SPARTA, NJ – Teachers and educational services professionals were recognized as Governor’s Teacher of the Year and Educational Service of the Year at the Sparta Board of Education meeting on Monday night.

Each school honored a recipient that had been nominated by the school community; parents, administrators and other staff.

Sparta High School had selected English teacher Brent Rivers and school Psychologist Dr. Jane Esposito.

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High School Principal Janet Ferraro introduced Esposito explaining she has been at Sparta High School for 16 years, as a member of the Child Study Team.  She has helped to craft the district’s Protocol for Student Risk Assessment and a Child Study Team Guide for the Assessment of Dyslexia.  Esposito is currently a member of the school’s Climate Committee and SHS Safety Committee where she is tackling the issue of teen depression and anxiety which have been reported to be a larger issue for this age group than even for adults. 

“I’ve relied on her expertise, advice and professionalism many times,” Ferraro said. “At all times the needs of her students come shining through.”

Esposito has also been in private practice in Ogdensburg since 2008.  At the MJC Institute her specialty is “cognitive-behavior therapy with children, adolescents and adults in the areas of mood disorders, learning disabilities, executive functioning skill and ADHD.

Andrienne Castorina who works with Esposito said, “Dr. Esposito is a valued and well respected member of our  team.  Her calm and caring demeanor helps the students and parents feel at ease, even during the most difficult times.   Dr. Esposito shares a wealth of knowledge with the Special Services Department.”  

Rivers, according to his website, “LOVES English” though he “detested the subject” when he was in high school.  He is also passionate about “theater, travel food, Netflix, the Boston Red Sox the New York Times and going to concerts.” Rivers is the advisor for Poetry Out Loud, a forensic competition where students are judged as they perform poetry.

Ferraro quoted Rivers’ colleague, “He serves his students like no other.”

Commenting on his recognition Rivers said, “I can't help but think of Mr. Bilbo Baggins when he, at his 111th birthday, says that it's ‘far too short a time to live among such excellent and admirable hobbits.’ I know that you aren't hobbits, but you're all so excellent and admirable.” 

"In Mr. Rivers's classroom, students can be found creating podcasts, organizing presentations, sharing analyses, or developing a class proposal,” English Supervisor Mary Hassenplug said. “Each day is a new adventure. Students are currently drafting proposals for research projects designed to be read by a college professor in a specific discipline. Students will analyze through the lens of a psychologist, historian, or anthropologist, a scientist, engineer, or linguist--the audience determined by the future goals of the students. The relevance of the work students do in Mr. Rivers's class will prepare them for anything the 21st century has to throw at them."

Laura Sofen is the Language Arts Teacher for the Pearl team as Sparta Middle School.  She is also the advisor for the school Yearbook and is an active member of the Faculty Advisory Committee, Eighth Grade representative to the English Articulation team and according to Principal Michael Gregory “actively seeks growth opportunities for herself attending workshops on using the Harkness Method to enhance classroom discussions.”

Gregory shared some comments from Sofen’s nomination forms.  “Laura Sofen's classroom is a hub of activity, noise, and learning. Through her innovative lesson plans, Ms. Sofen challenges her students to think and process ideas, celebrating debate and contrary interpretations. Students know that they are in a safe environment and can challenge the traditional thinking without consequence. They are encouraged to think for themselves, form their own opinions, and learn to support their ideas with evidence. Rather than emotionally reacting, students are thoughtful and intellectual in their responses to complex literary themes or social issues.”

Additionally, “Ms. Sofen is a leader on her grade-level team, sharing ideas and designing creative activities. Along with a colleague, Ms. Sofen arranged a Vocabu-Bee, challenging students in other classes to a vocabulary competition culminating in the crowning-literally-of classroom champions. The competition will continue each marking period, with additional teachers asking to be involved after seeing the enthusiasm with which students engaged in the study of new words.”

At the meeting Brad Davis, assistant principal of Sparta Middle School, introduced Sofen. Davis added comments from Sofen’s students.  “It is a great work environment,” and “We always feel like we fit in.”

Hassenplug said, "Mrs. Sofen is innovative and not afraid to try something new, even though the outcome might be unsure. Because of this, her students are willing to jump in and take risks, to not fear failure because of the learning that will outweigh it, to take ownership of the activities in the classroom. For example, on Talking Tuesdays, students decide the focus of the conversation and direct the analysis; they embrace the opportunity to show their maturity and their ability to explore complex issues.”

