These Muscogee County teachers are going on a free trip to Harvard for a week. Here’s why
Eighteen teachers in the Muscogee County School District who already were celebrated for being excellent educators are receiving another honor.
They will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to one of the nation’s most prestigious colleges for a week of training to become even better teachers.
At a news conference Wednesday in Wynnton Arts Academy, the Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation announced its 2023 Harvard Fellows:
Michele Bezio of Dorothy Height Elementary School
Kunicko Byrd of Carver High School
Sicily Coleman of Britt David Magnet Academy
Danielle Cooper of Aaron Cohn Middle School
Katherine Culverson of Arnold Magnet Academy
Gena Davis of Dimon Magnet Academy
Lisa Elliott of River Road Elementary School
Rachel Fahnestock of Aaron Cohn Middle School
Shalon Gillespie of Blackmon Road Middle School
Jamie Hagan of Double Churches Elementary School
Amanda Hefner of Columbus High School
Lara Allan Lasseter of Clubview Elementary School
Andrea McCarthy of Richards Middle School
Danielle McCoy of Columbus High School
Kelly Roberts of St. Elmo Center for the Gifted
Chelsie Rogers of Northside High School
Dacia Sheffield of Rothschild Leadership Academy
Heather White of Aaron Cohn Middle School.
The foundation is investing $135,000 in these teachers to attend Project Zero Classroom from June 26-30 at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
Project Zero, founded in 1967 by philosopher Nelson Goodman, tries to understand and nurture human potentials, such as learning, thinking, ethics, intelligence and creativity.
During their Project Zero week at Harvard, teachers from around the world learn how to:
Enhance their knowledge and expertise to recognize and develop the multiple intellectual strengths of their students.
Encourage students to think critically and creatively.
Explore instructional methods that deepen student engagement, model intellectual curiosity and rigor, and make learning more visible.
MEEF selects the Harvard Fellows from a pool of approximately 100 teachers who were one of the 10 semifinalists for the MCSD Teacher of the Year award during at least the past 10 years.
After this year’s group attends Project Zero, MEEF will have invested more than $584,000 in 80 teachers since 2012 through its Harvard Fellows program, which was on hiatus for three years due to the COVID-19 panic.
Blackmon Road Middle School math teacher Shalon Gillespie was one of the three finalists for the 2019 MCSD Teacher of the Year award and one of seven teachers selected by MEEF to be a Harvard Fellow in 2020. She even received the traditional Harvard T-shirt from the foundation at that news conference. But the COVID-19 pandemic delayed her trip until this year.
“I got the T-shirt but not the experience,” she told the Ledger-Enquirer with a laugh. “… I was disappointed, but I was hoping we would be able to go the next year. But then the next year rolled around, and we couldn’t go. Then the next year rolled around, and we couldn’t go. So this year we get to go, and I’m so excited about that.”
Gillespie hopes to bring back from Harvard “some more strategies in my toolbox that can help my students be successful and to help other teachers. … I want to be able to take this body of knowledge and deliver that exponentially.”
Referring to the other Harvard Fellows, Gillespie said, “I can’t wait to work with all of these phenomenal teachers, … and I can’t wait to learn from them.”
Gillespie praised the foundation’s donors who make this program possible.
“I’m just amazed because I know other communities don’t have this kind of support,” she said. “For the MEEF, the Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation to make this happen, I know that I have a responsibility when I come back from Harvard to show what we’ve learned and to pour it back into the community so it’s reciprocated.”
MEEF executive director Marquette McKnight explained in a news release the foundation’s rationale for such an investment.
“The Harvard Fellows return from this professional development experience with an enhanced insight into learning,” she said. “They are re-energized about their profession and can’t wait to get back to their classrooms, impacting, influencing and teaching their students.”
The impact of the program spreads beyond the Harvard Fellows when they share what they learned with their colleagues.
“It’s a ripple effect that keeps growing,” McKnight said. “Their experience and input directly affect practical and powerful applications in MCSD, where they are now seen as the preeminent teaching scholars and teacher leaders in our district.”
Just ask Vanessa Ellis, the 2022 MCSD Teacher of the Year, who teaches social studies at Veterans Memorial Middle School. She was a 2018 Harvard Fellow.
“Attending Harvard’s Project Zero was a pivotal professional development that greatly shaped my educational philosophy,” Ellis said in the news release. “My experience at Harvard led me to prioritize student understanding and making connections … and help students take control of their understanding by reflecting on their own learning. Combined with MCSD’s Personalized Learning Initiative, it’s helped me put students at the helm of learning.”
During the news conference, MCSD superintendent David Lewis thanked MEEF for helping teachers “feel a sense of being seen, valued and appreciated.”
Lewis relies on the Harvard Fellows in a “think tank” he formed to get teacher perspectives about various issues in education.
“When you come back, we’re going to want to pick your brain,” he told them. “… I get to learn from you as you share ideas about our school system.”
MEEF is a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering educational excellence and honoring teachers who are innovative and exceptionally effective. In its 27-year history, the foundation has awarded more than $3 million to such educators through the Teacher of the Year and Harvard Fellows programs and other grants.