For Minnesota's new Teacher of the Year, achievement gap is an everyday reality

Ryan Vernosh
In this photo provided by Education Minnesota, Ryan Vernosh, left, hugs one of his students, Tyree Galloway, 13, after being named 2010 Minnesota Teacher of the Year at a banquet in Brooklyn Park, Minn., Sunday, May 2, 2010. Vernosh is a sixth grade teacher at Maxfield Magnet School in St. Paul, Minn.
Janet Hostetter/AP

Minnesota's new Teacher of the Year is a sixth grade teacher in St. Paul.

The teachers' union Education Minnesota Sunday named Ryan Vernosh the winner among 10 finalists. He has taught at Maxfield Elementary since 2006.

The award is a bright spot for a school that has had its share of bad news in the past.

Maxfield school has gender-specific programming, which means Ryan Vernosh's sixth graders are all boys. And every day he leads those boys in a chant he learned from another teacher.

He starts the chant -- "We are somebody" -- and the students respond. It's a message that Vernosh says is fitting for Maxfield.

"We do hear so many negative stereotypes about us, it starts to become ingrained, almost. And so we need to be actively fighting against that," said Vernosh.

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Vernosh was quick to credit his fellow teachers and students Sunday after he won this year's Minnesota Teacher of the Year award.

Earlier this year, Vernosh's school, Maxfield Elementary, was named one of Minnesota's 34 persistently poorest-performing schools.

That makes Maxfield eligible for a potentially large amount of money for an effort called "school turnaround," but it also adds to the less-than-stellar academic reputation that the school has had.

Maxfield is in the heart of St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood -- most students are African-American and in poverty. School principal Nancy Statchel says Vernosh and many other teachers at Maxfield have helped students make great improvements in achievement, despite what state test scores and lists suggest.

Statchel says Vernosh's award is more proof that struggling schools don't automatically have bad teachers.

"It just shows the potential that Maxfield has to be a model school, for how we really achieve high results that serves a primarily African-American population with a high poverty," she said.

As the new Teacher of the Year, Vernosh will be making a number of appearances and participating in discussions about education in the coming year. He says he plans to use that time to talk about an issue he says he faces every day -- the achievement gap. That's the gap between how well white students do, compared to students of color.

Vernosh says he's absolutely convinced that all students can and will learn, regardless of their circumstances.

He's only the second St. Paul school district teacher to ever win the statewide award. The other was Rhoda Stroud, a teacher at Webster Magnet Elementary, who won it in 1991.