Manassas special ed teacher wins Horace Mann Award

Kellie Blair Hardt was like a pinball Thursday afternoon, bouncing from one pair of students to the next in a science classroom at Metz Middle School in Manassas.

In her black Skechers and white lab coat, a red pen tucked into her hair, Hardt rarely stopped moving. The recipient of the National Education Association’s Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence was everywhere at once, and never in one place for long.

The award, along with a check for $10,000, is given annually to five teachers from across the country at the Salute to Excellence in Education Gala in the District in February. One of the five will receive the NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence and $25,000.

Hardt, a special education teacher, is known for her ability to connect with her students and teach them to advocate for themselves. Until this year, she taught science in a classroom that was exclusively for special education students. Now she is an inclusion teacher, supporting a group of eighth-grade special education students in general education classrooms throughout the day.

“She has a great deal of respect for kids, all kids,” said Melissa Saunders, principal at Metz. “She really sets high expectations and expects children to reach those expectations. There are no excuses; there are no ‘I can’ts.’ It’s this is what you can do, and I’m going to help you get there.”

School hasn’t always been a comfort zone for Hardt. She was expelled from Seneca Valley High School in Montgomery County halfway through the ninth grade and court-ordered to attend a Job Corps program in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. She completed her GED there and then went to work at a Kmart in Manassas. She was done with school.

Then a co-worker who noticed Hardt’s interest in art drove her to Northern Virginia Community College and paid the fees to sign her up for an art class. Hardt, who says she had designs on becoming an animator for the Walt Disney Co., was back in school.

A chance meeting in the cafeteria led Hardt to speak at a meeting of the school’s chapter of the Student Virginia Education Association. She went for the free pizza, and while there, a light went on, she said. Hardt wanted to be a teacher.

“I was so afraid of school because I’d had such a hard time with it,” Hardt said. “I failed at school, so it wasn’t for me. It was [at that meeting that] I found a connection and I started preaching on the value of education. It [made me] reflect on the teachers that did care, and I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ”

She has been in college since then. Hardt — who was abandoned by her mother when she was 2 and had been homeless in middle school, sleeping on a park bench not far from her school — received a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech and a master’s from George Mason University.

She is enrolled in GMU’s doctoral program for community college education, while continuing to teach at Metz and act as one of Virginia’s representatives on the board of the NEA. She lives in Fredericksburg with her husband and 5-year-old daughter.

Saunders praises several initiatives Hardt has launched at Metz, which have set high expectations for students with learning disabilities and taught them to advocate for themselves.

“She understands that kids come with all kinds of challenges, and it’s the influence of teachers and coaches and the adults around them that sometimes helps kids to see their potential,” Saunders said.

Aisha White, whose son Deontae was in Hardt’s class two years ago, thinks the proof is in the results. Deontae, 15, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and always struggled to get good grades, White said. But since having Hardt in seventh grade, Deontae, now a freshman at Osbourn High School, has been close to making the honor roll every grading period. He wants to study at Virginia Tech to become a physical education teacher.

“She had a huge impact on him,” White said. “His confidence was pretty low because he has ADHD, and he never felt like he could do the work like the other kids. She was able to show him that yes, he was different, but he was unique and he could still do everything everyone else could do.”

Hardt hopes to continue to inspire her students to pursue careers in education or at least think of themselves as students beyond high school. She plans to use part of her $10,000 award to set up college savings accounts for two of her former students. One is homeless, and the other is an undocumented immigrant.

“It’s pay it forward; that’s why I keep going,” Hardt said. “That’s why I do it.”

Mari-Jane Williams covers parenting and family issues for Local Living and schools for the Prince William and Loudoun Extras.
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