WESTFIELD – The Westfield Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC) hosted its Shining Stars Awards a little differently this year.
The Shining Stars Award honors excellence in education and support personnel who contribute to the acceptance and success of Westfield students with exceptionalities. These individuals go the “extra mile” for special education students, and the award gives students and families the opportunities to recognize Westfield Public Schools staff that have impacted their lives.
The Westfield SEPAC is a parent volunteer group that strives to bring resources, education and a working relationship between families and the school district with regard to special education.
Normally, a celebration is held with the staff and the students and their families that nominated them. This year, SEPAC reached out to families and the schools for nominations, and the staff are being honored in The Westfield News and online.
“I am very excited that we were able to continue with this tradition of celebrating the Shining Stars of the district this year despite the pandemic. The array of talent and excellence in educators and support personnel that lend their skills to support the success of students with disabilities is amazing in Westfield. I am very fortunate to be a part of such an inclusive district that champions all students including those with disabilities,” said Martha H. von Mering, the district’s administrator of Special Education & Related Services.
The theme for this year’s Shining Stars Award is teamwork. Some families nominated more than one staff member as it truly “takes a village” to raise a child. Some nominations also came from fellow teachers, and some asked to remain anonymous.
Christine Fox, a RISE paraprofessional at Highland Elementary school, was nominated by teacher Gail Britton.
“I first met Chris last year. She was servicing four RISE students within my second grade classroom. Every day, Chris entered the classroom with a huge smile and her cup full of chocolate milk. She made a point of interacting with every student in our classroom each day. The children loved her and she loved them,” wrote Britton in her nomination.
“Chris has a guiding philosophy: each child needs to be challenged to reach their personal best. Her students learned to read, add and subtract and write complete paragraphs. But most importantly they learned that they had potential, they were capable and they were valued,” Britton added.
Munger Hill second grade teacher Jennifer Kubic was nominated by the Tracy LaRose family, who said Kubic especially deserves the award after the school closure due to Covid-19.
“She has kept us well-informed through Class Dojo and provided various educational links and activities for us (parents) to keep our kids engaged, continue their learning development, and to keep them entertained. She even posts riddles, scavenger hunts, links to live webcam feeds from zoos and aquariums, kid’s recess videos, drawing with Mo Willems (a favorite children’s novelist and illustrator), and even educational videos that can be watched through Netflix or PBS.com. This creates a broad repository of educational resources to keep the kids interested, and facilitates different learning styles. She is always available for questions, responding quickly and happily,” they wrote.
The person who nominated Southampton Road Special Education Supervisor Deb Ecker wanted to be kept confidential.
“Mrs. Ecker is a caring and nurturing person who puts the student first. She has clear, calm, and concise communication skills that include empathy and consideration of the whole child and their needs. She listens to all stakeholders to get a clear picture of each child in order to make the best recommendation moving forward. She is not afraid to think out of the box and create solutions for some of our most difficult disabled children. Parents appreciate her demeanor and thoughtfulness at meetings. She can truly make the difference in a child’s education,” read the nomination letter.
Marissa and Kyleigh Szczepanek nominated two of Kyleigh’s teachers at Southampton Road School for Shining Star Awards; paraprofessional Savannah Figueroa, and Inclusion and Resource Room teacher Janice Daggett.
“Miss Figueroa is an outstanding advocate for the students she works with. She knows the precise amount of support and level of intervention that each of the students in her care need. She fosters independence and champions her students to do more each day. Her mannerisms and calm approach to her students are essential in providing them with the encouragement they need. Miss Figueroa is also mindful of events and transitions that may affect her students ability to respond appropriately and lays groundwork prior to the event to prevent ill behaviors. She daily puts her students first and makes their day the best she can.”
“Mrs. Daggett has had a huge impact in Kyleigh’s progress and development. Her kind and loving spirit was just what she needed. Kyleigh struggled with confidence and feeling comfortable in school. Mrs. Daggett has been Kyleigh’s confidence booster and safe zone. She makes her feel comfortable even if she is struggling on a topic. She can truly be herself around her. As Klyleigh’s parents , we have seen a huge growth since last year in her progress. Thanks to Mrs. Daggett’s calm way of teaching and guidance and always making her feel confident.”
Westfield Intermediate School teacher Donna Bourbeau was noominated by the family of Ayden Closser, with whom she has worked for the past three years.
