UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State's College of Education honored several alumni at its annual awards banquet on Friday, Oct. 25.
Alumni Excellence Award
John C. Foster won the Alumni Excellence Award, the highest honor accorded to alumni of the College of Education. A resident of Carlisle, Foster is president and chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania branch of NOCTI and NOCTI Business Solutions of Big Rapids, Michigan, a nonprofit responsible for career and technical education student testing nationwide at the secondary, post-secondary and adult levels.
Foster earned three degrees from Penn State – a bachelor's in vocational education in 1976; a master's in vocational industrial education administration in 1982; and a doctorate in workforce education and organizational development in 1997.
"I am continually impressed with John's driving commitment to excellence," said Russel Weikle, retired director of the career and college transition division of the California Department of Education. "John is uncompromising in his quest for quality and never loses sight of the needs of his staff. During his tenure, he has distinguished himself as a visionary and charismatic national leader, transforming the companies he serves."
Foster also has served as an administrative director in the Carlisle Area School District from 1988-2000; a field resource person and instructor at Penn State from 1995-97; a state director for career and technical education for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from 1999-2004; and principal investigator and core member of the National Research for Career and Technical Education beginning in 2007.
"Dr. Foster is genuinely committed to his career mission – teaching people to have skills that help them earn a living wage," said Cynthia Pellock, director of the Professional Personnel Development Center for Career and Technical Education at Penn State.
"He recognizes that NOCTI's assessments are not a gate to prohibit people from entering an occupation, but are more like roadmap that help people advance from one point to another. He leads the organization to provide teachers with assessment-support tools that inform curriculum development and advise needs for instructional improvement. That attention to good teaching has been evident throughout his career," Pellock said.
Leadership and Service Award
The Leadership and Service Award recognizes alumni who have distinguished themselves in their chosen professions in or out of the field of education. This year's award goes to Mark D. DiRocco.
DiRocco is from Mechanicsburg and is executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) in Harrisburg, a nonprofit organization that supports and serves superintendents, assistant superintendents, Intermediate Unit executive and assistant directors and central office administrators in public schools across the state.
DiRocco graduated from Mansfield University in 1978 and earned a master's degree in education administration from Bucknell University in 1985. He received his doctorate in instructional systems from Penn State in 1997. Prior to his beginning his current position in 2016, DiRocco was superintendent of the Lewisburg Area School District since 2002. He also was an administrator in the Sullivan County and Muncy school districts and was an elementary teacher in the Muncy and Williamsport school districts.
"Mark has been able to capitalize on a wealth of experience and his strong reputation to move our state organization forward. He was able to work with the governor's office and other key education associations to pass legislation to update the graduate requirements for students across the state of Pennsylvania," said John Kurelja, assistant executive director and chief academic officer of the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit.
"He spent his career trying to raise people up and improve not only his own school environment but those around him. You will not find a more principled and caring leader and his entire career is a testament to his professionalism," Kurelja said.
DiRocco has testified numerous times on education topics before the Pennsylvania State Legislature and has served in many organizations and offices, including the Pennsylvania Tuition Account Advisory Board, to which he was appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf in September 2018. He was named Superintendent of the Year by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators in 2016.
"Mark's personal integrity, humanity, humility, incredible work ethic and dedication to public education are among the cornerstones of his character," said Kathy Swope, a longtime board president in the Lewisburg Area School District. "He led the district with a genuine caring and concern for staff and students, a trait that earned him the respect and admiration of the entire community.
"I can attest to Dr. DiRocco's pride in being a Penn State alumnus and I am confident that you will find that my respect and praise are not views held by me alone, but reflect the views of all who know him," Swope said.
Service to Penn State Award
Dorothy J. Krecker Yukish was awarded the College of Education Alumni Society Service to Penn State Award.
Yukish resides in Boalsburg and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from Penn State in 1971. She earned her master's in curriculum and instruction, with an instructional systems emphasis, from Penn State in 1985. She was a teacher in the Connellsville Area School District in southwestern Pennsylvania from 1971-2004.
In retirement, Yukish has volunteered for a number of organizations.
"Ms. Yukish truly embodies the ideals of both Penn State and the College of Education by her continued contribution of her time and talent serving the University, the College of Education and the greater State College area community," said Dale Hoffman, the past president of the Penn State Engineering Alumni Society and Alumni Council board member who nominated her for the award.
She was a member of the Centre County/Penn State Convention and Visitor's Bureau Board and its president, 2010-14. Yukish also has been an Alumni Association volunteer, a mentor for the Chamber of Business & Industry of Centre County, a volunteer for Coaches vs. Cancer Golf Tournaments and a volunteer educator at the children's garden at the Penn State Arboretum.
