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Teacher Appreciation: Celebrating Educators in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio

As we celebrate National Teacher Appreciation Week, our goal was to highlight teachers in all nine states where National Heritage Academies has schools. Principals and deans from Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin huddled together to select teachers to feature. It was a challenging task. The biggest issue they had was picking just one name from their lists.
The teachers representing our 98 schools amaze us daily with their ability to connect, care, and create opportunities for our scholars, and for that we are thankful. Here are a few of their stories from Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

 Joan Johnson smiling.

Joan Johnson, sixth-grade teacher, Aspire Charter Academy, Gary, IN
Joan Johnson teaches sixth-grade science/social studies at Aspire Charter Academy. As an educator, her co-workers say, Johnson radiates passion and has a zest for learning that is reflective in her everyday instruction.
She has been teaching since December 2012 and has been at Aspire Charter Academy for the past seven years.
“What excites me most about teaching is seeing students engaged and learning. The relationships developed with so many different parents and students is what makes teaching special for me. What I’ve found to be a phenomenal experience is having an amazing leadership team at Aspire that develops us through professional development and (one-on-one meetings) to become better teachers each year.”
“Joan is a teacher who gives up her lunch hour every day to eat with her scholars,” Principal ReNae Robinson, said. “When asked if she would like lunch coverage her response is ‘I only need coverage if I am not at work. I enjoy eating with my babies.’ Ms. Johnson works hard to build relationships with her scholars and takes time to get to know each one personally. She celebrates their successes and provides correction when needed.”
Robinson said Johnson is a leader not only in her 6-8 wing, but throughout the school.
“She takes care of her scholars and our staff. Daily she makes a ‘special tea’ for staff to ensure that we all remain healthy. Ms. Johnson can empower, encourage, and engage her scholars daily, simply because they know without a doubt, she loves them!”
Middle School Dean Dr. Sophia Hughes comments on how Ms. Johnson is always researching and employing instructional methods that will intrigue and inspire her scholars.
“She productively supports and collaborates with her colleagues offering sound advice around classroom management that will undoubtedly transform instruction,” Hughes said. “She establishes norms and routines that are evident whether she is present or not. Ms. Johnson is an exceptional educator that impacts our scholars’ lives like no other.”
Thank you for being such a passionate teacher to our students, Joan!

 Sarah Fares, Krystyn Broersma, and Julie Riewald smiling.

Julie Riewald, physical education teacher, Eagle Crest Charter Academy, Holland, MI

Julie Riewald, physical education teacher, has been teaching at Eagle Crest Charter Academy since August 1999. She enjoys being able to teach all the students in Young 5s through eighth grade.
“It is so fun to watch the kids grow up and improve on their physical education (PE) skills and movement. It is exciting as well as challenging to teach seven different groups of kids each day with a new group coming every 40 minutes,” Riewald said.
Eagle Crest Principal Louise Moore, said, “Julie is an encourager, a doer, a need-filler, and a team player. She does not ask for recognition and is very in-tune to the needs of her co-workers.”
Everyone seems to notice that Riewald is one to jump in and support the needs of students and staff in the building. She is always looking for ways to support those around her.
“She comes to work each day with a smile on her face and radiates joy to those around her,” Carmen Chowning, dean of upper elementary, said.
Ashley Busscher, dean of middle school, said Riewald knows when someone needs to be cheered up, whether that be a student or staff member.
“Julie is an absolute go getter,” Busscher said. “She has stepped up as a team lead for the specials team and is always willing to step in and support in anyway. Julie is always finding ways to connect with others and build them up. I cannot express how much I truly appreciate having Julie on my team!”
Helping scholars learn how to find joy in being active and promoting physical health is important to Riewald.
“Keeping kids moving as much as possible is my goal. I enjoy helping them use moral focus in PE, helping them learn how to be better teammates as well as learning the skills of many team sports. I encourage everyone to try their best, give their best effort, and always work hard,” Riewald said.
Lower Elementary Dean Sheryl Weeldreyer said Julie is an integral part of the Eagle Crest family.
“She has been a part of us for over 20 years, and she has an amazing impact on the lives of our students,” Weeldreyer said. “We are so very grateful for Julie Riewald and all she does for our students, their families, and her colleagues.”
“As a teacher, Julie infuses her lessons with fun and humor while also providing vast opportunities for her students to participate in physical activities that challenge and motivate them. A coach for some of our middle school teams, Julie has led our teams to championships and guided our students through the life-long lessons that sports and being a member of a team can provide.”
Thank you, Julie, for teaching your students how to find joy in being active and pursuing good physical health!
Krystyn Broersma, fifth-grade teacher, Excel Charter Academy, Grand Rapids, MI
Krystyn Broersma sets high expectations for herself and her students every day in class. School leaders revel in the results. As a 13-year teacher at National Heritage Academies’ first school, Excel Charter Academy, Broersma guides her scholars along a path of discovery.
“The thing that excites me each day about teaching is when I see a student meet a personal goal and succeed in the classroom,” Broersma said. “When a student has that ‘AHA!’ moment, my teacher heart explodes with excitement and happiness (insert the huge smile here!).”
That feeling is infectious with her students and fellow staff members, Excel Principal Dan Bartels said.
“Krystyn is an expert with developing positive classroom culture,” Bartels said. “Her students know she cares about them from the day they are placed in her classroom. She has high expectations for students both with behavior and academic rigor.
“Students take pride in meeting expectations in her room because of her tremendous belief in each of them, and because of the fun way in which she teaches. Krystyn is a top-notch teacher!"
Broersma’s ability to motivate her scholars is one of her highlights.
“She builds relationships with her students, and they know she cares deeply for them,” Dean of Upper Elementary Amy Buys said. “She is excellent building a positive culture in her classroom and with her colleagues." 
Thank you for all you do, Krystyn!

