College of Education honors 10 alumni at annual awards ceremony

October 09, 2020

Accolades ranging from leadership to service to outstanding teacher were presented virtually to 10 graduates at the annual Penn State College of Education Alumni Society awards ceremony on Friday, Oct. 9.

The college’s Alumni Society each year presents awards to graduates who have excelled in their fields and have continued to serve Penn State and the College of Education. 

Alumni Excellence Award

Sharon Suritsky is this year’s winner of the Alumni Excellence Award, which is given to an alumnus/a of the College of Education to recognize career-long, sustained excellence of contribution and achievement in that person’s chosen profession.

Suritsky earned a bachelor’s degree from Penn State in 1983 and a doctorate in special education in 1992. She is deputy/assistant superintendent in the Upper St. Clair School District in Pittsburgh.

Upper St. Clair school superintendent John Rozzo, who has worked with Suritsky for 15 years, nominated her and said: “Simply put, Dr. Suritsky does it all, and with tremendous success.” 

Suritsky has presented at numerous national, state and local conferences, and she has won a number of awards. She has authored and co-authored grants that have secured more than $250,000 for the school district.

She also helped incorporate a documentary film titled “The Family Next Door” into the district’s professional development program for all staff members. The film depicted the challenges of a family raising two autistic children and how their love, patience and courage helped them deal with the issues surrounding their lives.

“I have learned that Dr. Suritsky is quite humble and prefers to see others receive recognition for the successes and accomplishments of the district, even though the reality is that she is almost always the person behind the scenes driving key initiatives, solving problems and preparing and positioning others to reach their goals,” Rozzo said.

Retired Upper St. Clair superintendent Patrick O’Toole noted how much Suritsky loves Penn State. “Her connection to the University is deep and meaningful,” O’Toole said. “She credits her Penn State experience as the springboard to having a richly rewarding career, supportive friends and a loving family.”

Amy Pfender, assistant to the superintendent in the Upper St. Clair district, values Suritsky as a friend and a mentor. “I can only hope to someday have the same influence on a life as Dr. Suritsky has had in mine,” Pfender said. “Dr. Suritsky truly exemplifies leadership, innovation, commitment and services in all areas of her life.”

Service to Penn State Award

The husband-and-wife team of Bill and Bunny Vitori received the Service to Penn State Award, which recognizes those alumni and friends who have made significant contributions of time and talent to the college and/or the University. Both are retired teachers.

“It has been my privilege to work alongside Bill and Bunny, who served as Pittsburgh-area Alumni Student Teacher Network lead volunteers from 2010-18,” said Timothy Larouere, one of Penn State’s supervisors of student teachers. “Bill and Bunny provided me with the support and expertise to assist me in imparting to my students the values instilled in them by Penn State.

“Their passion for teaching was felt by all who had the pleasure to meet and work with them. Bill and Bunny were vigorous in their promotion of the Penn State Alumni Society and they expressed how the society would be beneficial to our soon-to-be new graduates,” Larouere said.

Robert Abraham, a retired Pennsylvania State Education Association attorney, said the Vitoris made Penn State’s student-teachers feel positive about their chosen profession. “They offered the students support, praise and guidance,” Abraham said. “They touted the Penn State education program and emphasized the importance of teaching as a career.

“Bill and Bunny have dedicated their careers to providing quality education, advocating for teachers and helping aspiring student-teachers. Their commitment to Penn State’s College of Education and its student teachers has been exemplary,” he said.

Retired school teacher Calvin Lewis Jr. called the Vitoris a very dedicated couple who have put in endless hours and have used their talents in support of the College of Education.

“They truly do bleed Blue and White,” Lewis said. “And as the alma mater states, they do ‘Sing Our Love and Loyalty.’ I believe there is not a more deserving couple to receive the College of Education Alumni Service to Penn State Award than Bill and Bunny Vitori.”

