Ashley Talip

Position: Social Worker

School: Lowrie Elementary School

School District: School District U-46

City, State: Elgin, Illinois

About the Nominee: Ashley Talip was nominated by David O'Donnell, a member of the community. Ms. Talip always gives as much of her time and money as she can to the students of Lowrie Elementary. Her nominator, David, states that he’s never met anyone that goes so far above and beyond what is expected from them, and he wanted to do his best to prove it. David went around the school and spoke with the staff about nominating her for LifeChanger of the Year. Every response he received had two things in common: authentic excitement and a resounding "she deserves it." The remainder of this profile is a collection of responses from the staff at Lowrie Elementary, where 87% of the students economically disadvantaged as determined by qualification for free/reduced lunch, and the majority of students speak English as a second language.

David posed a simple question: What is something Ms. Talip does that would make her deserving of the LifeChanger of the Year award? The following is a list of responses:

--Ms. Talip supervises breakfast duty every other week, where she is able to greet the students in the morning, help them open up their food, teach them social skills and proper table manners while in the cafeteria and learn new things about them.

--She is a PBIS Tier 2 Check-in/Check-out coach for students, meeting with them every morning to see how they are doing. She gives students their sheets and helps them set behavioral and academic goals for their day. At the end of the day, the students check-out with her, where they discuss, celebrate and set goals for the next day.

--Ms. Talip is part of the MTSS team, PBIS Universal/Leadership Team, PBIS Tier 2/Tier 3 Team and Attendance Team. In addition, she makes herself available to meet and collaborate with staff members, as well as answer answer emails, phone calls and texts from colleagues at all hours of the day, nights, and weekends.

--As part of the attendance team, Ms. Talip created attendance check-in/check-out for students who have chronic absences or tardies. The intervention begins after a meeting with the students’ parents. Each morning, they check-in with the school nurse. The students earn points, stickers or another reward for arriving at school on time each day, and they work towards a prize that is individualized for them. The whole school also participates in an attendance incentive game to encourage all students to be at school on time each day. Classrooms are competing against each other for prizes, as well.

--Ms. Talip is part of the Social Work Department Committee. This team helps makes decisions for all of the district social workers.

--She is in charge of compiling, creating, selling and distributing the school yearbook each year. She also does bus duty at dismissal time to be able to spend time with the students and find out how their day went.

--Ms. Talip has provided immediate mental health support to countless students who were in crisis and is able to delegate to the appropriate professionals when necessary.

--For three years in a row, she has organized winter clothing drives for the entire school so that not a single student was left cold during the winter.

--She has worked actively as a special education team member, heads a social work team for an entire district and works cooperatively with support staff, not only in her school building, but in many other buildings, as well.

--She assists teachers on a daily basis by providing encouragement, helpful tips, and strategies on ways of helping students.

--Ms. Talip develops behavioral implementation plans and revises individualized education plans and 504's so that students’ mental health needs are being met while they are in school.

--Ms. Talip uses active recognition to support students in developing positive self-images. She supports staff in the understanding of restorative justice vs. harsh discipline methods. She also works collaboratively with family members to “WRAP” the student, leading to a strong home-school team connection. Additionally, she purchases various incentives and rewards for students to earn through positive choices and goal-setting.

--Ms. Talip provides opportunities by seeking out community partnerships and resources that benefit students and families. She stock and organizes “Dress for Success” clothing and provides students/families with necessities and resources. For example, she finds rent assistance programs for families, food banks, clothing resources, medical care, etc.

Lastly, Ms. Talip’s principal, Kelly O’Brien, states that she is an integral part of the school community and is often the key puzzle piece needed to better understand, and then support, her school’s most vulnerable students.

Ms. Talip works extremely hard and is a LifeChanger in her community!

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Michael Caiazza

Position: Physical Education Teacher

School: Egg Harbor Township High School

School District: Egg Harbor Township Board of Education

City, State: Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey

About the Nominee: Michael Caiazza was nominated by Michael Previti, a member of the community. Coach Caiazza defines the word LifeChanger. He has had a positive impact across his community for over 30 years as a Physical Education teacher and wrestling coach. In order to understand how drastic this impact is, however, one must read Michael's story.

