some incredibly good teachers and things going on in those schools,” Loder said.

“I fell in love with the idea of teaching kids” - Michael Franklin

The nation’s first civil engineering club for middle school students as certified by the American Society of Civil Engineers is at Chester Arthur Elementary, a neighborhood school at 20th and Catharine Streets.

It’s there because of Michael Franklin, a science, technology, engineering, and math teacher passionate about his work.

Camera icon  Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer
Michael Franklin, teacher at Chester Arthur Elementary School, talks to his 5-6th grade STEM elective students about solving the problem of litter and trash on their street.

In his eight years of teaching, Franklin has helped transform Arthur into a laboratory of innovation where even kindergartners have meaningful lessons in STEM. That is a buzzword in education these days but something Franklin lives and breathes, from the maker space in his classroom to the outdoor lab, a playground that doubles as a thriving teaching space, complete with sundial, raised garden, and 50-meter track.

“My goal is to open kids’ eyes that this stuff is all around,” Franklin said. “I want to give them the opportunity to do something really big. I want them all to have opportunities.”

Once bound to be a mechanical engineer himself, Franklin shifted course as a Drexel University student when he mentored a fourth grader named Joe.

“I fell in love with the idea of teaching kids,” Franklin said.

He still loves it, from the classroom work to the after-school clubs -- the civil engineering kids, the LEGO robotics kids.

And though the hours are long and the pay is a challenge -- any possible salary increase frozen amid a district contract stalemate, Franklin must work a weekend job to make ends meet -- it remains a joy, he said, lighting up at the remembrance of two former students who are headed to college to study engineering.

“That’s the reason I do what I do,” Franklin said. “If I quit right now, my career would have been a success.”

“What would I want if this was my kid?” - Jada Warfield-Henry

Warfield-Henry didn’t set out to become a teacher. She grew up dreaming of being Clair Huxtable, the law partner TV mom from The Cosby Show, and followed that dream to college and law school. She worked for the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse, an organization that helped prosecutors put people who hurt children behind bars.

But it was difficult, emotional work, and when Warfield-Henry heard about an alternate-route program that would make her a teacher in Philadelphia, she jumped. She ended up teaching at Overbrook High School, surprising herself by how much she loved working with older students.

Now, she’s in her 10th year with the district, and teaches English at Sayre High, a neighborhood school in West Philadelphia. She’s the “whatever-needs-to-be-done” person, coordinating special-education services, truancy work, community partnerships, and more.

“My motto is: ‘What would I want if this was my kid?' ” said Warfield-Henry. That means she has knocked on doors to meet families, helped launch Sayre’s first-ever honors classes, and held end-of-the-year dinners for her senior English students, with food she and her family cooked and served themselves.

Warfield-Henry wants her teens prepared for the real world.

“I’m honest with them,” she said. “Going into the college arena, they’re coming in at a deficit compared to a national standard. It’s not their fault, but they’re not going to be able to use that as a crutch.” So she preps them:  When you get to college, seek out tutors, use the writing center. I push them hard.

“They know that not doing is not an option,” Warfield-Henry said. “They can ask for help. They can fail the first time. You set the bar for kids, and then you push them.”

“I want to be the reason that someone learns to read” - Ivey Welshans

Most of us have a teacher who makes such an impression we remember them decades later. For Welshans, it was Ruth Copenhaver, the fourth-grade teacher who gave out Christmas presents and wrote Welshans’ name on the board when she got a good grade on a test.

“You didn’t mess around with her, but she was so loving and generous,” said Welshans, who grew up in Central Pennsylvania. “I felt safe in her classroom.

Camera icon  Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer
Ivey Welshans, left, teacher at Middle Years Academy, engages with student Quentin Thomas, right, about a story they are all reading together during her class.

That experience helped propel Welshans to become the first in her family to graduate from college. It took her to Philadelphia, where she is now a special-education teacher at Middle Years Academy, a citywide admissions humanities-based middle school in West Philadelphia.

For 17 years, Welshans has done for students what Mrs. Copenhaver did for her: act as a fair but firm presence, the first person they come to if they need something. She works with MYA’s students with special needs, delighting in their victories small and large, advocating for them at all times, in partnership with parents, who always have her cellphone number.

Welshans is an ace in the classroom, but she doesn’t stop there. She chairs MYA’s Helping Hands, a community-service group. She is the school’s softball and volleyball coach, and everyone knows she keeps school uniforms, supplies, and food for students who need them.

The work is difficult some days, but it’s always meaningful, said Welshans, who earned a prestigious designation as a National Board Certified Teacher in 2013.

“I want to be the reason that someone learns to read,” Welshans said. “I’m not going to win a Nobel Prize, but I may teach someone who wins a Nobel Prize.”