"Those Who Excel" Award Winners Include Elm's Elena Bartolomei

Elena Bartolomei uses a white board during one of her classes at Elm Middle School.

Elm Middle School's Ms. Elena Bartolomei was one of several District 401 winners in the 2019 Those Who Excel awards program sponsored by the Illinois State Board of Education. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

The Illinois State Board of Education has recognized District 401 with three major awards in the 2019 edition of the Those Who Excel program.

The annual celebration of excellence in education honors individuals and groups who have made significant contributions to Illinois public and nonpublic elementary and secondary schools.

District 401 educators and staff members received the following awards:

ISBE will salute the winners later this fall at the 45th-annual Those Who Excel banquet. The event will be held Oct. 19 at the Bloomington-Normal Marriott Hotel & Conference Center in Normal.

This year’s awards continue the trend of statewide recognition District 401 has received under the leadership of Superintendent of Schools Dr. Nicolas D. Wade. In last year's Those Who Excel program, the District earned four awards:

To be considered for the ISBE honors, candidates must be nominated by their local school district leaders or other members of their local school communities.

Nomination materials are evaluated by a selection committee composed of representatives from a variety of educational organizations.

In this year’s competition, Ms. Bartolomei was one of only 22 classroom teacher winners in Cook County, and one of 66 statewide. Ms. Solis was one of only 11 education service personnel winners in Cook County, and one of 42 in the state. The Social Justice League was one of only 10 team winners in Cook County, and one of 34 throughout the state.

Here's a closer look at District 401's winners. Congratulations to all!

Elena Bartolomei | Classroom Teacher Merit Award

Elena Bartolomei teaching her Elm students.

PHOTO: Ms. Elena Bartolomei talks to one of her English language arts classes early in the 2019-20 school year. Click image for larger view. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

If you’re searching for someone who exemplifies the ideals of lifelong learning and continuous improvement, look no further than Elena Bartolomei.

Ms. Bartolomei, who teaches 8th-grade English language arts at Elm Middle School, has been an educator for 28 years. But instead of being skeptical of new approaches to teaching, the DePaul University graduate has been one of District 401's leaders in embracing the introduction of instructional technology in the classroom.

"She has been instrumental in supporting our technology initiative, sharing instructional resources with colleagues, as well as connecting students with the benefits of learning," said Director for Instructional Technology Ms. Jessica Iovinelli, who nominated Ms. Bartolomei for the Classroom Teacher award.

Elena Bartolomei speaks to her students at Elm Middle School.

PHOTO: College pennants and posters set the tone in Ms. Bartolomei's classroom. She inspires her students to aim high. Click image for larger view. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

When the District began providing professional development training in Google-based education technology in 2016, Ms. Bartolomei was an enthusiastic early adopter. 

"Through her dedication and effort," Ms. Iovinelli continued, "she has made tremendous strides in technology integration, using it as an avenue for differentiating learning for her students while teaching them skills necessary for the 21st century. She is always the first to ask questions and brainstorm potential uses for every new technology tool and concept presented, acting as a leader and resource for her team."  

Indeed, so skillful was Ms. Bartolomei at integrating technology of all types into her classroom teaching that she was featured in a video produced by Pearson, a leading educational publisher and interactive curriculum developer. (Note: Click the video below to watch Ms. Bartolomei, who first appears at the 0:48 mark.)

Click the video above to watch Elena Bartolomei discuss digital learning (starting at 0:48).

Nevertheless, news of winning an award for her teaching came as a surprise to Ms. Bartolomei, who learned of it when she received a letter from ISBE in early August.

"I was shocked," she recalled, "and I actually had to read the letter twice!"

Ms. Bartolomei's deft weaving of technology into her instructional practices is an outgrowth of her fundamental approach to education. Her focus, she says, is on "developing critical thinking skills and a love of learning in all of my students, using a blend of best practices, differentiation and social emotional awareness."

A key part of her approach, Ms. Bartolomei noted, is "a belief in the power of collaborative problem-solving, incorporating technology in the classroom and fostering a cohesive student-centered learning atmosphere."

Elena Bartolomei speaks with her students during class at Elm Middle School.

PHOTO: Setting clear expectations and goals for her students has been a key to Ms. Bartolomei's success as a teacher. Click image for larger view. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

Ms. Bartolomei has taught at Elm since August 2000, after spending much of the previous decade teaching 5th and 6th graders at John Mills Elementary School

Besides almost three decades of experience, she brings to her classroom the knowledge gained from a bachelor's in education (DePaul), a master's in curriculum development (also DePaul) and a master's in educational technology (Concordia University Chicago).

But perhaps her greatest asset is her ability to turn her classroom into a place where 8th graders simply love to learn.