When Michael started high school, he was an unmotivated teenager. He wasn't involved in clubs, struggled academically and didn't make the best choices in friends. He first met Coach in 1987 as a freshman in gym class, where Coach encouraged him to try out for the wrestling team. At first, Michael was resistant, but after two years of persistence, he decided to give it a try. As it turned out, he really enjoyed it. When Coach realized that Michael's grades were mediocre at best, he pulled him aside. Coach made Michael come to his office every day after school so he could make sure he was doing his homework. It wasn’t that Michael needed a tutor, but he needed the push to dedicate some time to learning. At that point, he realized how much Coach cared, not only for him, but for everyone around him. Michael's grades changed dramatically; he went from ranking in the lower third of his class to graduating in the top third. Coach pushed his athletes to do other sports in the off-season to stay in shape and, more importantly, stay out of trouble.

Michael made lifelong friends through the wrestling team, friends who feel the same way about Coach that he does. Coach teaches his athletes that if they want to do well, they will have to work hard. He teaches them respect and other life skills that have proved to carry over into life after high school.

According to Michael, Coach came into his life at a very crucial time. If it wasn't for Coach, Michael isn't sure if he'd be as successful as he is today. Coach brought out the drive and motivation it takes to succeed in this world. He taught Michael values and the work ethic that guides his professional and personal life. Every day, Michael tries to pass these on to his own children, like Coach Caiazza did for him.

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Lee Thennes

Position: Principal

School: Wilson Junior High School

School District: Manitowoc Public School District

City, State: Manitowoc, Wisconsin

About the Nominee: Lee Thennes was nominated by Wendy Smith, the parent of two students. Ms. Smith and her family have known Mr. Thennes since 2010, when he taught at Lincoln High School. Her oldest son, Brandon, always spoke highly of Mr. Thennes, talking about how all the students really liked and respected him and about how he connected to the entire school community. Ms. Smith and her family were elated when they learned Mr. Thennes was promoted to principal at Wilson Junior High School, where her other son, Luke, has been attending since 2015. Since that time, they have been extremely satisfied with the dedication and care Mr. Thennes exhibits each and every day.

Luke was diagnosed with autism, anxiety and other health impairments. According to Ms. Smith, Mr. Thennes is a major reason why Luke is enjoying school and is succeeding, both in school and in the community. Luke believes that Mr. Thennes is one of the best principals out there, and that Wilson is one of the best schools he has attended because of Mr. Thennes and the culture of acceptance he creates with his school, staff and students. Ms. Smith can attest to the fact that Wilson, as a result of the efforts of Mr. Thennes and his staff, is a school that accepts everyone, including students with special needs. The staff does everything possible to give special needs students the best possible educational outcome, just like any other child. They even encourage them to be involved in sports and activities, regardless of their abilities, which not only enables collaborations, acceptance and cooperation, but encourages diversity within the school.

Mr. Thennes creates an environment where all students are accepted, appreciated and acknowledged. At Wilson, the staff holds a monthly school forum to recognize students making a difference, both in and out of school. Mr. Thennes uses this opportunity to discuss the importance of giving back, treating others as you want to be treated and being the change you want to see in the world. Wilson is known to hold "fun days" to help local groups raise needed funds and material donations, especially for organizations that the students are involved in or have a heart for.

Every morning, Mr. Thennes is outside greeting each and every student into the school, setting their morning off on a positive note. Long after school is over, he can be seen at after-school activities cheering each and every student on, regardless of ability or activity. He praises the accomplishments of these groups on the school website, on the PA system or by individually recognizing these students. He puts his heart out there for each and every family and student. One example would be this past year, when a student was injured very badly by a bus accident right outside the school. Mr. Thennes asked the entire student body to make cards for her. He called the family daily for updates and tied ribbons around the trees to let the family know everyone was thinking of them until she came back. He also helped raise funds and gift cards for travel and medical expenses. On his own time, he even traveled outside the city to show his support for the student and her family.

Mr. Thennes is always involved and promotes a positive, safe place for all. He makes sure the students' emotional and academic needs are met and promotes a sense of community by leading by example. Mr. Thennes also makes sure staff and parents are on the same page through the website, emails and other methods of communication. According to Ms. Smith, having a son with autism means you always wonder what his future will look like and how the school is preparing him for the real world. Mr. Thennes and his staff not only teach the core and elective classes and try to have each student reach their acadmic potential, but they also teach them life skills such as social skills, teamwork, acceptance, building community, respect and diversity. He does a lot for each student, treating them fairly and genuinely caring about each person in his school. According to Luke, "Mr. Thennes always makes time for anyone with a problem, even when he doesn't have time. Besides he's just a really cool, fun guy."