She also has served in various capacities in other downtown State College and Boalsburg organizations. "Through her efforts she has encouraged a positive Town and Gown experience, brought new ideas to the local businessmen, encouraged best practices, and helped develop new programs to advance more business for the downtown merchants," Hoffman said.
Yukish also has used her instructional design background to create programs in schools as well as Centre Community Hospital, now known as Mount Nittany Medical Center.
"Dottie is a wonderful ambassador for Penn State and the College of Education within the community," said Ilene White, a 1974 Penn State graduate. "Her warm personality engages many and her dependability is without question. It is a recognition that she truly has earned."
Janet Campolongo of Tyrone met Yukish while volunteering nearly 15 years ago.
"She is warm, compassionate and extremely wise. She has an amazing ability to foster positive interactions and bring the best out of those around her," Campolongo said.
Outstanding Teaching Award
This year's College of Education Outstanding Teaching Award goes to Stacey Litten Miller, a fourth-grade mathematics and science educator at Pleasant Gap Elementary School in the Bellefonte Area School District.
Miller earned her bachelor of science in elementary education in May 2002 from Penn State and a master's of education in curriculum and instruction from Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana, in 2006.
She has given many science-related presentations and is a member of the Pennsylvania Science Teachers Association, the Academic STEM Alliance and the National Science Teachers Association, among others.
"Stacey is extremely confident, creative, analytical and resourceful, which has led her to develop innovative practices in her classroom, especially in the area of mathematics and science," said her nominator, Kate Sillman, assistant professor in curriculum and instruction.
"She consistently challenges herself to take ideas from learning experiences and immediately put them to use in some way in her teaching. She is respected and highly regarded by her students and their parents, her student teachers and her colleagues. She is consistently intuitive, analytical and reflective, and has a personality that seems to encourage others to have the desire and confidence to learn and improve their practice," Sillman said.
Daniel Besch Jr., principal at Pleasant Gap Elementary, noted that Miller has been the high school girls' soccer coach for the past 18 years, and cited her significant contributions to mathematics and science education in the Bellefonte Area School District.
Tammie Burnaford, the district's assistant superintendent, also noted how Miller's natural curiosity helped instill a love of learning in science for students.
"Quite simply, teaching math and science are Mrs. Miller's passion, and she does an outstanding job delivering her instruction," Burnaford said. "She has been a true asset to the elementary instructional program in the Bellefonte Area School District."
Outstanding New Graduate
Caleb Gildea, a third-grade teacher in Columbia Elementary School in Annandale, Virginia, is the recipient of this year's Outstanding New Graduate award.
Gildea, who resides in Arlington, Virginia, graduated from Penn State in December 2016 with a bachelor of science in education and a human development and family studies minor.
At Penn State, Gildea was a member of the Blue Band, was a captain in family relations in THON and was an assistant group supervisor for the Child Development and Family Council in State College. He has continued volunteer efforts in Arlington, Virginia.
"Mr. Gildea has the trust of the children and their parents," said Michael Cunningham, principal of Columbia Elementary School in Annandale. "He has an inclusive approach that engages each child and establishes warm and caring relationships that allow each child to thrive.
"As I observe his teaching, I enjoy his ability to handle any classroom situation, analyze problems, formulate solutions and effectively engage the students."
Kimberly Denton, instructional coach at Gildea's school, said: "Since beginning his teaching career only two years ago, Caleb has eagerly sought to grow his knowledge and understanding of best teaching practices. Not only has he established highly effective reading, writing and math workshops, where instruction is engaging and differentiated, he has proven himself to be an innovative educator.
"Caleb Gildea is a dynamic young teacher with a very bright future. His genuine compassion for children, love for learning and positive attitude inspire his students and colleagues," Denton said.
Tara Harden, a special education teacher at Columbia Elementary, said Gildea has the most energy she has seen in her teaching career.
"He finds a way to make learning fun for everyone," Harden said. "He is always gentle and sensitive to those who need it. He allows all students to shine and demonstrate their strengths no matter what area it is.
"Caleb's commitment to his students is pure and seamless. He makes every minute of every day count, and he always finds a way to encourage his students to persevere and have the growth mind-set that he so deeply believes in."
Outstanding Student Teacher Award (elementary and early childhood education option)
Megan Johnston and Allyson McCready, both 2019 graduates of the College, are the recipients of the Outstanding Student Teacher Award (elementary and early childhood education option).
Johnston completed her student teaching experience at Clearfield Elementary School within the Clearfield Area School District, where she said her most challenging experience was managing the behavior of a student who had a difficult home life. Because of the student's unique situation, Johnston and her mentor teacher were not able to communicate with a parent or guardian, which she said caused the student's misbehavior to escalate.
