This Year's Big Apple Award Recipients

This year’s 19 recipients represent a diversity of grade levels, subject areas, and each of the five New York City boroughs. In addition to continuing their outstanding work in the classroom, these model educators will also serve as Big Apple Fellows during the 2020 – 2021 school year.

Laura Blau

  • High School Arts & Music Teacher
  • Millennium Art Academy (08X312)
  • Bronx

Laura Blau believes in her students and it shows. In her classroom, students are expected to engage in critical thinking and creation of art. Several of her students have earned awards on city, state, and national levels, with their work now lining the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the U.S. Capitol. As a result of grant funding that Ms. Blau applied for and won, her students are treated like professional artists, learning through the use of sophisticated tools in state of the art studios. Her students have gone on to work in various departments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Art and Design, Bronx Museum of the Arts, and many students have gone on to become art teachers themselves.

In her role as a Peer Collaborative Teacher, Ms. Blau welcomes teachers into her interactive art classroom to help them learn and grow in their practice. She also provides monthly professional development to visual arts teachers from across the Bronx, offering support and guidance through coaching and intervisitations. She is devoted to her school community, always setting high expectations for herself, her students and her fellow educators.

Cheryl Charisma Diallo

  • K-12 Science Teacher
  • Passages Academy Horizon Juvenile Center (79X695)
  • Bronx

"We want parents to know that even in a difficult situation, their children are able to do great things," says Cheryl Diallo. Ms. Diallo is an exceptional teacher, but that is only one of the roles she takes on for her students. Teaching incarcerated youth is a unique experience, requiring Ms. Diallo to also serve as a parental figure, counselor, and cheerleader. She does this with ease, ensuring that each student sees themselves as an important member of the class community. Indeed, Ms. Diallo’s students are doing great things – in her classroom you will find students engaging in meaningful discussions, interactive labs, and real-world problem solving, all through an individualized instructional approach. Moreover they are achieving great accomplishments, as evidenced by their Regents pass rate of 100% and continued educational success upon release from the court-involved setting.

Ms. Diallo’s dedication and impact is not limited to her classroom; she regularly collaborates with colleagues on curriculum teams, serves as the site supervisor for the Freedom Schools program, and leads the science department in guiding a group of teachers across the 9 sites of Passages Academy to create content specific to diverse learners. During the transition to remote learning, Ms. Diallo proved herself indispensable to her colleagues, shaping the scope of content, providing meaningful feedback through the use of teacher feedback forms, and volunteering for the Teacher Hotline.

Pedro Dones

  • Middle School Mathematics Teacher
  • Academy for Personal Leadership and Excellence (10X363)
  • Bronx

Teaching in the same Bronx district where he attended school, Pedro Dones has a unique ability to relate to his students. He believes in ‘paying it forward’ to his community, relishing the opportunity to provide his students with a teacher who looks and sounds like them. Each day he asks himself, “how can I touch every desk?” One of the ways he accomplishes this goal is by prioritizing student voice. Mr. Dones’ students know that they will have an input in classroom expectations for behavior and learning, and his relationships with students extend far beyond his 7th grade students. He has high expectations for himself and his students, always ensuring that they know failure is not an option. As a child who faced significant struggles growing up, Mr. Dones exemplifies perseverance through this words and actions.

As a Peer Collaborative Teacher, Mr. Dones shines as a leader for colleagues. He has been integral in implementing collaborative team teaching practices, such as station learning, and is an active contributor to the Instructional Leadership Team, data team, and math team. Further, he supports his colleagues, specifically teachers of color, who may be a good fit for a formal teacher leadership role by providing coaching support and guidance on the qualification process. Mr. Dones has flourished during remote learning, encouraging colleagues to have a growth mindset and be creative in their efforts to reach students. He created a YouTube channel where his students can access math tutorials, which also allows him to maintain his connection with students, particularly by incorporating their favorite wrestling character into lessons.

Emma Comstock Reid

  • Middle School Mathematics Teacher
  • Fannie Lou Hamer Middle School (12X286)
  • Bronx

Emma Comstock Reid first found her love of teaching working in an after school program, taking the bold step into teaching via the NYC Teaching Fellows program. After being tenured in special education, she made the decision to become certified in mathematics, based solely on the needs of her school community. When asked why she would take such a risk, she explained how passionately she felt about developing her skills, and her belief that, “If I could develop my skills and help, then I could help other teachers do it better, too.” Ms. Comstock Reid’s dedication to supporting her colleagues is evident, particularly through her work as a Peer Collaborative Teacher. As a leader in her school, Emma leads the math team, serves on the Instructional Leadership Team, and leads Algebra for All and the school’s equity work. Recently she took on facilitation of a professional learning community focused on remote learning, and is currently working with the district to develop math lesson plans to be broadcast for students across the district.

