Camelot Education Recognizes Teacher of the Year Recipients at Schools across Pennsylvania and New Jersey
Each year Camelot Education celebrates one teacher from each of its schools with the Teacher of the Year honor. This year, award recipients across Pennsylvania and New Jersey include Jared Garner, Phoenix Academy (Lancaster, PA); Courtney Topper, Buehrle Academy (Lancaster, PA), Christopher Knechel, Delco Academy (Collingdale, PA); Desiree Gordon, Cougar Achieve Academy (Harrisburg, PA); and Victoria Taft, Rubino Academy (Ewing, NJ).
Phoenix Academy – Jared Garner
Since 2015, Jared Garner has worked as a science teacher at Phoenix Academy, Camelot’s accelerated high school program in partnership with the School District of Lancaster. He joined the staff with a desire to serve students from an underserved population. When he was recognized as Teacher of the Year, he accepted the news with a mixture of surprise and pride.
“I was extremely happy to have won it. It felt like all of my hard work was paying off,” Garner said.
Phoenix Academy Executive Director Megan Misnik said Garner is enthusiastic about working with students and is always excited to connect with them through his science his lessons.
“He builds relationships with his students through classroom dialogue and during non-academic times. He plays basketball with his students in the afternoons too,” Misnik said. “He is a team player who is always willing to step up when needed to support the team.”
With a background that differs from students in his classroom, Garner says his students showed him not to take anything for granted.
“My students helped me learn how to stay strong in the face of adversity, both through their personal stories, but also through the way some students push you to see if you are really on their side,” Garner said. “I’ve learned to stay with those tough students and keep trying to get them on my side. This year I focused on leading through patience and calmness. I really feel like it worked.”
Garner’s focus on his student’s voices shines through in his classroom.
According to Misnik, at any given time, you walk into his room, the students are the center of what is happening.
“He designs his lessons so that students show mastery of a topic by practically leading themselves through activities, and he is there as the facilitator,” she said.
Buehrle Academy – Courtney Topper
Teacher of the Year Courtney Topper started working for Camelot Education’s Buehrle Academy in August 2019. What excited her about the opportunity to teach at Buehrle was the chance to work with students that she hadn’t had the opportunity to work with before.
Buehrle Academy, a partner school of the School District of Lancaster, serves students, grades 4-12, who have been referred to Camelot due to significant disciplinary violations and risk not matriculating or graduating on time. The staff excels at re-engaging students in their education by helping them overcome behavioral, social, emotional, and academic challenges in their lives.
Topper teaches Communications Arts, a vital subject that ensures Buehrle’s students return to their home schools ready to succeed, not just academically but also in the workplace. Topper also leads the students to create and publish Panther Press, the school’s quarterly newsletter that is mailed to parents and local school district personnel.
“When I started with Camelot, I was up for the challenge of working with middle school and high school students,” Topper said. “Prior to this year, I had only ever taught high school students. I was also excited about the smaller class sizes. Because of that, I really get to know my students at Buehrle.”
“Working at Buehrle has reminded me that each student has a story, and the more I get to know my students as people, the more easily we work together, and they are more successful in the classroom.”
Matthew Wiltrout, Buehrle’s executive director, said that when Topper stepped in, she was immediately effective.
“Courtney builds rapport easily, and this is key to beginning to breaking down the barriers that many of our students have when they first walk into our school. She became the leader of her classroom quickly and effectively. She is enthusiastic and always goes out of her way to help students reach their potential.”
Cougar Achieve Academy – Desiree Gordon
Desiree Gordon, chosen as Cougar Achieve Academy’s Teacher of the Year, started with Camelot Education August 2019. Gordon was honored to receive the recognition after just one year with the school.
“When I was told I was chosen Teacher of the Year I was grateful beyond measure,” Gordon said. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of amazing people. Every single staff member has a crucial role in this school, and student success is their main focus. I was also excited to be welcomed into such a great atmosphere – the entire staff seemed so close-knit.”