"How do I approach middle school students?" she asked. "LOTS and LOTS of HUMOR! I believe in building strong relationships with my students. When I think about my students and classroom, it all begins with a positive, comfortable and safe atmosphere. I have extremely high expectations — or as my students would say, "very strict" — but everyone feels respected. It is a mutual feeling." 

Jessica Solis | Education Service Merit Award

Jessica Solis at her desk in the Elmwood Elementary School main office.

PHOTO: As secretary at Elmwood Elementary, Ms. Jessica Solis has been praised as the "glue that holds our school together." Click image for larger view. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

When visitors arrive at Elmwood Elementary School, the first person they usually see is Jessica Solis. As school secretary, Ms. Solis not only serves as administrative assistant to Elmwood's principal, Mr. Matthew Lerner, she is also a public ambassador of sorts. 

In the words of Elmwood teacher Ms. Jeorganne Ricchio, visitors to the school are "greeted with a welcoming, caring smile. Behind that smile is Jessica Solis."

Now in her fifth year with District 401, Ms. Solis was nominated for ISBE’s Education Service Personnel Award by Ms. Ricchio and Assistant Principal Ms. Stephanie Hagins.

"At Elmwood Elementary, Jessica is the glue that holds our school together," Ms. Ricchio said in her nomination letter. "Whether organizing events for our school, communicating with parents and students, helping our teachers and staff, or a simple good morning, Jessica brings service and compassion to everyone she encounters."

Jessica Solis answers the phone and helps a visitor in the Elmwood main office.

PHOTO: Greeting phone callers while also helping office visitors is all part of the multi-tasking that Ms. Solis does each day. Click image for larger view. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

With typical modesty, Ms. Solis said she thought there had been a mistake when she was notified by mail over a recent August weekend that she had won the ISBE honor.

As she remembered: "I told my mom, 'I think they sent it to the wrong Jessica.' I placed the letter in my lunch bag and meant to ask about it at work on Monday. As Monday morning came around, Dr. Wade along with Mr. Lerner and Ms. Hagins congratulated me. That's when it all sunk in. I had won an award! Still can't believe it! It was a complete surprise, a wonderful surprise."

Prior to working at Elmwood, Ms. Solis spent 10 years in banking and retail.

"I heard about the job opening through a relative, who was the previous building secretary," she said. "I was looking for a better opportunity where I could use my experience in customer service."

Jessica Solis helps a student in the Elmwood main office.

PHOTO: Ms. Solis checks her computer files in response to a question from an Elmwood student. Click image for larger view. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

Ms. Solis has certainly found the ideal place to put her skills to use. Her main responsibility is to ensure the smooth and efficient running of the school office, which entails everything from helping with registration and maintaining student files to responding to inquiries from students, staff and parents. 

"There's not a typical day," she noted. "Every day is different! Every day has its challenges. Determining the priorities is key. It helps immensely when you have a supportive team."

One notable thing about Ms. Solis is that she is fluent in Spanish; indeed, it's her native language. This helps everyone when Spanish-speaking family members visit school or call with questions.

"I can truly relate and empathize with many of our Elmwood families," Ms. Solis said. "My parents were immigrants who came from Mexico in 1986-87. I understand the culture and challenges. I am first generation, and Spanish was my first language, like so many of our students." 

She continued: "I was in a bilingual program up to 3rd grade. I vividly remember being the translator and interpreter for my parents at such a young age, as I was the first born. I believe this helps me in being the secretary at Elmwood School. I appreciate how welcoming and supportive our school has been to the Spanish-speaking community." 

Jessica Solis helps an Elmwood parent and student.

PHOTO: All visitors to the Elmwood Elementary main office receive friendly and efficient help from Ms. Solis. Click image for larger view. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

In her nomination letter, Ms. Ricchio described a specific example of how Ms. Solis' linguistic skills benefited Elmwood. 

"Jessica took a lead role in supporting a 2nd-grade student who has leukemia," Ms. Ricchio recounted. "Being bilingual, Jessica was able to communicate with the student's family on the school’s behalf and became their advocate. Jessica assisted in all fundraising projects for this student, as well as establishing a personal connection with this family."

Although receiving the ISBE award has been a welcome validation of her work, don’t expect Ms. Solis to lose her drive for continual improvement.

"It is my honor to receive an award of such magnitude," she said. "But I can do so much more for our students and community. We all can!"

Social Justice League | Team Recognition Award

Elmwood teacher Lauren Jerzyk helps a student in her 5th-grade classroom.

PHOTO: Ms. Lauren Jerzyk, a 5th-grade teacher at Elmwood Elementary School, helps one of her students. She and her colleague Ms. Brooke Anderson, both members of District 401's Social Justice League, wrote a nominating letter to the Illinois State Board of Education explaining why they thought the SJL deserved recognition for its work on behalf of social and emotional learning. Click image for larger view. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

Last year the District Technology Committee was honored with an ISBE Team Award for its role in transforming D401's curriculum through the use of instructional technology. 