Ms. Comstock Reid’s ultimate concern is her students, and she has made it her priority to create a student-centered environment that meets the needs of all students. She believes in tailoring education for each student, considering academic and social-emotional needs equally. Those who visit her classroom say she has created the classroom they wish they had as eighth graders, and that “her genuine love of learning and love for her students is evident in every aspect of her practice.”

Arturo Lazaro Jr.

  • High School Mathematics Teacher
  • Math, Engineering, and Science Academy Charter High School (84K733)
  • Brooklyn

Arturo Lazaro Jr.’s impact on his students doesn’t stop in the classroom. Like many DOE teachers, Mr. Lazaro wears many hats, taking on his students’ obstacles as if they were his own. After students confided in him that they were undocumented, he worked to build partnerships with community organizations equipped to provide support and resources to these students and their families. Further, he has made it a priority to ensure that students’ cultures and heritages are represented in the school. The Review Committee speaks to his dedication to students, sharing that Mr. Lazaro, “sees students as full people and supports them with challenges outside of academics.”

Mr. Lazaro is committed to providing his students with mathematics curriculum that is relevant and innovative. He regularly updates his curriculum, adjusting it to meet the needs of all students, incorporating new ideas to bring the content to life. Students are offered exciting learning activities, such as designing and running a mock casino, that keep them engaged and excited about math. In transitioning to remote learning, Mr. Lazaro created an effective balance of synchronous and asynchronous learning environments that catered to different learning environments and various student needs. According to his principal, “There hasn’t been a time where I’ve observed Mr. Lazaro’s classes and my heart doesn’t sing with pride seeing our students engage in debate and bat around mathematical principles and logic. The energy in each class is

Angelique Rivera 

  • High School Mathematics Teacher
  • The Boerum Hill School for International Studies (15K497)
  • Brooklyn

Angelique Rivera strives to be a champion of equity, both for her students and colleagues. She has made it her mission to advocate for hiring teachers that represent the race/ethnicity of students, courageously engaging in difficult conversations with peers and leadership. Ms. Rivera remains focused on teaching all of her students, 50% of which are students of color, the importance of student autonomy, agency, and self-efficacy. For Ms. Rivera, it is imperative that students, “exercise choice in guiding their learning path.” Her principal speaks to her dedication to her students, sharing that, “Ms. Rivera goes the extra mile to help them reach their potential and supports them both in and out of the classroom.” Ms. Rivera also works closely with parents, leading Parent Academies that focus on nurturing a growth mindset towards math at home.

As leader of the Math Department, Ms. Rivera has prioritized systematizing data collection in order to better utilize formative data to differentiate instruction. She leads colleagues from within her school and throughout the Tri-state area in professional learning focused on best practices and strategies for effective lesson planning. While working remotely, Ms. Rivera has continued to mentor math teachers and grade teams, created professional development sessions for staff, and developed online curriculum that maintains student engagement.

Marguerite Thompson-Alleyne

  • Middle School Special Education Teacher
  • I.S. 285 Meyer Levin (18K285)
  • Brooklyn

One might say Marguerite Thompson-Alleyne was born to be a teacher. Coming from a family of public school educators, Marguerite has dedicated her life to her students. Ms. Thompson-Alleyne has high expectations, often reminding her students that, “Excuses are tools of incompetence used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness, and those who use them seldom specialize in anything else.” Stepping into Ms. Thompson-Alleyne’s classroom, one can quickly see that this mindset is reflected in her students’ high engagement and achievement. As shared by her principal, “Her students achieve some of the highest ELA scores within the district amongst students with disabilities. In fact, they compete with general education students and demonstrate greater leaps within a single school year.”

Ms. Thompson-Alleyne builds a family environment in her classroom, where all students, paraprofessionals, and others feel valued. Lessons are designed to meet student interests and reflect their culture and heritage. The same is true in the remote learning classroom – Ms. Alleyne has found a way to deliver remote learning activities that are interactive and rigorous, as well as offering office hours for individual check-ins with all of her students.

