Seven Alumni Honored at 2011 Academic Festival | Teachers College Columbia University

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Seven Alumni Honored at 2011 Academic Festival

Teachers College honored seven alumni, representing diverse fields, at its third annual Academic Festival in April.

“Our theme today of bringing education to the table, both literal and figurative, is precisely what our alumni are doing,” said TC President Susan Fuhrman. “Today’s recipients were chosen by a jury of their toughest and most discerning peers – their fellow alumni. “

And Robert Weintraub, outgoing President of TC’s Alumni Association said that TC as “an institution is judged in no small part by the achievements of its alumni. As we change the world, we make important statements about our alma mater. To our 2011 award recipients, we give our thanks for embracing TC’s mission and setting the standard for which we all strive.”

Headlining the alumni honorees was Dr. Ian Smith (MA ‘93), health advocate and media personality, who received the TC President’s Medal of Excellence. Smith has championed better nutrition and improved fitness for minority populations through online efforts such as his 50 Million Pound Challenge, which calls upon five million black Americans to lose 10 pounds each, and his Makeover Mile, which targets poor communities. Smith is also the author of several bestselling books and a major television presence on Celebrity Fit Club and as a guest on Oprah, Rachel Ray and other high-profile venues; is affliated with the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity; and was recently appointed by President Obama to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. 

In presenting him with the TC President’s Medal of Excellence, TC Provost Tom James called Smith, who delivered the Festival’s keynote address, “one of America’s most effective proponents of improved and healthful lifestyles” – a practitioner who “treats the whole person by deploying your scientific knowledge and personal charisma,” as well as “a wonderful storyteller and motivator with one clear message: we can all change who we are.”

British psychologist, author and educator Janna Spark (ME, ’79) received the TC President’s Medal of Distinction.

Spark is the developer of the multi-sense literacy program Brain Train, and the musical fairytale Back to Chooper Park, both of which have been widely used with young children. An Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, Spark has also sought new ways to capitalize on the power of the arts and music to help adolescent learners realize their full potential – work that builds on your own work as a book author and composer and orchestrator of original musical stories and songs for children. She founded and directed a summer school in Gstaad, Switzerland, and helped create innovative educational programs in the Middle East, while also serving as chief consultant in the establishment of Aspergers Syndrome centers in Malaysia.
“Through your educational and counseling work with children and teenagers, you have broken important new ground in understanding the psychology of learning and the relationship between creativity and cognition,” said TC Professor Linda Hickson in presenting the award in absentia to Spark.

And Spark, in a letter she asked Hickson to read aloud, said that “TC provided me with the necessary tools to combine theory and clinical experience. The echo of the past informs every report I write.”  

Four alumni received the 2011 Teachers College Distinguished Alumni Award. They were:

Samuel Peabody (MA ’59), a former teacher and principal who became one of New York City’s leading philanthropists.  Peabody taught at a number of Manhattan schools before becoming head of the lower school at Rye Country Day School. With his wife Judy, who passed away last year, Peabody subsequently established Reality House, a drug rehabilitation facility in Northern Manhattan, where he served as Board Chairman for 17 years, and Prep for Prep, which places promising students of color in independent schools in order to launch them on the path to college. Most recently, he chaired the Citizen’s Committee for Children, which advocates for children’s and families, amassing research to help legislators to restore funds to key social programs. The CCC has since created the Samuel P. Peabody Award for Community Activism. 

“As you yourself have put it, ‘a teacher, however specialized, should be a teacher of all things, like how to conduct oneself in the world,’” said TC faculty member and Deputy Provost John Allegrante in presenting Peabody with his award.  “Through your own tireless dedication to education, health and community advocacy, you have met that standard and bettered countless lives.”

Peabody told the story of how he initially went into banking in order to avoid “the family business” of education. He quit after returning from lunch one day and realizing that nothing on his desk interested him.  He asked the headmaster at his old school if he could work there while he figured out what to do next and soon realized that teaching was what he wanted to do next. He enrolled at Teachers College and the rest was history.

“The relief of finding myself, and where I belonged, was huge,” Peabody said. “I had become a teacher and have had a most happy and satisfying career.

Violeta Petroska-Beshka (MA ’83), Professor of Psychology and co-director of the Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, in Skopje, Macedonia. With her longtime colleague Mirjana Najcevska, Petroska-Beshka co-founded Macedonia’s Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution to advance diversity education and conflict resolution in multicultural settings. In 2002, the Center organized the groundbreaking “Understanding Current History” workshops, designed to provide participants with insight into the contrasting views of Macedonia’s civil conflict; encourage teachers and students to develop a joint understanding of its causes; and develop a model for training current and future history teachers to overcome ethnocentric perspectives. In 2006, building on work originated in Israel at the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East, Petroska-Beshka and Najcevska edited “Narratives in Our Histories,” a workbook that compels high school students to identify differences and similarities between Macedonian and Albanian tellings of such key historical events as the division of Macedonian and Albanian ethnic territory during the period of 1878-1919.

“Your passionate and steadfast efforts to employ education as both the means and the space for the Republic of Macedonia’s ethnic factions to develop mutual understanding and respect stand as a model for all who engage in such work around the globe,” said Laura Smith, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education, in presenting the award.

“I was an official TC student almost thirty years ago,” Petroska-Beshka said. “Unofficially, I continued doing that long after getting my degree.” Studying at the College, which was her first experience away from a home, “was a privilege that changed my life, shaped my future and enhanced my self-esteem.”

Diane Ravitch (Ph.D., ’75), Research Professor of Education at New York University, education historian and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.  Ravitch worked for the Ford Foundation during the racially divisive battles between teachers unions and local school boards during the 1960s; served as Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush, leading the federal effort to promote the creation of voluntary state and national academic standards; and later served as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board. She is most recently the author of The Life and Death of the American School System, and blogs regularly for the Huffington Post, and Education Week.

