Spotlight: Jennifer Paolantonio (RI '19)March 5, 2020
Each September, Ponaganset High School in North Scituate, Rhode Island, recites in unison the school’s Inclusion Pledge, which promotes acceptance, respect and unity. “We have seen an incredible benefit for our entire student body, staff and faculty,” says special education teacher Jennifer Paolantonio (RI ’19). “It has evolved into a schoolwide culture of empathy and compassion.” Jennifer won Rhode Island’s 2019-20 Milken Educator Award on January 15, 2020.
Milken Family Foundation: You have advocated and championed a culture of inclusion because you believe it helps all students, not just yours. What changes have you observed over the years, in both students and teachers?
Jennifer Paolantonio (RI ’19): Unified Sports is a program through Special Olympics that joins individuals, both with and without intellectual disabilities, together on the same sports team. This program was inspired by a simple principle: Training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding. Our school currently has a Unified Basketball and Unified Volleyball team.
The Unified Sports program has helped create a culture shift in our school. It provides a platform to spread the important message of inclusion and acceptance. Through this program, our students are our leaders, and they empower each other. What began as a fun sports program for our students has evolved into a schoolwide culture of empathy and compassion.
We have seen an incredible benefit for our entire student body, staff, and faculty. As this program spans sports and curricula, it is helping all students learn and share the true meaning of inclusion in all aspects of their life. Since the inception of our Special Olympics Unified Champion School Program we have witnessed a significant, positive shift in our school culture, and friendships that extend beyond the school day. Unified allows the disability to disappear and puts the focus on the students’ abilities.
The Unified Champion School program is providing teachers the opportunity to educate our future generations and teach our young leaders to be agents of change who will foster a world of empathy and compassion. We have students year after year working on projects that help shape school culture and foster inclusion for all. Students have worked in a variety of ways to help spread the powerful message of inclusion throughout our school and our state, and the way it impacts school culture. Our goal is for students to actively search for, and reach out to, anyone feeling left out or excluded, as we believe everyone’s gifts should be freely shared and celebrated.
All of our Unified activities inspired us to create our Choose to Include Inclusion Pledge:
I pledge to look for the lonely, the isolated, the left out, the challenged and the bullied. I pledge to overcome the fear of difference and replace it with the power of inclusion. I Choose To Include.
This pledge is proudly showcased throughout our school building for all to see daily. Our school tries to exemplify a culture of acceptance, inclusion, respect and unity each day with each and every member of our student body, faculty and staff. Our students take the message of inclusion and share it with their families and spread it throughout our community. For the past two years (and hopefully for each school year to follow) we have organized a schoolwide, student-led assembly to welcome all students back to school on the first day of the academic year. This “Choose to Include” assembly is a welcome back celebration for the students, as well as a time to link arms and take our inclusion pledge together. It’s an energizing, powerful and positive start to each school year that our students and faculty look forward to.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Jennifer: From a young age, I always loved being with children. I was drawn to the idea that a career in teaching would provide me the opportunity to be surrounded by children and have a chance to make a positive impact on their lives. I knew teaching was the only career choice for me—in fact, it was more of a calling than a choice. Having a role in helping children grow and become the best version of themselves has always been an ambition of mine. There is no other job more rewarding than the work I do each day.
An integral factor to wanting to teach was to make connections with students. For me, teaching has always been about making connections with students, whether at the elementary or high school level. You are never too young or too old to feel as though you mean something to someone. I want to be that person for my students, the person that makes sure they know their worth. I want to be a teacher who students know cares for them and is invested in their success, not just in my classroom, but in life. To me, teaching has always been a tremendous platform to engage in meaningful conversations with students that go beyond curriculum and textbooks.
MFF: What do you like about high school students?
Jennifer: High school students are the perfect age to work with collaboratively. The best teaching moments are the ones you have alongside your students rather than lecturing from the front of the classroom.
The best part of my role as part of our Unified Champion School program is working with students who want to make a difference in our community. I’m inspired by our high school students. These young adults lead with compassion and empathy in their daily lives and embrace each other’s abilities. They don’t just want to make a difference in this world, they are making a difference. The students inspire me with their ideas, leadership qualities, humor and honesty! I love having the opportunity to encourage and support them in ways that empower them to know they can make a difference.
MFF: You went to China with students for the Special Olympics East Asia Summit. What was that like?
Jennifer: I was fortunate to have been selected to represent North America at the 2018 Special Olympics Global Unified Youth Exchange in Shanghai. Having the opportunity to travel to China with another colleague and four students to represent North America was an honor. The time spent in China was remarkable. We met students with and without disabilities from all around the world to share ideas and develop leadership skills. There were many proud teacher moments for me as I watched my students share their stories of friendships that were created in our inclusive schools.
On day one we were introduced to people from around the world, all speaking different languages and having different abilities, all complete strangers. In just a few days we became a group of friends with the same mission: working together to create a more inclusive society. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. It taught me that no matter what the obstacle may be, if you remain focused on the goal and surround yourself with positive people who share your passion, you can make a difference. Although we wore translators to understand what everyone was saying, there was no translation needed when someone looked you in the eyes and greeted you with a smile or high five. Those gestures transcended all language and ability barriers.