Agnes Balla

  • Elementary ENL/Bilingual Education Teacher
  • P.S. 105 The Blythebourne (20K105)
  • Brooklyn

Agnes Balla knows that her work doesn’t stop in the classroom. Described by her superintendent as “a phenomenal teacher who cherishes each child and the unique culture and perspective they bring to the class,” Ms. Balla’s love for her students is palpable. Starting her career in the DOE as an international teacher, Ms. Balla believes cultural diversity must be embraced and celebrated. She is able to connect with her students on a deep level because she can relate to them, often sharing her own experiences in learning a new language, coming to new country, and adjusting to a new way of life. Ms. Balla is a staunch proponent of advanced literacy and culturally responsive sustaining education, using her platform on the school's Instructional Leadership Team to advance these initiatives school-wide.

As a Peer Collaborative Teacher, Ms. Balla works closely with colleagues to help them implement ENL strategies into their teaching by modeling, coaching, mentoring, and sharing her ideas, resources and experiences. She hosts a model classroom for STEM, is a mentor for new teachers, facilitates workshops for her colleagues, and is an Instructional Lead for her grade. In every way imaginable, Ms. Balla is committed to providing her students with the education they deserve.

Noelle Mapes

  • Elementary School Teacher
  • P.S. 142 Amalia Castro (01M142)
  • Manhattan

Noelle Mapes believes in developing learners who are advocates for their own learning. She says, “I became a teacher to learn beside the brilliant, thoughtful, curious kids of the world. My classroom is filled with kids who understand they're both teachers and learners." Students in Ms. Mapes’ second-grade class discuss equity, racism, and social justice. They are crusaders, writing letters to the PTA, book publishers, and public officials. Ms. Mapes extends her reach further by developing curriculum for the entire school community, such as planning for a week dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement.

As a dedicated educator and learner, Ms. Mapes is always seeking ways to further her own learning. She has created partnerships with local universities to expand her reach and recently received a grant to travel to Mexico and immerse herself in the Spanish language, something she sought out in an effort to connect more closely with families. Her commitment is unflinching – when classrooms shifted online, Ms. Mapes wasted no time establishing grants to support her students learning at home. At the same time, she established a daily live community meeting with her students, hosted math workshops for families, co-facilitated a parent support group, and restarted the school’s Equity Team meetings.

Linda Fisher

  • Middle School Social Studies Teacher
  • Isaac Newton Middle School for Math & Science (04M825)
  • Manhattan

Linda Fisher believes that a struggling reader or struggling writer is not a struggling thinker. When students experience difficulty, Ms. Fisher finds ways to encourage and motivate them. Ms. Fisher has created exceptionally strong, genuine relationships with her students. Her principal speaks to her deep bond with students, sharing that “She is a central figure in their lives and they know her word is worth its weight in gold.” Students in Ms. Fisher’s classes can expect an environment that is conducive to learning, respectful for all, and a safe place to share feelings, assert ideas or make mistakes.

As a Peer Collaborative Teacher, Ms. Fisher also leaves her mark on colleagues. She is always open to others visiting her classroom and is receptive to feedback, offering the same to her peers. She also serves as a mentor and coach to new and upcoming teachers, helping them acclimate to the school culture and teaching using technology, data, and instructional strategies. She collaborates with administration regularly as a member of both the Equity and Instructional Leadership Teams and collaborates with ILT members to create and implement professional learning for her peers.

Gregory Castro

  • High School English Language Arts Teacher
  • Esperanza Preparatory Academy (04M372)
  • Manhattan

Gregory Castro wants his students to know that they are valued members of the classroom community and that they are able to succeed in any task presented. Students know, trust, and respect him for being a role model, mentor, and listener. The strong relationships he builds with students are the cornerstone to his classroom success. Building on this trust, Mr. Castro shows students the significance of what they are learning, always making it culturally relevant and useful to them. He’s been highly effective in the transition to remote learning, immediately transitioning his students to virtual lessons and providing support deep into the evening.

Mr. Castro’s contributions do not stop at the classroom door. As the MBK/Young Men’s Initiative liaison, Mr. Castro mentors young men of color as he prepares them for college and careers. He serves as a Model Teacher, creating and implementing professional learning for his peers, always maintaining an open-door policy. Mr. Castro is also a grade-level leader and sits on the Equity and Instructional Leadership Teams. Extending his reach even further, Mr. Castro also collaborates with community based organizations to ensure his student are exposed to scholarships and other opportunities.

Amanda Valenti

  • High School Science Teacher
  • Columbia Secondary School (05M362)
  • Manhattan

Amanda Valenti believes that every child is successful, even when they do not have the answers. In fact, that is when she feels students have an optimal learning opportunity in her classroom. Ms. Valenti is cognizant of the needs of her students, always ensuring that she provides entry points for all learners. In a field where women are wildly underrepresented, Ms. Valenti serves as a powerful role model, inspiring many students to engage in the world of science. Her interactive, hands-on approach allows students to actively participate, while her creativity and enthusiasm build interest and excitement for learning.