“The story of American education during the past half-century is bewilderingly complex, a drama in microcosm of the era’s political, economic and racial cross-currents that continues to play out, with widely varying results, on stages across the nation,” said Jeffrey Henig, in presenting Ravitch’s award to her son Michael, who attended in her stead.  “In your 10 authored books, 14 edited anthologies and more than 500 articles and reviews in scholarly and popular publications, you have demonstrated time and again that you are one of the few observers with the breadth of knowledge and experience to comprehend that story – and with the intelligence and candor to render it in full. The development of your thinking and the ongoing internal dialogue you have conducted on issues such as the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the rise of market-driven approaches to education have both mirrored and informed the greater debates and pendulum swings at the national level.”

In accepting the award, Michael Ravitch said that his mother has come to believe that the “corporate reform” movement in education has two goals – privatization and de-professionalization – both of which are undermining education.  “She urges you all to support teachers and leaders of public schools, and she reminds us of Dewey’s words from his book The School and Society: ‘What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.’"

Ruth Christ Sullivan (MA ’53), educator and advocate for children with autism and their families. In 1963, when Sullivan’s son was diagnosed with autism, little was known about the disorder.  Sullivan was among the earliest “activist” parents in the field, co-founding, in 1965, the Autism Society of America, now known as the National Society for Autistic Children/Autism Society of America. She has since founded several local and state chapters of the organization, and also founded and directed the National Association of Residential Providers for Adults with Autism. Sullivan wrote much of the early “autism literature,” creating accessible definitions of the medical condition and meeting with public officials on the local, state and national levels. She was the first autism lobbyist at Congress, ensuring, in 1990, that autism was included as a separate category of disability in the new Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Sullivan served as a consultant on the popular feature film Rainman.

During the past 40 years—at a time when many physicians didn’t even know how to spell the word ‘autism’—you have pioneered in informing the public, elected officials and the media and made sweeping and enduring contributions to policy, education and support services,” said Kathleen O’Connell, TC’s Isabel Maitland Stewart Professor of Nursing Education, presenting the award.

In her acceptance remarks, Sullivan told her audience that when her son was first diagnosed, “almost universally the cause was ascribed to a mean mother – the refrigerator mothers, we were called.” The most sympathetic people were not medical professionals, but teachers “who had seen our children in the classroom and they knew what we were putting up with.”

Sullivan, who met her husband at TC, praised her fellow alumni for “making things better around the world” and said, “You’ve given me an award for something I had to do anyhow.”

Samuel Totten (Ed. D., ’85), a genocide scholar at the University of Arkansas at Fayettesville.  Totten – who also led a presentation at Academic Festival -- began his career as a teacher of English and writing, authoring the 1992 book Social Issues in the English Classroom. Following his own instinct for social engagement, in 2004, he served as an investigator with the U.S. State Department’s Atrocities Documentation Project, interviewing refugees to ascertain whether genocide had been perpetrated in Darfur. He subsequently published Genocide in Darfur: Investigating the Atrocities in the Sudan, a volume of essays by participants in the documentation project. Since then, he has co-founded and edited Genocide Studies and Prevention, the journal of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, and served on the Council of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem. He has documented the mass killings in Rwanda, work that led him to develop a new master’s degree program in genocide studies at the National University of Rwanda and to undertake his most recent book, We Cannot Forget: Interviews With Survivors of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda.

“Over the past 30 years, you have provided unvarnished documentation of genocidal violence, visiting the epicenters of terror to compile firsthand accounts by survivors, investigators, interpreters, government officials and others,” said Margaret Crocco, Professor of Social Studies and Education, in presenting the award. “You have repeatedly sounded the cry for citizens to “make noise” to their elected representatives to halt genocide wherever it is occurring.”

Totten thanked his TC professors, a group that included Dwayne Hubener, Lawrence Cremin, Maxine Greene and Karin Zumwalt, whom he called “an unbelievable group, unbelievably supportive.“

He described a nightmarish childhood in which he was repeatedly beaten by a father who finally left him alone only after deciding his son was mentally deficient.   That experience, along with reading Sinclair Lewis’s The Jungle and Rose Styron’s accounts of torture in Chile, contributed to Totten’s social activism and abhorrence of violence. 

“I’m happy to say the field has grown,” he said of his work in genocide studies, “and that the foundation I received at TC was instrumental.”

Finally, Paul O’Neill (M. Ed, ’01), Adjunct Associate Professor at TC and President of Tugboat Education Services, received the College’s Early Career Award. 

O’Neill left a career in corporate law to work in special education, and eventually enrolled at TC in search of a stronger grounding in education policy and law. At TC he has taught courses such as “Introduction to Special Education Law and Policy” and “Designing Charter Schools.” He has served as General Counsel of the Charter Schools Institute of SUNY, one of the nation’s leading charter school authorizing office and has helped establish charter schools in New York City and New Orleans. As President of Tugboat Education Services, an organization that advises education reform organizations on regulatory and strategic matters, he lectures to national audiences on education issues.  He is currently the Chair of the Manhattan Charter School board of trustees, and is former Chair of the Education & the Law Committee of the New York City Bar Association. 

“Your diverse experience holding lead attorney positions in government, boutique education law firms, and both the non-profit private sectors makes you a rare find indeed and positions you as a leading voice on many of the most pressing and cutting edge education issues,” said Tom James.

“I’m not out on the front lines of education reform,” said O’Neill, who described himself as “a former special education kid.” “I’m not a teacher or a principal or a superintendent. I try to clear a path for those folks to do the incredibly important and difficult work they do. For them and for others behind the scenes, I accept this award.”

Published Wednesday, May. 4, 2011


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