Outstanding Teaching Award

This award recognizes overall excellence in teaching methodologies, knowledge of subject matter and ability to inspire students. This year’s recipient is Mary Lou Heron, a member of the training and consultation staff for the Northeastern Educational Intermediate Unit 19 in Archbald, Pennsylvania.

“We often think of an outstanding teacher as a classroom practitioner who spends every day in the same classroom, working with the same group of students,” said Heron’s nominator, Doug Womelsdorf, K-12 curriculum coordinator in the Riverside School District in northeastern Pennsylvania. “However, there is a diverse group of teachers who service in other roles throughout the public education system, such as Dr. Heron.

“Her investment in the students and their ability to unlock the magic that comes from being able to read truly makes the world a better place, one student at a time,” Womelsdorf said.

Mike Boccella, director of curriculum and instruction in the Valley View School District near Wilkes-Barre, said Heron led two initiatives, “Fundations” and the “Literacy Design Collaborative,” which improved the effectiveness of students.

“Dr. Heron is a true expert in the area of literacy and pedagogy. She is both inspiring and supportive. She is the type of person who you hope your own children can be around,” Boccella said.

Scott Pentasuglio, principal at Riverside Elementary School West, said Heron walked his district’s teachers through a variety of professional development opportunities and helped them unlock the true power behind using their students’ classroom data to brainstorm together.

“I have never had the chance to work with someone as talented and knowledgeable in the field of literacy as I have with Dr. Heron,” Pentasuglio said. “We have seen positive growth in our teachers and students in just the few short months we adopted the program and we know it is because of the support, modeling and coaching we received from Mary Lou.”

Leadership and Service Award

The Leadership and Service Award recognizes those alumni who have distinguished themselves in their chosen professions, in or out of the field of education. Selection is made on the basis of leadership and service within a career, a community or to society in general.

This year’s winner is Paul Healey, 1997, executive director of the Pennsylvania Principals Association in Mechanicsburg.

According to Beth Haldeman, assistant to the superintendent of Cocalico School District in Lancaster County, Healey has transformed the reputation, notoriety and culture of the Pennsylvania Principals Association into one that key leaders in government now favor, value and seek out for advice and opinion

“This respect between organization and government flows from the governor to the Secretary of Education and includes all legislators and senators, which is quite a remarkable feat accomplished in just a few years,” Haldeman said. “Dr. Healey has turned the nonprofit of PA Principals into one that others revere and aspire to be a part of.”

Haldeman said Healey is an ambassador of education and motivator of all those who choose to pursue the education profession in any capacity.

“Dr. Healey has distinguished himself in every profession he has chosen over his lifetime journey: principal, superintendent, teacher, executive director and father,” Haldeman said. “He is a special individual to all those who know him.”

Kurt Nyquist, director of student services in the Penns Valley Area School District in Centre County and treasurer for the Pennsylvania Principals Association, said Healey has turned the association into the first place administrators look when needing professional development hours.

“Dr. Healey is a highly respected person and educator nationally, throughout Pennsylvania, and among the various educational organizations and associations,” Nyquist said. “His leadership in the area of advocacy within Pennsylvania has enabled the voice of school leaders to be heard and our association to be a key contributor when educational issues are being discussed legislatively.”

Healey is a longstanding member of Pennsylvania Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and was one of the authors of an award-winning publication on teacher supervision and evaluation. Healey also was elected and served on the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development board in Washington, D.C., for six years and has been the only Pennsylvania educator to be elected to serve as their president, in 2011-12.

Outstanding New Graduate Award

Stephen Payne, a 2015 graduate in education and public policy, is this year’s recipient of the Outstanding New Graduate Award, which recognizes recent graduates who have distinguished themselves in their new careers. 

Payne earned a master’s degree in higher education from Harvard this past spring and accepted a position as the director of corporate, foundation and government relations at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. Payne was previously the assistant director of federal relations for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) in Washington, D.C.

