Photo by Sarah Walor
From left: Fox’s Julie Crowder, St. Catherine’s Sherry Oelkers, Hanover High’s Daniel Bartels and Fairfield Middle’s Amanda Hall, at Fox
Julie Crowder at Fox Elementary
In her 10 years at William F. Fox Elementary School in the Fan District, Julie Crowder has built a deep-seated connection to the community, particularly by trying to engage students with what art can accomplish in the public sphere. “I am first and foremost an art teacher, but the kind of art that I encourage belongs to and in the culture,” she says. “I think that art is at its best when it isn’t on the refrigerator with a magnet for just the family to enjoy, but when it engages the community in a conversation.” Examples include a family day on Belle Isle, building “gnome homes” from natural materials like grass, sticks and rocks, and collaborating with the art teacher at Binford Middle School on Floyd Avenue to have students from both schools create chalk “art carpets” connecting them.
Sherry Oelkers at St. Catherine’s Middle
After coming to St. Catherine’s 12 years ago to build the Spanish program, Sherry Oelkers has found a whole other mission: working with the girls to reach out to disadvantaged communities. Oelkers coordinates the middle school service-learning program, which “now operates as an organizational think tank that the students named SOCKS (Serving Our Community, Kids’ Style),” she says. Twenty-four students meet twice a week to brainstorm ways to help the community, keeping “their eyes and ears open, always studying the community to identify needs.” The result has included raising funds for the VCU Massey Cancer Center and St. Stephen’s Food Pantry, mission trips to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and working with homeless people at the Daily Planet, a nonprofit that has been providing health care and other support to the homeless since 1969.
Daniel Bartels at Hanover High School
After a hiccupy start to his academic career, Daniel Bartels has clearly found the passion and rhythm in his teaching. He has spent the past few years bolstering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and Robotics in Hanover County schools, and he has become a passionate advocate of FIRST Robotics, a program in which students have six weeks to design, fabricate and test a robot. “We need to create an environment where [students] feel safe taking risks so that their innate creativity can flourish,” Bartels says. “FIRST Robotics provides just such an environment, and I continuously see its impact on my students.” Bartels cites a student who had struggled with AP physics before working on the FIRST team; she’s now a junior in college with two NASA internships under her belt. In the coming years, Bartels is looking toward new technologies that will engage students beyond the standard requirements, including integrating 3-D, video and virtual design.
Amanda Hall at Fairfield Middle School
Although she is on leave from teaching to finish graduate work at Virginia Commonwealth University, Amanda Hall’s impact on her students and community continues. After focusing on service learning and real-world issues, she asked her students what they would like to address in their community. “They brought up the need for food security and the lack of access to ‘good,’ affordable food in their neighborhood,” she says. “They wanted a school garden, so we got a garden!” The quarter-acre garden and outdoor learning pavilion are the site of an after-school program that engages 60 students a week with “lessons focused on growing food, soil health, food and wellness, food and culture, environmental issues and food security/social justice topics.” From the garden to the service clubs Hall helped put in place, students at Fairfield have found voices and a purpose that had eluded them before her tenure.
John Stevens at Thomas Jefferson High School
With 20 years of teaching experience, John Stevens has the kind of résumé that makes him a natural fit for Richmond Public Schools’ only high-school International Baccalaureate program. After a stint in Ecuador, Stevens says that working in a program that includes native Spanish speakers is a no-brainer, and he notes that students embrace the diversity. “During lunch, all the native speakers have personal conversations with our IB students in Spanish. They eat together, sing songs and converse. Very interesting dynamic!” Beyond that, Stevens focuses on bringing the real world into the curriculum by “looking for ways to incorporate Java programming and CAD into the curriculum in order to bring even more relevant math to the classroom.”