According to Executive Director Jim Snyder, her classroom culture stood out the most. Her classroom management style is unique. She is simultaneously entertaining, calm, caring, firm, and consistent. Students who walk into her classroom are engaged from beginning to end.
“She took a lesson on the scientific method, and her students created music videos where the lyrics had to incorporate the entire scientific method,” Snyder said. “It became so contagious everyone in the building was walking around singing the students songs. I know I will never forget the scientific method after her lesson, and I know our students will always remember that, too.”
In partnership with the Harrisburg School District, Camelot’s Cougar Achieve Academy is a transitional program for students, grades 6-12, who have been expelled or removed from their home campus for behavioral violations. Through an immersive social-emotional learning experience, students are provided with the academic support to get them back on track for grade promotion or graduation, as well as the tools they need to help them make decisions different from those that led to their suspension or expulsion.
“I’ve learned that one school’s most ‘disruptive students’ are another school’s most brilliant learners,” Gordon said. “Our students want to learn and enjoy learning – you just have to be willing to learn from them along the way.”
Delco Academy – Chris Knechel
Chris Knechel, Delco Academy’s Teacher of the Year, started his career teaching math and science with Camelot Education in 2015. It was his first opportunity to be the leader in his own classroom. Delco Academy, a therapeutic day school, in partnership with Southeast Delco School District, serves students experiencing emotional, behavioral, and academic challenges, and provides them with smaller class sizes, more individual attention, and a nurturing environment so that they may achieve success both in and out of school.
“When I was named Teacher of the Year, it was a shock, and I’m very honored and appreciative of the award,” Knechel said. “The award is not about me. It’s about our successful program. I’m lucky that I get to work each day with great students, staff, and administration.”
The school’s principal, Catherine Menow, said Knechel’s areas of expertise are crucial for the program since many students come to the school with skills that are below grade level.
“Chris is a creative educator who utilizes the Camelot Instructional Framework to develop innovative lessons that engage students in the learning process,” Menow said. “This year, he taught a forensic science class, and created a ‘crime scene’ in his classroom to allow students to utilize what they were learning in a hands-on approach. The students were excited and enjoyed the lesson.”
Knechel says the most significant thing he’s learned from working at Delco Academy was how to create relationships with students from a variety of backgrounds and interests.
“It’s crucial to make connections with students to allow the greatest amount of learning possible. Some students like sports, while others enjoy reading books. You have to adapt the lessons to the interests of the students.”
Nilsa Gonzalez, Camelot’s chief academic officer, said Knechel is a hard-working and dedicated teacher who continually looks for innovative ways to engage his students. “The high level of rigor and hands-on learning in his class allowed his students to utilize various critical thinking skills during the learning process.”
Rubino Academy – Victoria Taft
Rubino Academy’s Teacher of the Year for 2020 is Victoria Taft. Taft teaches high school English and Career Development.
Taft started with Camelot Education in August 2018, and Assistant Principal Jennifer Giordano, who hired her, said when she first interviewed her, Taft discussed how she worked with a student one-on-one and was able to significantly improve that student’s academic abilities.
“She was very interested in Rubino and very excited about the opportunity to teach our students,” said Giordano. “In relating to students and their families, she often makes phone calls to the homes to deliver positive feedback regarding student performance. She relates her English instruction stories, themes, and writing to student’s lives. She shares her connections to themes within the stories her students read.”
What stood out about Taft that led to her recognition as teacher of the year is that she takes instructional feedback from her supervisors and implements it into her instruction for the benefit of her students.
“She implements group work every week, as well as all six Camelot Instructional Strategies. She also greatly stepped up during remote learning to support our school, students, and staff,” Giordano said. “We appreciate all the work she puts into our program to make it excellent.”
Rubino Academy is an accelerated high school of choice for students attending one of the nine school districts in Mercer County, NJ. Through an immersive social-emotional learning curriculum, students at Rubino achieve significantly improved academic outcomes, including upward progression and high school graduation.