Ms. Valenti has been integral in developing and refining the Engineering and Physics curricula, working closely with partners at Columbia University. Further supporting her school community, she coaches and mentors new and student teachers, something she has continued to excel in during the transition to remote learning. Most impressive is her recent development of a Capstone program that has included opportunities for students to design and create accessibility tools for people with disabilities, construct a solar-powered chicken coop, and construct acoustic panels for the school cafeteria.

Sarah Cullen

  • K-12 Special Education Teacher
  • P.S. 138 (75M138)
  • Manhattan

Teaching a group of high school students with Autism, Sarah Cullen describes herself as, “a fierce advocate for my students and their rights to a meaningful, purposeful, and rigorous education.” With a focus on functional academics, life skills, and independence building, her classroom looks somewhat different than most NYC classrooms. Ms. Cullen believes that choice and student voice are paramount, a primary reason why she encourages student led conversations and commits herself to designing lessons that are meaningful to her particular group of students.

Ms. Cullen recognizes that the classroom alone will not ready her students for life after high school, using the community as a palette to teach them to navigate public transportation, problem solve, engage with co-workers and supervisors in a job environment, and advocate for their interests and needs. Further, she prioritizes collaboration with peers and administrators, taking on leadership roles on the school Tech Team, Transition Team, and Student Advocacy Project. During the transition to remote learning, she went above and beyond her role in assisting teachers with IEP completion and facilitating professional development for other teachers.

Vanessa DiServio

  • High School Physical Education Teacher
  • Hudson High School of Learning Technologies (02M437)
  • Manhattan

Vanessa DiServio works hard to provide her students with support that meets each of their individual needs, with the ultimate goal that, “students move on from my class with a love of staying active and skills for lifelong learning.” She has made it her mission to widen understanding around the validity and importance of Physical Education, ensuring that all prioritize this learning as much as academic content. In an effort to achieve this goal, Ms. DiServio focuses on creating an environment that is safe, welcoming and inclusive, while also building community amongst her students so that they feel a sense of belonging and are valued and respected. This allows her students to take risks, collaborate and engage in meaningful conversations, and reflect on their work and progress. Students are provided with regular feedback and given opportunities to share their input in the program, providing further opportunities to excel.

As a veteran teacher, Ms. DiServio also prioritizes the individual needs of her colleagues. Her principal stated that, “Ms. DiServio is a leader in embedding social emotional learning competencies and collaborates with colleagues and administrators to create a culturally responsive and inclusive school environment.” She is an active member of the Instructional Leadership Team, and has been instrumental in ensuring that children in the Bronx who do not have access to technology continue to receive the support they need at home.

Donna Griebel

  • Early Childhood Teacher
  • Brooklyn Arbor Elementary School (14K414)
  • Brooklyn

Donna Griebel believes that children are capable of constructing their own learning. In her classroom, all students have a voice and “the value of democracy is introduced within the first few weeks of school, when we agree upon our ‘Mulberry Promise’. Here, it is established that we respect both the individual and the community, and that every voice can and should be heard.” Students in Ms. Griebel’s class are taught to initiate dialogue and ask questions, which Ms. Griebel translates into curriculum – lessons are developed to explore concepts and skills that are related to students’ curiosities and interests. Ms. Griebel’s principal shared that, “our 4- and 5-year-olds take risks, show empathy, have a growth mindset, and work together in their learning.”

Parents and family members are active participants in Ms. Griebel’s class, too! Families are welcomed each morning to join students as they settle in for the day, on ‘Family Fridays’ when they are able to lead the class, and as guests for various events and celebrations through the year. To stay connected with parents, she also provides individualized progress reports for each student several times each year. In an effort to expand her reach, Ms. Griebel hosts monthly PLC visits in her classroom, inviting early childhood teachers from across the district to collaborate and learn together. Her superintendent shared that, “she has mastered the art of using the classroom environment as the third teacher and having students be the ones who are driving their learning.”

