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