These are some of the many reasons why Mr. Thennes is a LifeChanger!

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Cindy Juniewicz

Position: Civics Teacher

School: Pinelands Regional Junior High School

School District: Pinelands Regional School District

City, State: Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey

About the Nominee: Cindy Juniewicz was nominated by Gina Frasca, her supervisor for the past decade. Every year, Ms. Juniewicz changes the lives of hundreds of students who enter the doors of Pinelands Regional Junior High School (PRJHS). Since joining PRJHS in March 1986, Ms. Juniewicz has proven her ability to make a difference throughout the entire school by developing programs that provide huge benefits to all. She began the Employees Aiding Students Education (EASE) Fund at least 20 years ago. Many students come from a relatively low-income area. As a result, they sometimes lack funding for basic things required for learning. Ms. Juniewicz set up the EASE Fund and asked staff to contribute their own money. In return, they would become part of a membership program. She has a talent for recognizing students in need, even if they do not approach her directly. Of course, Ms. Juniewicz also contributes her own personal money, helping about 20 students per year for the past 20 years.

Raquel, a former student, told her, “Thank you for being such a great person and sometimes giving me money; that means a lot to me. Thank you one more time for being an inspirational, caring and wonderful teacher.”

Ms. Juniewicz has also run the Clothes Closet for about five years, accepting age-appropriate, gently used or new clothes or shoes, which are provided to students in need. She took over an unused bathroom and stocked and organized shelves with the donated clothes.

About three years ago, Ms. Juniewicz organized a secret group of teachers who created and distributed journals of support to other staff members. Those who received the journals were encouraged to select other staff members to anonymously receive journals in this “Caring Cats” project.

Ms. Juniewicz also contributes to the community’s well-being by creating and organizing Community Action Team (CAT) projects every year. CAT projects – which she started and still spearheads - ensure that every eighth-grader on campus creates, plans and executes a community service project, often raising money. Ms. Juniewicz raised the idea in a Professional Learning Community and went to Ms. Frasca with the group’s thoughts. Her leadership and determination to make a difference within our school has provided staff with valuable community connections (i.e, when the students go out and provide service to outside organizations), as well as a higher reputation as a result of media attention from the CAT projects.

Since the CAT projects' implementation in 2013, Ms. Juniewicz's classes alone have raised $20,459.15. The projects, wholly designed by the students, range from Celebrating National Autism Day with PRJHS students with autism, to a gift basket auction, to a staff basketball game. All classes start with a budget of $0. Ms. Juniewicz allows the students in each class to choose their own cause, as she believes it’s important for the kids to “buy-in.” This empowers her students and enables them to realize they can make a difference in their own community.

“The CAT project taught me that if you put your mind to something, you can achieve anything,” said Taylor G., a former student.

Ms. Juniewicz is also committed to providing a nurturing atmosphere for her students. She often sits and talks with them to build up their self-esteem, telling them how much they have to offer.

“Mrs. Juniewicz is a very caring teacher that will help her students with anything. Even if it’s not school related, she’s always there for her students,” said Hailie, a former student. “Mrs. Juniewicz is very helpful with giving advice to those who need it. Thank you for everything you do, you are always a great help, and a great friend.”

Her efforts do not just focus on PRJHS. For the last three years, Ms. Juniewicz and her son have volunteered frequently at the South Jersey Field of Dreams and Hoops for All, organizations that work with special needs children. In addition, she has been a donor to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for more than 25 years.

On a professional level, Ms. Juniewicz has an excellent performance record. At PRJHS, she has served in various capacities, including being a member of the Curriculum Review Committee, Instructional Council, Student Achievement Leadership Team Committee, PRJHS Transition Team and Leadership Committee, as well as being the leader of the Eighth-Grade Professional Learning Community, Seventh- and Eighth-Grade Class Advisor and Certified Teaching Mentor.

Ms. Juniewicz has been the recipient of local and national awards. Within the last year, she also wrote and received a $1,000 grant from Walmart.

Finally, Ms. Juniewicz is a model for adherence to high moral and ethical standards. As a civics teacher, she teaches politics to her students. During this year’s contentious presidential election, she taught lessons so that her students would understand the process of electing a president, as well as their own political views, in a completely objective way. Students always want to know Ms. Juniewicz's own political leanings, but she remains neutral and enables her students to decide their own positions.

