Excel Academy South Teacher of the Year Chose Career Path at Age 13 and Never Looked Back
Was it serendipity? When Cassandra (Cassi) Kemmerer was 13, she volunteered at an organization called Camelot for Children (not affiliated with Camelot Education) in Allentown, PA, to help support young children with special needs.
She enjoyed the work and the children’s appreciation so much that she stayed with the organization all the way through her time at Cedar Crest College, where she majored in special education. Then, when she graduated six years ago, she began working at Camelot Education as a special education teacher, and recently, she was named Teacher of the Year at Excel Academy South.
“It feels good to be honored, and I appreciate the recognition, but that’s not what we do this for,” she said. “It is nice to have your hard work noticed though.”
Kemmerer had been co-teaching classes in support of her special education students for several years, but she and Principal Cassie Oshinsky decided the students would benefit even more by having additional remedial classes. Last year, Kemmerer created a whole new curriculum and started remedial courses in order to support her students in reading, writing, and math.
“We needed a way to help our special needs students build the foundational knowledge that wasn’t as well developed in order to help them be successful at the high school level,” she said.
“We saw a need for reading and writing intervention for our special education students to help develop their literacy skills, so she created the curriculum, and it has been a great addition to our campus,” Oshinsky said. “As part of our inclusion process, she was already co-teaching classes in support of special education students, and then she added two remedial classes a day to her schedule. That indicates how much above-and-beyond she goes. She also trains our teachers in differences in instruction and how to tailor lessons based on the needs of individual students.”
Excel Academy South is an accelerated high school, in the School District of Philadelphia, for students who have fallen well behind in their studies. The program affords students the opportunity to make up for lost ground. The standards to graduate are the same for special education students as other students, and they must fulfill all the required courses. Most students come to Excel Academy South with below grade-level reading and math skills, and that’s why this extra support is so necessary, Kemmerer said.
“Typically, textbooks in high school are written at an 8th-grade level, so we can’t just give our special education students those textbooks and expect them to be successful,” she said. “We provide supplements – whether we translate readings to a lower level, give them graphic organizers, or pull them out of class for individualized lessons to advance them to where they can participate fully in class. Because we are so structured and give them the attention they need, they understand we don’t just see them as a number; we put in the extra time for each of our students. Even if I don’t have a particular student in my remedial class, I will go to whatever class they are in, stay with them at the end of the day, and help them get their work done. They really appreciate that, and in turn, they try harder.”
Jarrad Muller, Excel Academy South’s executive director, said Kemmerer is just one of those employees who goes above and beyond for every task she takes on.
“She started a club called the Sunshine Club to maintain staff morale on campus. Working with our students can be demanding and take an emotional toll, but you would never know that with her. She’s always upbeat; everything is about the kids. She spends her own money for extra decorations inside her classroom. She fulfills her classroom duties first, and because she cares so much about our school and students, she does many things on her own time,” Muller said.
Principal Oshinsky echoed that praise. “A big reason our campus runs so smoothly is because of all the things that Ms. Kemmerer does. She is that staff member that everybody else goes to when they need that little boost, because she is always positive and always coming up with new ideas, and she’s willing and able to support everybody. Students first but staff too.”
As much as her passion lies in the classroom and with helping as many special education students as she can, Kemmerer said she would like to move into administration at some point.
“I’ve been teaching for six years now and think, organizationally, I could be very helpful at the higher level,” she said. “It would be hard to leave the classroom, but I would be a hands-on administrator. Here at Excel Academy South, our principal, special education director, and our academic coordinator are in our classes and know all of our students by name, just as we teachers do, so I would use them as role models.”
There aren’t many of us who can say we knew where our lives would take us at age 13, but fortunately for Camelot Education, Kemmerer knew after her volunteer experience. The satisfaction she received from helping children clarified her journey.
“The kids were so grateful for the smallest things that you did for them, even just giving them a hug when they walked in in the morning. They were just so grateful, and it made me feel good like I was doing something important. I fell in love with this field and knew it had to be my life’s work.”