Sarah Fares, third-grade teacher, Laurus Academy, Southfield, MI
Sarah Fares set her sights on teaching because she had an excellent role model for the profession: her mother. Fares has spent the past three years of her six-year career at Laurus Charter Academy in Southfield, Michigan, and is currently teaches third grade.

“Growing up, my mom was a teacher,” Fares said. “She loved going to work every day and making a difference in children’s lives. Teaching is so special to me because I have the ability to make a difference in my students lives.”

Laurus Principal Carolyn Boyer said Fares is a rule-follower and exudes professionalism.

“She cares about her students and the school,” Boyer said. “She is focused on results and making the most impact on her students.”

Fares also focuses on creating a safe environment for students at the beginning of the year, so her scholars feel comfortable asking questions. She had a unique experience this school year as she moved from teaching second grade to third, which enabled her to advance forward with her students.

“I have loved to see them grow for the last two years!” Fares said. “I love working with kids every day. Nothing excites me more than to see my students finally understand a concept that they were having a hard time understanding.”

Thanks for all you do to support your scholars, Sarah!
Matt Wagner, third-grade teacher, Reach Charter Academy, Roseville, MI

The relationships Matt Wagner creates with his students has turned him into a bit of a celebrity at Reach Charter Academy. Wagner teaches third grade and serves as the school’s athletic director. He’s in his ninth year of teaching and seventh at Reach.

“All the students know him and love to volunteer in his classroom when they can,” Reach Principal Lorianne DeDomenico said. “He is the teacher that all his former students go to see just to say hi.”

Wager works early to encourage a family atmosphere in his classroom.

“Sometimes our little classroom is the only glimmer of hope that a student has in his or her life,” Wagner said. “Sometimes I’m not only Mr. Wagner the teacher, but a father figure, a shoulder to cry on, a comedian, a doctor, and so much more.”

DeDomenico said Wagner is also dedicated to his colleagues and volunteers every day to help with outside dismissal duties.

“Academically, Matt’s students thrive in his classroom,” DeDomenico said. “Each day you find him trying something new to help his students find success. Matt works with our novice third graders and all his students are making typical or above typical growth on DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills).

“He has moved many of his students from below grade level to proficient! We are proud to have such an amazing educator like Matt at Reach!”

Wagner said he finds joy in the connections he creates with his students.
“I love seeing my students grow throughout the year both emotionally and academically,” Wagner said. “It is always rewarding to see the success my former students and athletes have here at Reach, in high school, and beyond.”
Thanks for all you do to support your scholars, Matt!
 Loriann Belitz, Alyson Barclay, Matt Wagner, and Sara Kurche smiling

Sara Kurche, special education teacher, South Pointe Scholars, Ypsilanti, MI
As a special education teacher at South Pointe Scholars Charter Academy, Sara Kurche often deals with students who struggle with appropriate school behaviors, so when they start to learn coping strategies or the behaviors decrease, she knows the plan she has put together is working.
“It is amazing to watch a student who went from getting suspended every day or every week to being able to stay in class and complete work. It’s that lightbulb moment. When a student has been struggling and they finally understand. They want to share it with everyone, and I love that!” said Kurche.
Kurche teaches middle school special education students with a variety of needs. Her co-workers’ comment on how well she relates with her students. She knows their likes/dislikes, what their home lives are like, and is in touch with how they are feeling on a day-to-day basis.
“In addition, with all that kids have gone through in the last two years, Sara is especially empathetic and in tune with their feelings and emotions,” Nancy Kouba, Interim Principal/DSQ, said. “Regarding Sara’s instruction, it is specific, differentiated, and goal oriented. She ensures that her students know where they are at and is honest with them about their progress. This is important as they head off to high school and into the world.”
For Kurche, who has been a teacher for 12 years with close to 10 at National Heritage Academies, one of the best parts of her job is getting to learn about her students and building a bond and relationship with them.
“When a student comes back to visit and you watch them light up with happiness at seeing you, you know that you made a lasting impact on them and there is nothing better than that,” Kurche said.
Kouba also commented on Kurche’s kindness.
“She is generous, almost to a fault, with not only her students but her co-workers. She treats her students to their favorite snacks and drinks to bring them a bit of happiness on days that they are feeling down and does the same for her peers! She has also assisted with eighth-grade promotion events and festivities for years because she wants the end of her students’ time at South Pointe to be especially memorable and exciting.”
Kurche said the small, often overlooked moments of teaching are the most special for her.
“The fact that no two days are alike and even though you plan for one thing, it is bound to be different in the end,” she said. “Getting to make a lasting impact on the next generation and know that I am making a difference in the lives of the students. I truly love what I do, and I am so lucky that I have been able to find a place that allows me to do it.”
For Rachel Moote, dean of special education, Sara is absolutely vital to special education students at South Pointe.
“She willingly takes on students with the most behavioral needs at our school. She supports behavior plans, crisis prevention intervention, parent meetings, and so much paperwork. Sara handles this all with grace and is even willing to support more.
“Sara connects with students by setting clear boundaries and building positive relationships with them. She has an uncanny ability to keep track of every student’s needs, plans, and supports.” Moote said.
Congratulations, Sara, for creating those special bonds with your scholars and celebrating the small moments!
Loriann Belitz, Young 5s teacher, Triumph Academy, Monroe, MI
By keeping them on their toes each day at an early age, Loriann Belitz’s Young 5s scholars have been coming back for more over the past 15 years at Triumph Academy.