The feeling of belonging and being included feels the same no matter where you live. I will cherish the memories I made, the powerful energy I felt with my students, and everyone I met from around the world that week for the rest of my life.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Jennifer: Success is something I continually strive for. It is constantly evolving in all aspects of my life. You can always make improvements and adjustments through reflection, and I’m most successful when I challenge myself to do even better. For me, part of success is knowing that I have wholeheartedly put all my effort and energy into something, whether that is professionally or personally.
Success in my classroom is creating a welcoming learning environment so my students will not only learn the content but will have the confidence and motivation to want to come to school every day. As teachers, we have the power to help our students have a positive mindset in regard to their education and, in turn, a positive mindset toward being a lifelong learner.
For my students, success is not measured strictly by the outcome, but more by the journey and perseverance they demonstrate daily. Success for my students is the self-worth, overall happiness and pride they bring to both my classroom and their daily lives.
MFF: How was your first year of teaching?
Jennifer: My first year, like most , was very exciting, yet challenging! Each day I had new questions. I had a great department of colleagues who were always there to help.
Some of my favorite memories are developing relationships with the other “newbie” teachers. We had a large group of first year teachers who were all hired together and were embarking on our teaching careers together. Our administrator, Mrs. Yanku, put together time each month for us all to meet and share the positive experiences and challenges of the day-to-day. I was able to get the support I needed while also building relationships with other teachers who were having similar experiences. Many of the teachers I started my career with are the same teachers who are instrumental in helping me create our school’s inclusive culture today.
Most importantly, behind every great special education teacher there is a team of amazing paraprofessionals. I was blessed my first year to have a tremendous paraprofessional in my classroom who helped me with absolutely everything, from fun bulletin boards to engaging lesson plans. As years have passed and paraprofessionals have changed, I know the value of having a partnership with your team. I have been truly fortunate to have a team approach in my classroom that I value dearly. I feel strongly that you are as good as the people you surround yourself with, and I’m fortunate that my inner circle is filled with people who inspire and support both me and our students every day.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Jennifer: One of my favorite teachers was Ms. DiBiasio in seventh grade. What I remember most about her was her warmth and her smile. It was her welcoming approach and ability to make her students feel as though they meant the world to her. I may not remember every academic lesson she taught me, but I remember how she made me feel. I aspire to do that for all my students.
Special education teacher Beth Keeling is another integral role model for me. She inspires me to be the best teacher I can be through her unwavering dedication to creating a world of inclusion. I will forever be grateful to Beth. She motivates and encourages me to think big and then challenges me to think even bigger, no matter the obstacle.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Jennifer: I was completely shocked, and it still seems surreal. Leading up to the event, I was asked by my administration team to help plan the assembly, which I thought was to showcase our inclusive school culture. I had over 70 students from various clubs, academic pathways and athletic teams coming together in the performance to represent a piece of themselves and collectively represent who we are as a school. I had been working closely with students on their performance and was so focused on the music, dance moves, posters and big smiles that receiving an award was the furthest thing from my mind.
I remember thinking, “Why do we have so many video cameras here?” They were in the way of the guests getting to see the performance. I think I may even have asked if they could be moved and I was told no. I was beaming with pride for the students who worked incredibly hard on their performance for the assembly, and they did a fabulous job. All I hoped for that day was for that performance to be a success.
The Award was an amazing added bonus. To my surprise, the agenda of the assembly shifted to an unexpected turn of events, and my name was called. I was blown away. I remember thinking we had just spent time talking about the power of inclusion and our school culture, and that, to me, this is only possible if we all embrace and believe in the power of inclusion. Although my name was called, I’m grateful to all of my colleagues, students, and community because without each of them, this recognition would not be possible.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Jennifer: It was truly a humbling feeling to be in the field house at that moment. I looked around and saw the students cheering for me and sharing in the excitement. I have had many students congratulate me and share stories about why they feel I was given this Award. I am touched by the outpouring of love and congratulations.
The messages and visits I have received from alumni have been the most powerful, because they are still reflecting on their time in high school and the memories they have made through the inclusion opportunities that I had helped organize when they were in school. Hearing stories from these students, and many of them sharing that they want to go into special education because of the experiences that they had in high school, is a great reminder that teachers’ lessons last beyond the four years of high school, that students carry them for a lifetime.
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Jennifer: I have two young children, so this Award will help support their future education. I also have a strong passion for helping and supporting programs that foster inclusion in all aspects of life. This Award affords me the opportunity and resources to help facilitate programs that are around me and my children to spread messages of kindness and inclusion for our youth.
MFF: What lessons do you hope your students take away from their time with you?
Jennifer: I want my students to know I believe in them, and I want them to learn to believe in themselves. I hope I have helped build their confidence so they know they can accomplish their goals without any limitations. My hope is that the message of inclusion that they experienced here will extend far beyond the classrooms and hallways of our school and that they will carry it with them to college, their workplace and their communities.
I hope they leave high school feeling empowered, leading with their hearts and being compassionate to one another, while simultaneously being driven and determined to educate themselves and others in a multitude of ways. Instilling the passion and drive to want to continue to learn is exciting. The notion of having the world at your fingertips, and that everything and anything is possible, are vital lessons. I want to inspire and encourage them to dream, explore and have a drive to learn.
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