Nicole Bellomo

  • High School Special Education & Culinary Arts Teacher
  • Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School (28Q620)
  • Queens

Nicole Bellomo makes it a point to develop a personal relationship with each and every one of her students. Ms. Bellomo shares that, “I have seen firsthand that when students feel respected by me and notice my interest in getting to know them, they work harder and achieve greater success in my class.” Most of Ms. Bellomo’s students will not receive high school diplomas or go on to college, thus her focus is on providing students with the skills they will need to succeed as they transition from high school. In her class, students learn life skills such as how to shop for groceries, prepare meal, and do laundry. Students also participate in running the Edison Café, where teachers and students can purchase breakfast and lunch. Here they learn money management skills, workplace behaviors, and many aspects of the food service industry. Her superintendent shared that, “Ms. Bellomo’s students are made to feel like they are contributing to their communities because they are truly prepped for the world after high school. These students do not just gain life skills though, they also gain the confidence they need to succeed in the world.”

Ms. Bellomo’s contribution to the school community during the transition to Remote Learning is unparalleled. She has participated in the Remote Learning Committee, advocating for all ISS teachers and students, and continued serving as an Academic Intervention Support Teacher, supporting many self-contained students in 1:1 setting. She has also worked tirelessly to create user-friendly lessons for the self-contained students, providing audio, visual and text resources for all lessons.

Marissa Thornton-Samih

  • Elementary Special Education Teacher
  • Riverdale Avenue Community School (23K446)
  • Brooklyn

Marissa Thornton-Samih will never give up on her students, and she teaches them they must never give up on themselves. She shares, “I don't see any of my students as unreachable or unteachable; I teach them to unlock their innate strengths through perseverance and determination.” In teaching students with disabilities, Ms. Thornton-Samih often expands her reach far past the classroom. She’s been known to join families in going shopping for glasses or even testify on their behalf in court proceedings. Her superintendent describes her as a dedicated educator who is passionate about providing her learning disabled students with a high-quality education, sharing that Ms. Thornton-Samih’s, “motivation, dedication and collaborative spirit exemplify the characteristics that we value in educators.”

Ms. Thornton-Samih is equally committed to supporting prospective, new, and veteran colleagues. She teaches courses at Bank Street College, mentors new teachers in her school community, and offers all colleagues the opportunity to visit her classroom and/or collaborate in planning. She also serves as lead facilitator for the school’s monthly inquiry PDs and is co-chair of the Parent Engagement Committee, often hosting workshops and events for parents and families.

Bienvenida Sanchez

  • English as a New Language (ENL)/Bilingual Education Teacher
  • P.S. 108 Sal Abbracciamento (19K108)
  • Brooklyn

Bienvenida Sanchez believes that before all children are able to learn, they must feel valued and safe. According to her principal, “she focuses on creating a family learning environment where all children take risks.” She works hard to connect with parents and families, forming strong partnerships to ensure that all stakeholders are working towards a shared goal of educating students intellectually, socially and emotionally. Ms. Sanchez shares, “I believe in showing students and families that I genuinely care, know the content, know the students, plan with the students in mind, am prepared to address misconceptions, and empower students to own their learning experiences.”

One of Ms. Sanchez’ most valuable assets is her willingness to go beyond the role of an educator to motivate children and their families. She has committed herself to instilling confidence and pride in immigrant students and their families, always encouraging them to know their worth and believe in their ability to make invaluable contributions to society. She has spent countless hours over the summer translating texts, handouts, and other student materials in Spanish and often attends professional development and conferences to further her learning and skills around educating English Language Learners. In her own words, “In supporting my students' growth, there is a lot happening behind the scenes between colleagues, staff developers, and administrators. We believe this is a job not of one teacher, but the whole school community.”

Carolyn Unterman

  • Elementary School Teacher
  • P.S. 026 The Carteret School (31R026)
  • Staten Island

Carolyn Unterman’s passion for teaching starts with the belief that education can provide the opportunity to overcome all obstacles, no matter what challenges befall you. She is open and vulnerable as an educator, using her own life experiences to motivate her students. As shared by her superintendent, “At a young age, Ms. Unterman realized that school was her opportunity to break her own cycle of poverty. When she was a junior at Port Richmond High School in District 31, she volunteered in a local elementary school to tutor children and found her passion in helping children find books that inspire them to read. To this day she uses that skill as a springboard to inspire a love of learning.”

As a Model Teacher and Instructional Leader, Ms. Unterman offers support to colleagues and parents/families. One way that she’s done this is by hosting interactive parent workshops on a variety of topics. As we’ve made the transition to remote learning, she’s provided technological support to families and created tutorial videos for colleagues to support them in developing effective practices. She’s also continued to lead weekly cross-grade team meetings and mentor teachers in her school and across the district. As stated by one of her student’s parent, “Everything that Ms. Unterman does is coupled with love.”

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