Belitz, who has been a teacher for 25 years overall, has made a lasting impact on her students with room transformations, celebrating national holidays, and playing games full of educational content.

“Loriann Belitz is an amazing educator who has high expectations and loves her kids fiercely,” said Nicole Hnilica, Triumph’s dean of lower elementary. “She ensures the emotional needs of her kids are met by weaving social emotional components into her lessons. It isn’t uncommon to see former students stopping by her door during arrival or dismissal. She is definitely a teacher who makes a positive, lasting impact on her students.”

Scholars from years past stop by to let Belitz know the impact she had on their learning path, which she said is what makes her job special.

“The ties that were made in the past are still as strong as when they were in my class,” she said. “I enjoy sharing things that are important to me through activities and play.  I love being a teacher and seeing the joy in the faces of my students, knowing that I have helped start their love of learning.

Triumph Principal Nicole Graves was thankful to have her own child in Belitz’s class and cited her warmhearted style.

“From all perspectives, I have been amazed by her level of compassion for her students and her level of creativity,” Graves said. “Every day stepping into her classroom is a magical, engaging experience where students feel loved and are encouraged to grow and thrive. With being the Young 5s teacher, Loriann creates a warm and inviting first school experience for students and families.”

Thank you for all you do, Loriann!
Alyson Barclay, kindergarten teacher, Vanderbilt Charter Academy, Holland, MI
First-year kindergarten teacher Alyson Barclay is seamlessly integrating herself into the Vanderbilt Charter Academy family by connecting with scholars, parents, and staff members.

By forming connections with each person she comes across, Barclay has proved to be a quick study in helping to shape young minds.

“Alyson has created a classroom culture that promotes positivity, teamwork, and happiness,” said Jenny Rutkauskas, dean of lower elementary at Vanderbilt. “Her students are excited to come to school to learn and be loved by Alyson. She has a calm demeanor and doesn't let the stress of teaching get to her. She is amazing!”

Barclay said her favorite part of the job is seeing the social, emotional, and academic growth of her students.
“The relationships that I have with my students is what makes teaching special for me,” she said.
Barclay was hired after the position was vacated in September. 

“She has done an outstanding job of learning a new role quickly and building strong relationships with students and parents,” said Principal Jeff Groggel.

Thank you for all you do, Alyson!
Nicole Jones, seventh-grade language arts teacher, Pathway School of Discovery, Dayton, OH
Writing can be an inherently isolated process, but teaching students to write creates a collaborative environment that is its own reward for Nicole Jones.

Jones is in her ninth-year teaching language arts at Pathway School of Discovery charter school, with eight years in her current role guiding seventh graders. Perhaps her greatest reward is witnessing scholars develop their writing skills.

“I love the writing process,” Jones said. “It is exciting to watch my students grow both academically and socially.”

Principal Nathan Preston said Jones helps set an attainably high bar for Pathway scholars.

“Nicole Jones is the rare educator that can make the impossible seem possible, lead students to places they didn’t think they could go and reach a level of success that seemed unattainable before starting in her class,” Preston said. “Her high level of care, rigorous academic standards, and tenacious effort ensures that every student maximizes their full potential.”

Jones’ rapport with students is evident in the bonds she creates with class after class at Pathway.
“I can always count on Nicole doing what’s best for kids. Her love for reading is shown in her enthusiasm for teaching,” said Cathy Miller, middle school dean. “The relationships she has with her students are some of the best student/teacher relationships I have ever seen.”

Even after years of teaching seventh-grade students, Jones admits it still can be a challenge, but it’s one she gladly takes on.

“Seventh grade is tough!” Jones said. “Teaching is special for me because it allows me to love 90 kids each year and I do not have to take them home.”

Thank you for all you do, Nicole!
About National Heritage Academies:
National Heritage Academies (NHA) is a network of over 95 tuition-free, public charter schools across nine states, serving more than 60,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. For more information, visit

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