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BOCES Teacher Named Runner Up in State Teacher of the Year Competition
By Colette Connolly

Mr. Perez, an instructor in the GED (General Education Development) Program

They sit in their orange prison uniforms, books spread out before them. Some take notes, while others discuss the importance of English Literature, the type of conversation not typically heard in a prison. Yet, the 13 students, who participate in the BOCES Incarcerated Youth Program (IYP) at the Westchester County Correctional Facility in Valhalla, are genuinely interested in learning, thanks to the efforts of Joe Perez, first runner-up in the New York State Teacher of the Year competition.

Mr. Perez, an instructor in the GED (General Education Development) Program, has humbly accepted the accolade, which is not simply a reflection of his talents, he says, but due to the success of his students. In the most recent GED administered at the prison, approximately 87 percent of the students passed. Says Program Supervisor Don Simmons, "We're really getting more of a performance here; we're getting results."

Each day, Mr. Perez, using a unique style that combines discipline with camaraderie, tries to instill in his students the importance of learning and its relevance to the outside world. "This is a blatantly honest population who want to learn and are enthusiastic about learning," explains Mr. Perez. "This is really their last chance to grasp an education and to get it right."

The IYP Program, created in 1986, is for incarcerated youth between the ages of 16 and 21. Classes are held in the penitentiary, the jail, the women's division and in the Youth Corps Boot Camp. Students in Mr. Perez's class, who typically spend between four and six months in prison, receive three to five hours instruction each day, five days a week. They are granted additional time, if needed, for research or help with homework. Their progress is also monitored through a battery of periodic tests called the TABE (Test of Adult Basic Education). Mr. Perez says he keeps a portfolio on each student and is continuously assessing their abilities.

Those who work with Mr. Perez are not at all surprised by his success. "He's got a fantastic approach with the kids," says teaching assistant Donna Kennedy. While he may crack a few jokes here and there, Ms. Kennedy says, "He's very serious about the students' education and they know it." Mr. Simmons initially submitted a letter of recommendation to the Teacher of the Year Program, an initiative run by the state Education Department for K-12 teachers in public and private schools. Later, Mr. Perez was asked to submit three essays detailing his perspective on a number of educational issues, in addition to meeting with a committee of people from eight educational organizations across the state.

In addition, Mr. Perez had the unique opportunity of displaying his teaching style before a number of education department officials. His audience included Dr. Gerald Patton, deputy commissioner for higher education, Regent Harry Phillips, a regent of the University of the State of New York and Cheryl Fries, the program's coordinator. "We never got the impression his students didn't want to learn," says Ms. Fries. "During our visit, he seamlessly transitioned from Greek mythology to a lesson in math; they were lapping up every single word."

Because this is the first time an incarcerated program of its type has received such recognition, Mr. Perez feels proud to be part of it. A former instructor at the Rikers Island Educational Facility and currently an adjunct professor at Hunter College in Manhattan, Mr. Perez is adamant about his students' success. "While the competition was a positive experience for me, the award is about validating what we do here and who we do it for." Adds Ms. Kennedy, "The students know it's important that they learn and they know he cares."

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Site Last Updated: April 2, 2005