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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 14, 2010

Guilderland School Board honors the passionate, the patient, and the precise

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Ben Grant gave his old teacher, Melissa DeLuca, a hug last Thursday night. She was more than a teacher to him; she had become a family friend, a support in his time of need.

As a fourth-grader in 2008, Ben was diagnosed with leukemia. His classroom teacher, DeLuca, volunteered to be his tutor.

“She’s allotted an hour but goes far above that,” said Ben’s father at the time. “She comes on weekends. She comes when he’s in the hospital…She’s become a friend.”

“She’s always there for him” added Ben’s mother.

Ben and his parents were at the high school last Thursday night for the 33rd Annual Employee Recognition Ceremony. They gave DeLuca a standing ovation along with the rest of the crowd.

Ben’s father said after the ceremony that Ben still has 11 more months of treatment but is doing well.

DeLuca was one of a dozen Guilderland school employees — eight teachers, a teaching assistant, a speech therapist, an administrator, and a printer — recognized by the school board for their outstanding work.

“After so many years, we call it a tradition, It honors our best and inspires us all,” said Lin Severance who hosted the ceremony.

“We are only as good as the people who are part of our community,” said Severance, the assistant superintendent for human resources who headed the committee that selected the award recipients from nominations made by their colleagues. Each was introduced with a heartfelt speech by someone who knew him or her well.

Westmere Elementary School Principal Beth Bini told the crowd how DeLuca had bought two stuffed bears — one for Ben and the other to take his place in the classroom; the classroom bear relayed his stories to Ben in letters, phone calls, video cams, and home visits.

When Ben was unable to make it to school for the class Valentine’s Day party, DeLuca brought the party to him. Ben’s classmates decorated a school bus like a giant Valentine and drove to his home to cheer for him and tell jokes before exchanging Valentines. On the ride back to school, the kids said they felt better about Ben. “They can see he’s the same old Ben….It’s not so scary,” DeLuca said then. “It brought them closer.”

Bini concluded that DeLuca had provided “a huge emotional boost for Ben and his family.”

These are the 11 others honored this year for their outstanding contributions:

Dawn Baker, a teaching assistant at Lynnwood Elementary School, was lauded for being “thoughtful and patient” and “a constant source of encouragement for those around her.” Alicia Rizzo, the new principal at Lynnwood Elementary School, recalled how her first visitor told her, “Your first job is to get Dawn Baker back.”  Rizzo described how Baker helps students succeed, giving an example of helping one learn to write. She concluded, “Dawn was determined the little girl could do it” — and she did.

Patricia DelNegro, a teacher at Pine Bush Elementary School, was described as “a thoughtful, creative, and hardworking educator who has an incredible ability to truly understand and respect her students and their needs. Principal Christopher Sanita said, “The DelNegro Dugout is a welcoming environment where students are invited to be a member of the team from the first day they enter the room.”

Laura Germano, also a teacher at Pine Bush Elementary School, always makes her students feel “valued, safe, and understood,” said Sanita. Her classroom was described as “a peaceful and positive place.” Germano encourages her students to help others, baking for food pantries, collecting pennies to save an acre of rain forest, or selling bracelets to benefit UNICEF. Her students develop “compassion, empathy, and shared humanity,” said Sanita.

Reva Kinnally, a special-education teacher, has been called “the glue that holds Westmere Elementary School together.” “We never see Reva frazzled,” said her principal, Beth Bini, who also said that Kinnally “wears many hats.” She has acted as an administrator through two principal transitions and one long-term medical leave, and was lauded for participating “in countless committees that help make Westmere the learning community it is.”

Alice Klump, a teacher at Farnsworth Middle School for more than 20 years, was described as “knowledgeable and highly organized” by Regan Johnson, the assistant director for athletics. He said that Klump is a mentor to new teachers and shows “compassion and flexibility for all of her students.” She is known for relating to students in a way that puts them at ease.

Annette Lazarus teaches in the Community Based Skills program at Guilderland High School, working with the most academically, and often physically, challenged students in the district. Principal Brian McCann said his sister tells him, “There are angels among us.” He went on about Lazarus, “We have at least one walking the halls of GHS.” Beyond teaching, he said, Lazurus works as an administrator, guidance counselor, and social worker, and also invites others to classroom celebrations, making her students a true part of the school community.

Tod Mell, a fifth-grade teacher at Lynnwood Elementary School, was lauded as “an amazing teacher, colleague, and leader who makes learning fun for his students through his positive energy and enthusiasm.” Rizzo told a story of how, before she even started work at Lynnwood, she was assailed on the golf course by a parent asking, “Can my kid get into Mr. Mell’s class?” Parents often request him, his colleagues said “because of his reputation as a teacher who builds character and academic achievement in his students.”

Judy Miller, who retired this year from her work as a speech therapist at Farnsworth Middle School, was lauded for her more than 30 years as “one of the most visible and vibrant people at FMS.” “She can enter any class and immediately know what to do,” said Steve Hadden, the director of special programs at Guilderland. Miller helped redesign the Strive program and is the co-creator and champion of the GAPS (Guilderland Animal Protection Society) Club. Founded for students who might not fit in other clubs, GAPS has become one of the most popular clubs at FMS.

Daniel Penna, a teacher at Guilderland High School, is a mainstay of the focus program that teaches at-risk students, and he is also the varsity football coach. “He is the first one in the building in the morning and the last one out of the building at night,” said Principal McKenna. “Asked why he works so hard, he said, quite simply, ‘That’s what a teacher does.’” Penna has changed lives in the way he’s reached out to at-risk students, McKenna said, and as a coach he inspires his player to give their all during a game, and also to act with dignity and respect.

Mike Piscitelli, instructional administrator for mathematics and science at Guilderland High School, has influenced McKenna’s leadership style, he said. “Thank heavens for Mike Piscitelli,” said the principal, noting that Piscitelli had “huge shoes to fill” when he replaced “the legend,” the late Dale Westcott, who retired nine years ago. Piscitelli pursues one goal, said McKenna, “To make the Guilderland High School program the best it can be for every student.”

Dave Snyder, a printer in the district office, “is the creator of memories” for parents and children in the school district, said Neil Sanders, the assistant superintendent for business. Snyder runs the one-man print shop, preparing mailings for the district’s 18,000 residents and printing building forms and publications. Sanders described Snyder as polite and kind, and always willing to help. “Dave’s job is as much an art as a science,” said Sanders. “Dave is a professional and a perfectionist.”

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