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Amy Andersen

Position: American Sign Language Teacher School: Ocean City High School

School District: Ocean City School District

City, State: Ocean City, New Jersey

About the Nominee: Amy Andersen was nominated by her superintendent, Kathleen Taylor.

Ms. Andersen founded and single-handedly developed the ASL program at Ocean City High School (OCHS) in 2004. The program, which has significantly changed her district, started with 42 students. By the second year, 142 students registered for the classes. Student interest has continued to grow, and as a result, ASL I, II and III are now offered. Ms. Andersen has made ASL one of the most popular programs in OCHS. She has created a place where students find inspiration, self-confidence, a nurturing environment and often, their future. The entire district and surrounding community has been transformed as more awareness of and respect for Deaf culture and ASL spreads.

Her impact extends beyond the four walls of her classroom. She encourages her students to find their passion by enabling them to realize the positive changes in themselves and the unique contributions they have to offer. Ms. Andersen is continually reaching out to develop a nationwide network of Deaf and hearing professionals to enhance what she teaches and to expand her students’ experiences.

Ms. Andersen has been contacted for advice and support by teachers from around the country who have also recognized her success. In 2007, she presented at the New Jersey Department of Education Administrators Roundtable, giving an overview of the OCHS ASL program.

Year after year, Ms. Andersen connects with her students, and in turn, with the local Deaf community. These ties continue long after students graduate. Ms. Andersen teaches students from different backgrounds to come together to form what students refer to as an “ASL family.”

Nicholl, a current ASL III Honors student, said, "The class is a diverse mixture of students I probably wouldn't ordinarily be friends with, not in terms of ethnicity or social status, but the typical high school cliques that separate us all. From the beginning, we learn about diversity and acceptance… how to look at a group of people who are different and view them as equals and a variation of ourselves.”

In addition to OCHS, Ms. Andersen’s influence has dramatically changed the broader Ocean City community, as well. As part of her class, she gives students opportunities to meet, sign with and learn from role models in the Deaf community. For example, using her classroom videophone, she connects students to people like Bruce Bucci, the Director of Deaf Studies at Boston University and Carl Andreasen, a Deaf survivor of the World Trade Center attack in 2001. Every month, Ms. Andersen helps run ASL Socials at a local Starbucks, where Deaf volunteers practice ASL with her students. Because of Ms. Andersen, Ocean City has become known as a Deaf-friendly town, and her program is a resource to the surrounding community, as well. When a local day care center reached out to Ms. Andersen regarding a Deaf baby in the center, she encouraged OCHS students to volunteer after school a few hours a week to provide language stimulation for the baby through play. Not only did the baby become more confident and communicative, but the ASL students became more aware of their inner talents and love for ASL.

In addition to providing a phenomenal ASL program, Ms. Andersen offers a nurturing, safe place for students to learn while building their confidence and opening up opportunities.

Ana, a graduate of the class of 2014, wrote, “Before I took your class, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my future, but your passion for ASL and Deaf culture inspired me. Without your constant support and encouragement, I never would have found the confidence in my signing to succeed. Thank you for always believing in my abilities, even when I did not. And most importantly, thank you for changing my life!”

Each year, Ms. Andersen's students present a well-attended ASL Show, the proceeds of which support ASL scholarships for senior students and Deaf related charities.

In 2014, the show's theme was "Stand for the Silent." Ms. Andersen found a way to unite the general public, her ASL students and the Deaf community with an anti-bullying theme. Students produced an ASL video based on Stand for the Silent’s signature song, “Hey Bully,” which went viral and now has 37,266 views! Students also brought in Kirk Smalley, the founder of Stand for the Silent, to present his message to OCHS, surrounding districts and the general public.

Ms. Andersen has received a number of honors and awards for her considerable and notable achievements beginning with, but certainly not limited to, earning National Board Certification - Exceptional Needs Specialist: Deaf/Hard of Hearing (2002-2012); New Jersey Association of the Deaf Award (2011); Atlantic County Society of the Deaf Certificate of Appreciation (2014); ASL Teacher of the Year (2014); and OCHS Teacher of the Year (2016).

In conclusion, it is clear that Ms. Andersen fosters a sense of community and responsibility for others in her students. She has had a life-changing effect, not only on the hundreds of students who have been fortunate enough to take her classes, but on the entire school community, including parents, and the hearing and Deaf communities of Ocean City, New Jersey.

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