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Excellence in Teaching winners announced (Photo gallery)




Kitty Merk began teaching with CMSD 27 years ago and almost didn’t make it through the first month. Now she is a model teacher.

Merk, who teaches sixth grade at Orchard STEM School, and nine colleagues across the District learned Tuesday that they have won this year’s Excellence in Teaching Award. The honor goes to teachers who demonstrate instructional expertise, creativity and innovation and set an example for their peers.

CEO Eric Gordon and a team traveled across the city, walking into classrooms with balloons and words of praise. Puzzled at first, students signaled their approval with cheers and applause.

Merk might have had trouble envisioning this day in 1992. She had been on the job at another school for just three weeks, trying to manage a class that had a parade of substitutes the previous year. The instability had made them hard to control, and tired of crying each night, she lined up a position at a day-care center.

“I was going to go,” she said. “Then something came over me, and I thought, ‘If you leave, you are no better than the substitutes who left these kids and left them behind. And you’ll never know if you can do the work.”

Nearly three decades later, the answer to that question is no longer in doubt.

Students respond to her caring attitude and commitment to treating each of them in an equitable manner. She encourages the kids to imagine their possibilities and has this message plastered on her classroom door: “Set your goals high, and don’t stop until you get there.”

“She makes you restart if you are not at your best,” said Grace, a seventh-grader who was in Merk’s class last year. “She won’t take anything she thinks you can do better on. I realized that she was trying to make me better. It benefited me in the long run.”

The George Gund and Cleveland foundations, the Cleveland Teachers Union and the District began presenting the award four years ago. Orchard has now produced three winners, including Catherine Duplisea, one of four finalists last year for Ohio Teacher of the Year.

“Kitty’s pretty awesome,” Duplisea said Tuesday. “The thing I see is how much she gets kids to love school. They love to learn.”

Similar profiles emerged at stops across the District. Colleagues and students congratulated teachers they said demonstrated passion and commitment.

The award presentations began in chemistry teacher Purnima Cheruvu’s classroom at the Cleveland School of the Arts. The CSA administration and teachers had praised her for a “desire to be the best,” providing students with diverse experiences and preparing them to master college-level work.

“She is just a bright spirit. You can tell she really loves teaching,” said Noel, a junior. “Her teaching style engages you.”

Next door, at the Cleveland School of Science and Medicine, social studies teacher Timothy Trepal said he was humbled to receive the award.

Trepal, who teaches Advanced Placement and honors courses, said a master’s degree program he was in at Cleveland State University emphasized social justice. He has transferred that focus to the classroom, talking to students about wealth disparity, gun issues and other topics relevant to them and their community.

Pelumiobasa, a junior, said Trepal’s AP Government class is one of the hardest on his schedule. But he said the teacher breaks down the content and makes learning fun.

“Kids are working as soon as they get in,” Principal Michelle Perez said. “Periods fly by because lessons are that engaging. It’s almost magical.”

Students at Wade Park School said another award winner, Helen Robinson, a special-education teacher in the first through third grades, supplies them with “good strategies” in reading and rewards them by making them her “lunch buddies.”

“She pulls students aside and tutors them,” Principal Lee Buddy Jr. said. “Anything a kid needs, she goes above and beyond to make sure they are taken care of.”

The award program is designed to elevate the teaching profession in Cleveland. Winners are asked to share their practices by means that could include blogging, posting model lessons online, allowing other teachers to observe classes or conducting professional development.

Colleagues submit nominations on behalf of teachers who must then apply. This year, 111 teachers from 63 schools were nominated. A diverse group of reviewers, including representatives of PreK–12 and higher education, philanthropy, the community and civic leaders evaluate redacted applications.

Winners also receive $5,000 and are honored at a gala.

This year’s other winners include: Maureen Anderson, physical education, Douglas MacArthur Girls' Leadership Academy; Andrese Howard,10- to 12th- grade English, Lincoln-West School of Science and Health; Kristen Lasley, fifth- to eighth-grade special education, Riverside School; Hallie McEntire, first grade, Louis Agassiz School; Marc Pohlman, fourth-grade math and science, Charles A. Mooney School; and Rebekah Ward, ninth-grade English, Facing History New Tech High School.