UEA Teachers Come Home to Make a Difference in the Community
Possibly unlike any other school district in Michigan, UCS grads are now teaching in the district they grew up in.
UTICA, Mich., September 13, 2019 – In a recent survey of the more than 1,400 teachers in the Utica Education Association (UEA), nearly 4 of every 10 teachers responded that they had come back to teach at Utica Community Schools (UCS) after spending at least part of their childhood education in the district. The specific stories on why they came back vary, but the reason they came back is the same—they wanted to make a difference in the school district they grew up in. Though there are no statistics which document how many teachers come home to the same district they grew up in to teach, Utica Education Association President, Liza Parkinson believes the loyalty her teachers have is unprecedented.
"I can't say the survey results were surprising because I know a lot of their stories, but it certainly says a lot about how dedicated our teachers are to UCS," said UEA President Liza Parkinson. "We have a unique and special community and it says a lot about the caliber of our educators, that they feel so strongly about giving back to the same community they grew up in. They're a special group."
Bob Oglivy had a difficult time in school growing up and was considered a special needs student at UCS because of his dyslexia. He said he "hated school and skipped a lot of classes," but found some life-changing support in the pool where he trained with swim teacher, Frank Morrow, who took an interest in him. That encouragement let to a successful U.S. Navy enlistment after high school, where he was trained as a rescue swimmer and then in Desert Storm. After completing his military service, Bob earned his teaching degree with one goal in mind—coming home. He got even more than he expected. "I actually met my wife on the pool deck at Utica High after landing a teaching job and taking over a post coaching swimming," he said. "I really believe that coming back to teach at UCS is a calling and an opportunity for me to give back."
Angelo Harwood attended UCS while growing up in Sterling Heights and came back after college with his wife, who also attended UCS schools. "I always had the goal of holding at teaching job at UCS," said Harwood, who has now been teaching in the District for 15 years and is currently a sixth grade teacher at Flickinger Elementary in Utica. "I really fought to get a job here after college, because I wanted to be in a community which will always be home for us," added Harwood, who is also now a board member with UEA.
The Harwoods are just one of several examples of married couples who grew up in the district and both came home after college. Gabriella Locher and Dale Ott attended Elementary school together, and the married couple are now in UCS, with Gabriella teaching English and Computer Science at Bemis Junior High in Sterling Heights and Dale at Henry Ford II High School. Their three children also attend UCS.
Sometimes teaching at UCS runs in the family and coming home is about fulfilling a legacy. Brianna Verdoodt is one of those. Now in her 11th year teaching physical education at Crissman Elementary in Shelby Township, Brianna is following in the footsteps of her mother, Judy Lupu, who is wrapping up her 40th of year of teaching in the district. A cheerleader growing up in UCS from the age of 12, Brianna was a cheer co-captain at the University of Michigan and last year coached her Stevenson High School Cheer squad to a state championship, and was also named the 2018 Cheer Coaches Association and MHSAA Coach of the Year. Her daughter also attends Crissman with an opportunity to continue the family legacy.
It's a family affair for Katie Lelito and her sister Tracy Orlowski. Not only do they have a former Utica Mayor in mother, Jacquelyn Noonan, but Katie and Tracy have also come home to work in the district. After attending UCS schools, and heading off to college, Katie has returned as a School to Work Coordinator at Utica and Eisenhower high schools, while Tracy teaches English and leads the yearbook efforts at Bemis Junior High School in Utica.
Susan George, is a 22-year teacher and now teaches fourth grade at Switzer Elementary in Shelby Township, following in the steps of her mother, who taught English in the district and her father who was a business teacher at Utica High School. "I really felt a strong connection to what once was truly a community school district and I never wanted to teach anywhere else," she said.
Helena Foust-Mantel came back to the district and teaches at the Burr Elementary Media Center in Sterling Heights. Not many kids can look back at growing up in a school where their mom was a "lunch lady, but that was truly part of the joy she had growing up in UCS. After moving away to be an intern at Disney World and then 10 years in Spain, the call "home" beckoned. Helena wanted her kids to grow up in UCS and she enrolled them while finishing her teaching degree requirements. "I consider my teaching badge at UCS to be a badge of honor," she said.
Jeannette Junior High School (Sterling Heights) math and computer science teacher Jessica Gizzi's father (Michael Tuohey) and his six siblings all attended schools in UCS. Her father was one of the members of Eisenhower High School's first graduating class and served as a historian for the Eisenhower Athletic Booster Club before his death in 2005. "My family has been attending UCS schools for nearly 50 years. When I graduated from Central Michigan, I was thrilled to begin my teaching career in the same school district that had given so much to myself and my family," said Jessica who is in her ninth year of teaching in the district. "I am so grateful to be teaching alongside the same wonderful educators who has such an impact on me when I was a student."
Cyndee Rivera teaches at Schuchard Elementary in Sterling Heights in the school media center. Like her parents, aunts, uncles, some of her cousins, and her sister, she graduated from Stevenson High School. After leaving the area, she came back to UCS when her oldest daughter reached kindergarten age, so she could have the same experience as the rest of the family.
Leanne Wolney is a third grade teacher at Roberts Elementary in Shelby Township and has been teaching for 24 years. A graduate of Stevenson High School, Leanne said UCS was "the best district growing up" and when she returned to teach, was actually interviewed by her Kindergarten teacher, who hired her on the spot. Leanne was best friends with fellow teacher Matthew Tepper growing up, and the two both came home to teach at Roberts.
"The one common denominator to all of these stories, and there's many more, is a group of educators who truly came home to give back to a school district which meant so much to them growing up," added Parkinson. "We have some incredible teachers here at UCS and the community is the benefactor."