For a quarter of a century Baldwin Union Free School District has held their annual Recognition of Excellence dinner, a night where students and teachers come together in celebration of each other. Sponsored in part by a grant from the Baldwin Foundation for Education (BFE),
The emotional evening had a mix of laughter, cheers, and tears, as students described how simple acts of kindness like a funny accent, thoughtful gift or college letter of recommendation changed their lives entirely. Each student was able to choose three teachers who inspired them.
Superintendent of schools Shari L. Camhi began the night by saying how lucky Baldwin was to have a celebration like this “I want to tell you that this night couldn’t have come at a better time to have our young people look to our teachers and our administrators and our staff and be able to say thank you for what you’ve done for me.”
Flaurent Jean-Baptiste was the first to speak, explaining how moving to Baldwin in the second grade was a big step for them since change is often scary. But their teacher Maureen Heyman, “welcomed me with open arms,” changing their mindset entirely. Moriah Pettway had a lack of confidence, but through constant encouragement and never labeling her a “bad kid”, she began to see herself differently. “I didn’t believe in myself, so thank you for believing in me so I could believe in myself,” she said emotionally.
Olutoyin Green thanked her teachers for the representation they gave her as Black child navigating the world. Seeing them teaching helped her believe in herself and that her “crazy dreams” could be accomplished. Anaya Henry, who spoke after Green, talked about being ill in elementary school. Worrying about class and homework she was put at ease when her teacher Lisa Brown visited her and said don’t stress about the work. “She went beyond the role of a teacher, she became a part of my support system.”
Charlotte Leader was born in Australia and moved to Baldwin in the third grade. This fostered a “one-of-a-kind experience” she told the audience. After acclimating, she was pushed to her “full potential” by teacher Denise Heuer and Karen Barnes, who had “no pity for those who didn’t reach their full potential,” they each showed Leader how to “be my own person.”
Lesly Lucero delivered a tearful speech to her teachers Deborah Finkel, Megan Ferguson-Koci, and Maurice Hayon. Thanking them for making her the “best version of myself through her kind words; it was okay to be weird (and) I would go above and beyond to make them proud.” The tears began to spill when she pondered if Hayon’s letter of recommendation got her into her dream college of John Hopkins University for Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Nayah McKenzie also had a college announcement saying she’s attending North Carolina State University. Coming to Baldwin in the fifth grade her teachers made her “respectful of other perspectives…taking the lessons with me to make every student feel like a rockstar.”
Grace Notarstefano celebrated her elementary teacher Amanda LaVecchia for getting her active in reading at a young age. And in addition, thanked Kelly Paciaroni for helping her navigate future career choices when she was stressed out, taking her advice of “go(ing) for what you love.” Chloe Cruz saw her teachers as a “mother in the classroom” for their gentleness and caring nature. She thanked them for giving “me opportunities that have change my life.”
Finally, Daniel Polonia stated how a simply gesture of gifting him his very own book at a young age while elementary teacher Jennifer Meyenhofer made silly accents helped him come out of his shell. He took this lesson and developed a love for music, propelling him to choose a career in the field. “Karen Hughes prepped me for college and helped me get in” he cheerfully exclaimed.