“Within the past three years, we have watched our son grow immensely. She is always in contact with us and is always available to answer any questions we have. She goes the extra mile to make sure all of his needs are met everyday and truly cares about her students. Her patience and understanding are truly amazing. Not only does she care about her students, she cares about the parents as well. She always makes sure everything at home is going smoothly as well and is willing to offer help/suggestions. She has made the last three years truly wonderful for all of us. She deserves to be recognized for this and to know that she truly means a lot to our son and us,” they said.
The Leonard family nominated WIS teacher Kathryn Miller.
“We as a family are nominating Kathryn Miller for The Shining Star Award. Mrs. Miller has taught two of our children. Currently our daughter is in seventh grade and just made Honor Roll. She was a student of Mrs. Miller in sixth grade. Colin, our son is in fifth grade and works with Mrs. Miller daily. He enjoys her class and we are seeing a huge improvement in his grades. She has helped them create a toolbox of resources to navigate their school work today and for the future. We hope Mrs. Miller is chosen as her exemplary work has made her a shining star for our family.”
Westfield Middle School RISE teacher Brittney Tattan was nominated by two different people; the first being RISE paraprofessional Jessica Leborgne.
“Brittney is a new teacher in the RISE program for WPS. She goes above and beyond to make sure her students are safe and truly enjoy being at school. Her job is never easy and she always does it with a smile on her face. She has transformed her class into exactly what the students needed and wanted. She listens to her students and involves them always. Westfield Middle School RISE program is truly lucky to have such a fun and caring teacher,” Leborgne said.
Vincent Sarnelli’s mother Dawn D. addressed Tattan directly in her nomination.
“Vincent is a very different young man since you have been working with him. He has shown a lot of growth this year due to your dedication and love you have shown him. He admires you for all you have done. Thank you for everything,” she said.
Dawn D. also named paraprofessional Caitlin Crane for a Shining Star Award.
“Since my son has been in the RISE Program he has been doing much better than he did last year. It is due to all the dedication and patience Ms. Crane has with the students. Thank you so much for all your hard work; it is greatly appreciated,” she said.
WMS adjustment counselor Karl Michalik received an anonymous nomination from a parent.
“If it wasn’t for Mr. Michalik, I’m not sure how my son would have gotten through these years in the middle school. With his guidance and direction, my son has been able to see his true potential and now has the confidence to move into the ninth grade. Mr. Michalik’s door has always been open to my son, and to countless others. They know when they come to speak with him, that it’s a safe place, where they can have an open and honest dialogue and never be judged. He’s an asset to the Westfield Public Schools.”
The Diaz family nominated Westfield High School Special Education teacher Jennifer Hall-Cotto.
“Jennifer has been Nick’s special education teacher for four years and she has been an outstanding teacher and advocate for Nicholas. We are truly lucky to have had her educate and support him all his high school career. Thank you for all that you have done Jenn,” they wrote.
Westfield Technical Academy Special Education teacher Alison Curto was nominated by the Guarente family.
“I can’t say enough about `Ali’ Curto. She has gone above and beyond the call when it comes to my daughter Allison. We first met Ms. Curto at South Middle School when Allie and her twin sister Kristen came to the school in seventh grade. She took the time to meet with Allie and I before the school year started so we could go over Allie’s IEP and talk about what her strengths and weaknesses were, as well as her fears of entering a new school,” they wrote, quoting their daughter Allie as saying, “Ms. Curto is my school mom, I totally trust her and she is my go to person. I always know if I have a concern, I can talk to her in confidence and she and I can work out the problem together.”
The Guarente’s also nominated two chefs from the WTA Culinary Department, Eric Rogers and Phil Mucciarone.
“There is no way that both Chef Rogers and Chef Mucciarone shouldn’t both be given this most prestigious award. They are amazing educators for all of their students. They can teach and learn along with their students on a daily basis. In unique ways they have done so much for my daughter, who is blind in one eye.
“Chef Rogers has allowed Allie to go beyond her comfort level and has instructed her in ways so she can reach her full potential at something she is very passionate about. Chef Mucciarone allows Allie to try new things, and they both have enriched her through their love of culinary, which has given her the learning tools to be more self-confident then she already is. Their positive outlook on life and the job they truly love, shows in each one of their students.
“Allie has told me multiple times that ‘they make learning fun and educational, and there is never a dull moment in the kitchen.’ I am not sure who is prouder of the accomplishments, the students or Chef Rogers and Chef Mucciarone. These two are more than deserving of this award,” they wrote.