Megan Coval, vice president of policy and federal relations for NASFAA, hired Payne right out of college, something she doesn’t normally do, and called it the best decision she’s made during her tenure. 

“I marveled at how Stephen, a new college graduate, could effectively and professionally navigate relationships with members of Congress, the U.S. Department of Education and colleagues in our policy community,” Coval said. 

Payne is one of the youngest staff members at NASFAA and one of the most respected, according to Coval. “In his brief professional career, Stephen made a great impact in federal student aid policy and the lives of those he works with each day,” she said.

Frank Ballmann is director of federal relations for the National Association of State Student Grant & Aid Programs and works closely with Payne on advocacy efforts on behalf of student financial aid for college students.

“If I want a definitive, accurate opinion on a gray area of policy, Stephen is my go-to person to be sure I understand the legislative and regulatory underpinnings of an issue,” Ballman said. 

“Many people think the most important part of advocacy or lobbying is to talk a lot and be persuasive, but in reality, you must be a good listener and be looking to identify common policy interests with anyone you’re meeting with, regardless of ideology. Stephen listens, learns and recalibrates his approach.” 

Amanda Wintersteen, director of federal relations in Penn State’s Office of Government and Community Relations, said Payne interned with her office in 2015. “What struck me most about him was his thoughtful dialogue on timely issues and genuine interest in learning the background and political sensitivities of issues,” Wintersteen said.

Outstanding Student Teaching Awards (four)

Nominations for the Outstanding Student Teaching awards are initiated through the Curriculum & Field Experiences office. This year’s winners are Caroline Dawson of Collegeville; Erika Felker of Carlisle; Jillian Testa of Robbinsville, New Jersey; and Clair Watsik of Ridgefield, Connecticut.

CAROLINE DAWSON: Dawson believes she succeeded in her student teaching endeavor because of her constant flexibility and ability to build confidence and self-esteem. She said she saw the ability in each one of her students and geared her lessons to fit their needs.

Dawson also wanted to make an impact. “It was important to me that students, teachers, faculty and staff recognized me and knew they could count on me,” she said.

Kathleen Sillman, recently retired assistant professor and student teaching supervisor, said one of Dawson’s greatest strengths is her enthusiastic, confident and respectful personality.

“Her positive presence in the classroom and her pleasant conversation with students made each child feel valued,” Sillman said. “Caroline used specific positive reinforcement to encourage appropriate behavior and to boost their confidence. She was extremely effective in working one-on-one with those in need.

“Overall, Caroline is extremely analytical, reflective, creative, responsible and professional.”

Dawons’s third-grade teacher at Port Matilda Elementary School was Sarah Stere, who complimented her on her initiative. “In all my years of teaching, I have never known a student teacher to come to school over the summer to help set up the classroom, but Caroline came multiple times to help,” Stere said. “She quickly learned classroom and school routines and procedures.”

Stere also said Dawson has the skills of a seasoned teacher.

“In fact,” Stere said, “before the end of her time at Port Matilda Elementary, we were planning, problem-solving and co-teaching like teammates. Caroline took on more of a colleague and teammate role rather than that of a student-teacher, which is one of the biggest compliments I can bestow upon her. She is very creative and has so many talents to share.”

ERIKA FELKER: Felker enjoyed going above and beyond for her students, planning Zoom meetings during the pandemic that gave them a chance to socialize and writing letters to her students complete with a stamped envelope to enable the students to write her back. 

“I always put my full attention on my students, even when I was busy with job interviews or when this pandemic forced me to leave them without a proper good-bye,” said Felker, who earned a perfect 4.0 GPA at Penn State.

Her field experience supervisor, Paula Marden, said Felker is reflective and analyzes her teaching, focusing on improving the learning of her students and her own learning as well.