This year a Team Award has gone to the Social Justice League (SJL), another educator-driven organization whose work could prove just as transformational for the District.

SJL is a districtwide committee that was formed in 2016 to help support social and emotional learning (SEL) and restorative practices across all grade levels, from pre-K to 12th grade. 

The initial impetus for the formation of SJL was passage of Senate Bill 100, which took effect in Illinois during the 2016-17 school year. 

As part of an effort to reduce the "school to prison" pipeline, the new law prohibited zero-tolerance disciplinary policies and limited the use of exclusionary discipline such as out-of-school suspensions and expulsions of more than three days.

To replace such policies, the new law emphasized "restorative" approaches, so named because they attempt to restore wholeness after an offense. These practices typically involve the victim, the offender and trained facilitators having frank but respectful conversations.

EPHS Assistant Principal and Social Justice League leader Kyleen Coia at her desk.

PHOTO: Ms. Kyleen Coia, EPHS assistant principal, has served as facilitator for the Social Justice League since its inception in 2016. Click image for larger view. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

But since those early days of the group, SJL members have moved beyond dealing with the specifics of SB 100 and have taken on the broader mission of helping their colleagues use social and emotional learning as a way to support the diverse needs of all D401 students.

SEL is the process through which children develop the skills, knowledge and awareness to:

► Understand and manage emotions
► Set and achieve positive goals
► Feel and show empathy for others
► Establish and maintain positive relationships
► Make responsible decisions

One of the main tasks of the Social Justice League has been to help identify, pilot and implement an SEL curriculum throughout D401 schools.

Beginning this school year, the District is using Second Step as its SEL curriculum for grades PK-8 and RULER as its SEL curriculum for grades 9-12.

Currently about 20 members participate in SJL, representing staff from each building, including teachers, social workers, administrators and District Office staff. The group meets monthly during the school year.

“We have had a core group of members involved in the process since its inception, and others join in along the way as they have been motivated to participate,” said Elmwood Park High School's assistant principal, Ms. Kyleen Coia, who often serves as SJL's informal facilitator. 

Lauren Jerzyk helps her students as they write positive messages on a circle mat.

PHOTO: Ms. Jerzyk consults with her students as they write affirmative messages on the mat they use during community circles, an activity that's part of their social and emotional learning curriculum. Click image for larger view. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

Two D401 educators who have been involved with SJL from the beginning are Elmwood Elementary School teachers Ms. Brooke Anderson and Ms. Lauren Jerzyk.

They composed a nominating letter to ISBE on behalf of SJL, in which they discussed the impact the group has had on District practices.

“The Social Justice League has spearheaded efforts to ensure that social emotional skills are used throughout the entire school day in all settings throughout our unit district,” they wrote.

Ms. Anderson and Ms. Jerzyk noted that the group's efforts began with an SEL-themed Institute Day for all of District 401.

Training featured both staff and student small-group breakout sessions on a variety of SEL topics.

The offerings also included all-day training on restorative justice led by Umoja Student Development Corporation, with a focus on community circle building.

After the Institute Day came an opportunity for staff from all District buildings to join an SJL-organized cohort. The cohort participated in six months of training on restorative practices, led again by Umoja.

This training provided restorative practice tools for cohort members to bring back to their respective buildings. 

A student in Lauren Jerzyk's class shows what she wrote on the circle mat.

PHOTO: One of Ms. Jerzyk's students displays the positive message to herself that she wrote on the community circle mat: "I can't erase my feelings but I can erase my mistakes like drawings." Click image for larger view. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

Ms. Anderson and Ms. Jerzyk were members of the cohort. In their nominating letter they described how they implemented SEL concepts and techniques into their 5th-grade classrooms during 2018-19.

"We started the year with creating a sense of community through norm-setting, where all students were actively involved in choosing classroom norms," they wrote. "We also used restorative conversations and self-reflections to help students with conflict resolution." 

By the end of the year, Ms. Anderson and Ms. Jerzyk felt strongly enough about the effectiveness of the tools they were using to nominate SJL for ISBE's Team Award.

In their words: "EPCUSD 401, with the work of the Social Justice League, has committed to the mindset that values relationships at the center of our school community life. As best said in the poem 'Turning to One Another' by Margaret Wheatley, 'There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.'"

Brooke Anderson discusses the differences between punitive and restorative approaches to dealing with discipline.

PHOTOS: Above, Elmwood 5th-grade teacher Ms. Brooke Anderson discusses with several of her students the differences between punitive and restorative approaches to discipline. Restorative practices are central to the SEL instruction advocated by the Social Justice League. Below, a closer look at the chart. Click images for larger views. (District 401 photos by Dave Porreca)

The differences between punitive and restorative approaches.

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