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Excellence in Teaching winners announced (Photo gallery, video)




Damaris Sanchez grew up in a Spanish-speaking household and failed kindergarten because of the language barrier. Having persevered to become a teacher, she passes on to her second-graders a message of resilience and hope.

Daniel Ogilvy, a preschool teacher for 11 of his 18 years in education, landed at the District’s gateway point by chance. Now he scraps to get young learners off on the right foot, driven to create the kind of classroom he would want for his own son.

Skill and passion, molded by perspective and life experience, helped Sanchez and Ogilvy join eight colleagues Tuesday in winning this year’s Excellence in Teaching Awards. The winners also received $5,000 apiece and will be honored at a gala next month.

A complete list of winners can be found below.

This is the third year for the awards, a partnership between the George Gund and Cleveland foundations, the District and the Cleveland Teachers Union. The goal is to spread best practices by honoring teachers who set a standard of excellence and serve as an example for their peers.

Two teams fanned out Tuesday morning to surprise nine winners in their classrooms. One whose year-round school was on break got the news at the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library, where she had been invited by her principal on the pretense of having a planning session.

English teacher Leslie Perry-Hanley pressed her hands to her face and wiped away tears as a crew bearing balloons entered her classroom at the Cleveland School of Architecture and Design, part of the John Hay Campus in University Circle. Her students applauded.

“She is absolutely awesome,” said Principal Tianna Ferguson, who described Perry-Hanley as nurturing and caring. “She really drills down to individual students’ needs and learning gaps. She structures her lessons to fill those learning gaps.”

At Willow PreK-8 School in Slavic Village, the fourth-graders chanted “Go, Mrs. Smith” after teacher Stacey Smith learned of her award.

Smith, a teacher for 19 years, also shed tears, despite proclaiming herself a tough cookie. “A sweet cookie,” a boy in the class interjected.

Smith taught the children in third grade and, by design, continued with them this year. Asked what makes their teacher special, students described her with words like respectful and helpful.

“She teaches us everything we need to know,” said a girl named Shayona. “And she loves us all. She treats us like we are all one of her own.”

Bumped from his previous assignment, Ogilvy was in Alaska on his honeymoon 11 years ago when teachers were choosing from open positions. His mother, acting by proxy, reported through spotty reception: “All they have is preschool.”

Ogilvy thoroughly researched the specialty, signed up for professional development and turned to mentors like Dora Bechtel, a preschool teacher who is now his new principal at James A. Garfield School on West 140th Street.

To give his students experiences they may sometimes lack, he frequently turns to the nonprofit crowdfunding site, Among his projects: building a big sandbox to simulate going to the beach and acquiring tricycles so the children learn to ride.

“I take this really, really seriously,” Ogilvy said. “We can set the tone for these kids. It’s very important to me to help kids find that love of learning and plant that seed.”

Sanchez’s colleagues at Clark PreK-8 School, also on the West Side, praised her for, among other things, maintaining a classroom full of hope, love, support and laughter.

Sanchez’s parents came from Puerto Rico and spoke only the Spanish she absorbed; her father died when she was young. She thinks of those challenges in inspiring her 23 students, including 15 who are English learners from Spanish-language countries. Slightly more than one-fifth of Clark students are English learners.

“I tell them there’s hope, the future can bring a brighter day,” said Sanchez, who lives in the neighborhood and is known for forging strong relationships with families. “You work on what you struggle with. Once you master that, you move on to something else.”

Excellence in Teaching Award winners must demonstrate instructional expertise, creativity and innovation in their classrooms, make learning engaging, vibrant and relevant for students and set a standard of excellence for all teachers. Winners agree to share their practices through means such as posting sample lessons, blogging and leading workshops.

Colleagues nominated 133 teachers representing 72 schools. Nominees were invited to submit applications that were screened, with names redacted, by a review team composed of PreK–12 and higher education, philanthropy, community and civic representatives.

The other winners include:


  • Sara Burdette, preschool, Douglas MacArthur Girls' Leadership Academy
  • Brett Baisch, physical education and health, Bard High School Early College West
  • Josette Compton, ninth-grade English, Cleveland High School for Digital Arts
  • Michael Szalkowski, culinary arts, Jane Addams Business Careers Center
  • Lisa Swet, second grade, TESOL, Marion C. Seltzer
  • Tamera Zelwin, grades 6-8, math, Orchard STEM School


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