“Erika is an exceptional teacher who cares very much about children as individuals. She is passionate, bright, creative, enthusiastic, professional and caring,” Marden said. “Erika is flexible and is a natural teacher. When I walk in Erika’s classroom, I’m always impressed with the student engagement and excitement created by Erika’s thoughtful planning and teaching.”

Jenna Dillon was Felker’s supervising teacher at Tyrone Elementary School. “Erika has a wide array of strengths, but her most prominent are her continuous efforts to improve her teaching practices,” Dillon said. “She reviewed observations and set goals based on patterns to improve. She applied new techniques that she learned in her courses and from her own research.

“She is extremely humble, even though she has every right to boast. She will change the world someday with the amount of work she puts into making students’ lives better. Most importantly, she is level-headed and maintains a calm demeanor and positivity in every situation.”

Felker is teaching third grade in the Manheim Central School District in Lancaster County.

JILLIAN TESTA: Testa said she was excited to transition from a fourth-grade classroom to an eighth-grade mathematics classroom as she began her student teaching. The transition was difficult considering the tremendous differences between the responsibilities of teaching in an elementary school to teaching young adolescents eighth-grade mathematics and Algebra I.

Her ability to build relationships with students and create a productive classroom environment was affirmed when she received this note from a student on the last day of her placement:

“You’re a great teacher and very good at math. You made even the gloomy days brighter by being there and being present. You have been one of my favorite teachers and seeing you period one/two made me smile. I loved your Kahoot games and just how you taught in general.”

Amy Dietz was Testa’s mentor teacher at Mount Nittany Middle School. “Jill does not work or serve for awards or accolades, but simply to inspire and impact all those she comes in contact with each day,” said Dietz, who noted that Testa wanted to be a teacher from a young age. 

“Jill without hesitation transformed her entire unit plan into activities for students to do digitally. Miss Testa worked hard to create a community in the classroom, which meant being involved in the community outside of the classroom. She attended musicals and basketball games and was excited to learn more about her students,” Dietz said.

Testa’s supervisor was Shaun McMurtrie, who said Testa consistently demonstrated care for students and respect for others.

“Her unit plan, integrating geometry and algebra concepts about the Pythagorean Theorem and irrational numbers, was adopted for use by the entire eighth grade team districtwide,” McMurtrie said. “This interactive and exploratory unit of instruction was interrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Miss Testa put in the extra work to adapt her materials to the virtual learning space. Miss Testa is an exemplary teacher who will be an asset to any school community.”

CLAIRE WATSIK: Watsik said that as a third-generation teacher, she believes she has that “teacher gene,” that fundamental teacher-learner foundation within her that cannot be developed by taking college-level courses or participating in summer internships. 

“My explicit responsibility as a teacher is to help students learn about the world they live in, but the most rewarding part about teaching is the implicit responsibility: to help students find where they fit into that world,” she said.

Kim Mowery was Watsik’s field experience supervisor and praised her work ethic. 

“What’s most impressive to me is her internalization of what it means to have a growth mindset. Claire is always wondering what she can do differently to serve her students,” Mowery said. “This desire doesn’t seem to come from a place of needing to prove something or wanting to feel like the best. She truly wants to know how to best serve her kids because that’s what you do – and she keeps trying new strategies and taking new ideas into consideration to get there.”

Jennifer Cody was one of Watsik’s teaching mentors at Park Forest Elementary School. “I spent countless hours working with Claire on a number of levels, and I have found her to be intelligent, articulate and dynamic,” Cody said. “She is dedicated and exhibits a commendable degree of both professionalism and capability.”

Jamie Brennan was Watsik’s other mentor at Park Forest and said her outgoing personality was well received by her students. 

“She is genuinely concerned about her students and takes time to discuss with them any academic problems they may be experiencing,” Brennan said. She is highly respected and well liked among students, faculty and staff and has no trouble fitting in among a diversity of personalities.”

Watsik is currently serving as a substitute teacher at Scotts Ridge Middle School in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 09, 2020