"I am thrilled to have the English Department represented by the Teachers of the Year at both Sparta Middle School and Sparta High School,” Hassenplug said. “Mrs. Sofen and Mr. Rivers embody the creative spirit that we are trying to foster. They challenge students to think critically, they enable student-centered learning that empowers students to take charge of their own education, and they model the value of education by being voracious learners and readers themselves. I am so proud of the honor they have received and the recognition of their efforts by their colleagues."

Helen Morgan Governor’s Teacher of the Year recipient was fourth grade teacher Dana Smulewicz. “While she has many qualities that render her deserving of this award, perhaps her greatest attribute is her ability to establish a connection with each and every student,” Principal Doug Layman said. “She understands that to get the best from our students, that they must feel welcomed and supported in the classroom.  Dana demonstrates this compassion and commitment to students on a daily basis.”

“I am so grateful to be named this year's Teacher of the Year for the Helen Morgan School,” Dana Smulewicz.  “It is truly an honor.  This is my fourteenth year in Sparta and I am proud to come to work each day.  For the past ten years I have taught fourth grade.  Prior to that I taught both second and third grades.  I take my job most seriously and do what I can to help my students have a successful year in school.  I'm thankful for my colleagues and students who make coming to work each day a pleasure.”

Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Doug Layman at the meeting said a testament to Smulewicz’s standing as an educator is that some of her students were at the board meeting.  He noted the award is “an acknowledgment of what you’ve done over the past years,”  pointing to the many new “challenges it takes to be a public school teachers in the last four years.”

Layman said you know she loves her students and believes “if I don’t have a relationship I don’t see growth.”

Sparta’s third grade teacher Suzanne Smith received recognition representing Mohawk Avenue School. Principal Laura Trent shared some comments from Smith’s nomination forms. “It is clear that my daughter did, in fact, win the ‘teacher lottery’." "We are thrilled that our daughter has had the opportunity to learn from such a passionate and motivating educator."

“I couldn’t say it better myself,” Trent said.

“It's an honor,” Smith said. “I have been lucky enough to work with amazing teachers through my years here in Sparta. We all collaborate together and create what we hope is the best learning experience for all students.  I couldn't do it without the amazing people I work with everyday.” 

Alpine Elementary School Educational Services Professional of the Year recipient is Virginia “Ginny” Krieg.  "It is truly an honor to be awarded the Governor's Educational Services Professional of the Year award for Alpine School,” Krieg said. “I work among amazing professionals who are all deserving of recognition.  After working in a variety of settings over my 32 years as a speech and language specialist, I am proud to call Sparta my "professional home".

Vice Principal Peter Miller shared some of the comments from Krieg’s nomination forms.  These include: “dedicated to her students,” “Always goes above and beyond,” “Organized, professional, intelligent and in what she does,” “Makes herself available to all students, parents, and teachers.”

"It is truly an honor to be awarded the Governor's Educational Services Professional of the Year award for Alpine School,” Krieg said. “I work among amazing professionals who are all deserving of recognition.  After working in a variety of settings over my 32 years as a speech and language specialist, I am proud to call Sparta my ‘professional home’.”

Lisa Marie Pugliese is a first grade teacher at Alpine Elementary School.  Earlier this year she put together a schoolwide program simulating an election.  Students registered to vote, had a ballot, signed in and cast their vote.  The election was based on characters in a book the whole school read. 

Miller also shared comments from Pugliese’s nomination forms.  These comments are: “Kind, gentle nature with every child under her supervision,” “Wants to ensure that every single child that passes through her class as a positive experience and learns to love school,” “Made a positive difference in all of her students’ lives - present and past.”

“I work with such a great staff, so it was such a pleasant surprise being the one chosen this year for this award,” Pugliese said.

Dr. Daniel Johnson, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Staff Development said, “I congratulate all of you.  What you do is not easy.  I know we have a staff that is dedicated.  I thank you and all who have come out to support you.”

Superintendent Dr. Michael Rossi explained he went to the schools to hand out the awards in person.  “The best part was to see the reaction of the students.  Congratulations to you all,” Rossi said.

Adding her thanks, board president Kelly McEvoy said, “You are what makes Sparta an amazing place.”