"Overall, managing this student's behavior has been a challenging, but rewarding learning experience … [and] … has better prepared me for adapting to the different behaviors I may come across when I am in my own classroom," Johnston said.
According to her nominator and student teacher supervisor Sharlene Yontosh, Johnston "is a young professional that has gone above and beyond expectations of her within her student teaching experience. She is confident, poised and skillful in her craft and practice."
Yontosh described Johnston's classroom as a "whirl of activities and learning," with students always working on an array of engaging assignments including pumpkin carving to a science and math lesson that required students to predict if certain objects would sink or float.
"[Megan's] ability to manage instruction and an overall classroom is amazing and quite competent," Yontosh said. "She will quickly grow to become a leader and master teacher of any system [with which] she is affiliated."
McCready completed her student teaching practicum at Mountain Top Elementary School in the Bald Eagle Area School District, where she taught in a third-grade classroom.
"My student teaching experience was more than a requirement in order to graduate, or a class or a practicum: it was my whole heart and life," McCready said. "Every single day, I poured my all into best meeting the needs of my students' emotional, social, physical and intellectual needs."
Her dedication was evident to her mentor. "Allyson made an active effort to get to know her students and build relationships with them," said Jason Bair. "She cared a lot about teaching the students that they could make a difference in the world. … She did more than was ever required of her every single day to best meet the needs of the class."
McCready's commitment also impressed her student teaching supervisor, Kathleen Smith, who said, "Allyson went above and beyond in her field experience in several ways. Once example is that she developed an excellent unit on citizenship with creative and meaningful lessons on voting privileges and leadership characteristics. … It was one of the best units I have ever seen from a student teacher."
McCready also found a way to connect her service at Penn State to serve her school community. She is a member of the executive board for the Penn State organization Camp Kesem Central PA, which provides a free, week-long summer camp and year-round support for children whose parents have cancer. Within the first weeks of her student teaching experience, McCready said she quickly realized how many district students were suffering from the affects that accompany a parent's cancer diagnosis. Through coordination with the school leaders, McCready gave a presentation during a district in-service day about the benefits of Camp Kesem and how many district students can benefit from what it has to offer.
Outstanding Student Teacher Award (secondary education option)
Recent graduates Andrew Conyers and Blaker Lyter are the recipients of the Outstanding Student Teacher Award (secondary education option).
Conyers is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who returned to Penn State to earn his master's degree in curriculum and instruction as well as his teaching certificate in secondary social studies education.
Returning to school as an adult student was Conyers' biggest challenge.
"For me personally, being an older student, I had the insecurity that comes with making a career change. I was worried that I would fall on my face and have to start all over again down some other career path," he said.
But, according to Andrew Merritt, Conyers' mentor teacher at State College Area High School, he is a natural.
"I have 29 years of teaching experience and was Nationally Board Certified," said Merritt. "In those years, I have had several student teachers and I can easily say Andrew Conyers is the best with whom I have worked. His style is not flashy. He brings a blue-collar approach to his teaching. More importantly, he is genuine — what you see is what you get."
Students in Conyers' AP U.S. government/comparative government classroom also were impressed.
"I can only define a good teacher as a person who cares — about what they're teaching and who they are teaching to. A person who comes to work every day because they want to, not because they have to. Mr. Conyers is a good teacher because he wants to be, because he cares," said one student.
Albert D'Ambrosia, Conyers' student teacher field supervisor, said, "Mr. Conyers ranks among the finest student teachers I have had the opportunity to supervise. I don't say that lightly. Andrew is exactly the type of person we need in the teaching profession."
Lyter is a 2019 graduate who completed her student teaching practicum in a sixth-grade classroom at Mount Nittany Middle School, where she taught two advanced math classes and two science classes.
Lyter's student teaching field supervisor, Shari Ann Reed, said, "Ms. Lyter possesses a desire to continually grow in her understanding and implementation of best practices in the field of education; in particular, the teaching of mathematics."
Lyter's commitment and dedication impresses her colleagues, students and parents.
"Her enthusiasm, love and passion for teaching (and her students) was very evident during her 15 weeks of student teaching," said Amy Dietz, a fellow math teacher and parent of one of Blake's students. "Ms. Lyter worked hard to create a community in the classroom, which meant being involved in the community outside of the classroom."
To help foster community, Lyter made sure to attend the school play and even went out of her comfort zone to trying skiing, an activity many of her students often discussed and encouraged her to try even though she had no experience.
"I think it meant a lot to the students knowing I was willing to go out of my comfort zone and try something they suggested," Lyter said. "I valued their opinions and they valued mine."
"Being a teacher does not end when the bell rings – it is not confined to a classroom," she said. "Being a teacher is about community … [and] creating community means being involved in the community. It is getting to know each student and how to best reach them."