Larry Hackett, PEOPLE Managing Editor, and Karen Kovacs, PEOPLE Publisher, along with John Legend join PEOPLE Teacher of the Year Award Winners (from left) Brian Copes, Arwen Imai Matthews, Elizabeth Curran, Robert Vega and Jennifer Bohn
05/16/2013 AT 04:20 PM EDT
It's been seven months since PEOPLE named its first class of Teachers of the Year
. But for the winners, says Chicago's Rauner College Prep band director Robert Vega, the effects, are "still continuing. "
Along with a memorable phone call from Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel – "He asked me how many students I taught. I told him 350 and he chuckled," says Vega – he's had virtually non-stop calls, as well as requests from local TV and newspapers to talk about getting all those kids to play instruments. It's given him a welcomed platform: "Every single interview I give I'm pushing for why we need music in schools."
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Like Vega, the other four Teachers of the Year each received $1,000 and their schools were awarded $4,000. At Vega's urging, Rauner used its winnings to fund a teacher, props and materials for an after-school theater program. PEOPLE caught up with him and the others to find out how they are putting their wins to work for the kids to whom they are so devoted.
It was the small, handmade books that Curran wrote for her young special needs students, one or two each week, that distinguished her work at Richards Elementary School, in Newport, N.H. They were in black and white, and distributed just to her classrooms. With her win, Curran ordered a color printer and an automatic booklet maker, and has produced over 1,000 tiny books for her and other teachers' students. Now, she says, "I making them available more widely and have interest from all over the world. A teacher in Hawaii and someone in Australia reached out to me about them." Next school year 80 students will get a book a day for the 180-day school year. And those little books are working: "One mother just recently told me that I turned her son into a reader."
His pre-engineering program was already impressive, designing low-cost all-terrain vehicles and creating prosthetic limbs that 10 students helped deliver during an ambitious field trip to Honduras last summer. But it's gotten even better. Once word got out about what Copes was doing at Calera High School, in Calera, Ala., "We had a couple groups come together and purchase a 3-D wax printer for us. This is a $25,000 printer! So as the kids draw a ring and hit the print button, it'll come out on this printer in wax. They can reach in, grab it and slide it onto their finger." They can then produce jewelry with those molds – an addition to his design program that he hopes will attract more female engineering students. He upgraded the classroom in other ways, adding a Promethean board, which Copes describes as a "digital white board." His award prompted a local building store to donate materials for his students to design and build a playhouse, complete with front porch, which they donated for children living with their moms at a women's shelter. "All that," he says with characteristic modesty, "is because of y'all."
Arwen Imai Matthews
One of the first things this Houston KIPP 3D Academy middle school science teacher did was order working microscopes. Before, says Matthews, "Our students would say they saw something, and it was just a scratch on the lens." A day after the magazine came out announcing her win, she was inundated with requests to share her methods with other teachers. Because she was nine months pregnant at the time, she had to turn them down. Now with a 5-month-old daughter, she will present her ideas on teaching science at a conference this summer. The whole department is benefitting from her win. In fact, she says, one life science teacher has called dibs on those new microscopes for a lab he has long wanted to do. "We can wrap a goldfish in a cotton ball that's wet so it can continue to breathe, and then you put the microscope on its tail and you can see the individual blood cells going through its capillaries. It's going to make learning about what we are made of so much better."
A leadership specialist who works with many teen parents, Bohn was always thrilled to see her students at Orlando's Maynard Evans High School graduate. Now, she says, "I have been able to buy caps and gowns for those who can't afford them and pay for some applications for college," says Bohn. The school's winnings also let her start a book club and pay for ACT testing registration. Beyond the money, the award, she says, shined a light on her school. "There are a lot of negative connotations about this community, so this has really been very positive for us," says Bohn. "This amazing award is really more about the students than it will ever be about me." This year Bohn will also join PEOPLE's Teacher of the Year education advisory board to help name the next class of winners.