Agnes Meyer Awards to Fairfax County and Falls Church Teachers

Amy Harding-Wright teaches preschool at Mount Daniel School.
Amy Harding-Wright teaches preschool at Mount Daniel School. (Courtesy Of Falls Church City Public Schools - Courtesy Of Falls Church City Public Schools)
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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 23, 2009

A preschool teacher who helps children with disabilities prepare for kindergarten. An English teacher who inspires high school dropouts to love learning. A history teacher who commutes 90 miles, even on Saturdays, to help students get to college. A principal who shares her leadership role with her staff.

The Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Awards were bestowed this year upon three teachers in Fairfax County and Falls Church. A Fairfax principal took home the Distinguished Educational Leadership Award. The educators have been singled out by admiring parents, colleagues or administrators who find that their work has changed students' lives for the better.

The awards are given each year to about 20 distinguished teachers and as many principals in the area by The Washington Post Co. Educational Foundation. The teacher's award is named for Agnes Meyer, a public education champion and wife of Eugene Meyer, the newspaper's publisher from 1933 to 1946.

Amy Harding-Wright teaches a preschool class at Mount Daniel School in the city of Falls Church. The school includes students with special needs as well as those without disabilities. Her colleagues said they admire her ability to reach every student in a class with such a range of abilities.

Parents who nominated her for the award wrote of the tremendous progress their children made while working with "Miss Amy." One parent said her son, who has developmental delays, learned to become "Mr. Independent" in her class, getting his coat and backpack ready for school, trying new words and concentrating for sustained periods on a puzzle or activity.

Daniel Pereira teaches English at a small, private school in Springfield that serves students who have dropped out or somehow fallen through the cracks in public schools. He shares his love of literature at GW Community School and over time has served as a mentor for students struggling with drug addiction, social anxiety or learning disabilities.

He uses offbeat techniques to engage students, such as teaching a class on graphic novels or using a Run-DMC song to teach iambic pentameter. As the school's college counselor, he also helps many students make a sometimes difficult transition. One parent wrote that his son, who was unhappy and shut off as a teenager, began to pay attention in Pereira's class. The teen developed interests in poetry and philosophy and is studying creative writing in college.

"Students often say that Mr. Pereira is the toughest teacher they've ever had, but also their favorite," wrote Alexa C. Warden, the school's director, in her nomination of Pereira.

Francis "Buck" Payne spent more than 20 years in the military before he became a history teacher at Falls Church High School and coordinator of a program that helps students without college-educated parents prepare for the rigors of college.

Under Payne's direction, the program has grown and boasts a 98 percent college acceptance rate. His colleagues note his unfailing dedication. He is often the first one in the building, arriving before 6 a.m., and the last one to leave, despite a three-hour round-trip commute from his farm in Sperryville, Va. Students respond to his high expectations and his intense desire for them to succeed, those who nominated him said.

One of his students, a senior, wrote in his nomination packet: "He doesn't do it for the money; he works on a teacher's salary. He doesn't do it because it's convenient. He lives 75 miles away. He does it because he truly believes that each and every one of his students can and will succeed."

Deirdre M. Lavery became principal at Fairfax County's Glasgow Middle School in 2004. Her staff nominated her for the Distinguished Educational Leadership Award, citing her dedication and her ability to lead a complex school with several special programs and one of the most diverse enrollments in the county.

Parents say she makes them feel welcome.

Teachers say keys to her success are delegating authority, rewarding them for creativity and making them feel appreciated as decision makers on such issues as curriculum and testing.

"She spreads the leadership among everyone at our school," read a letter signed by a dozen teachers.

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