The Sontag Prize
One might call it the educator’s version of “America’s Got Talent:” a search for the nation’s best teachers to serve the students who need it the most. This was the vision for the Sontag Prize in Urban Education, created by Riley during his tenure as a Deputy Superintendent in Boston, as a way to recognize outstanding teaching in Mathematics, English Language Arts (ELA), and other disciplines. The prize is named after a college professor who had a profound and lasting personal and professional impact on Riley. It is an uncommon celebration of motivated, effective teachers who are driven to continuously improve their practice and who demonstrate proven results with their students.
All of the teachers in the Lawrence Acceleration Academies have been awarded the Sontag Prize; it is, in effect, their admission ticket, much like the Golden Ticket that is bestowed upon students who participate in the Academies.
According to district leaders, the ideal candidates possess five characteristics:
- Look at data effectively and critically
- Have solid experience and an arsenal of “greatest hits” lessons to draw from
- Enjoy teaching in an extended time block
- Thrive on diving deep into content
- Can create a sense of energy and excitement
The ultimate goal of the Academies is to grow exemplary teacher talent from within the Lawrence Public Schools. As Superintendent Riley told us, “We always wanted to make it a homegrown program because we’ve got great people in this district. I would put my teachers against anyone, not just in the state but in the country.” The district also places a high value on the infusion of outside talent into the system to offer fresh perspectives. “We’re always looking to see other teachers and what they’re doing because they can bring a lot to the table, too. It’s been the best of both worlds, I think.”
Currently, approximately 70 percent of the teachers in the Academies are from the Lawrence Public Schools, and roughly 30 percent come from other cities and towns in Massachusetts and from such states as Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. Considering how demanding the profession has become and the personal and family commitments that many teachers have, it is remarkable how many teachers want to win a Sontag Prize and how competitive the admissions process has become. Over the years, between 42 and 78 percent of LPS teachers who have applied to the Academies have been accepted. The acceptance rate is lower for teachers outside the system: between 30-65 percent, depending on the year and the size of the program.
Most of the non-LPS teachers are working at the Academies during their own school vacation weeks, but we met at least one teacher who arranged to take the week off from her charter school because she felt the Academies would be a singular opportunity to improve her practice.
Reeling Them In
Not surprisingly, the Sontag Prize is well known within the Lawrence Public Schools; in the last few years, it has also gained recognition in Massachusetts and across the country. Nevertheless, the staff at central office continues to advertise widely, attracting the best talent for the Academies. At the beginning of each school year, the team first reaches out to teachers who have participated in the Academies in prior years, to determine who might be interested in returning. The team also diligently collects resumes and spreads the word to an ever-growing network. All new teachers submit a formal application that consists of their resume, essay questions, and principal recommendation. Sontag alumni also complete an application, but are not required to answer essay questions.
The ultimate goal of central office is to create the match between the most talented teachers and the students who struggle the most. Some teachers have had such great experiences with the Academies that they later joined the LPS faculty full-time.
Any educator in the United States is eligible to apply for the Sontag Prize. Teachers can apply multiple times and it often incentivizes them to improve their practice and demonstrate their growth.
The district is looking for teachers who make efficient and effective use of data, have proven experience and a portfolio of lessons, and provide targeted, engaging, well-planned units. Principal recommendation is the key driver in selection of teachers. As former Director of Teacher Initiatives Sara D’Alessandro said: “The main question that we’re asking principals when we reach out to them for a reference is, ‘If this teacher were given 30 hours in front of 10 to 12 students, could they drive results for those students, and would those students see improvement?’ And if that answer is, ‘Absolutely, yes,’ then that’s somebody that we’re selecting.”
Appreciated as Professionals
Teachers who are selected for the first time receive a $3,000 honorarium and a coveted Sontag Prize jacket, and they participate in a weekend of professional development at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education just prior to the Academies. The weekend features some of the nation’s leading scholars and practitioners. Participants also have an opportunity to share best practices with their fellow awardees and get ready for a week of intensive small group instruction.
Superintendent Riley’s message about the importance of great teachers and of recognizing their achievements is not lost on Sontag Prize recipients: many of the interview and survey respondents in our investigation cite a sense of professionalism and feeling appreciated as key reasons for participating in the program, along with the additional financial compensation. Moreover, many teachers told us that a main draw of the Sontag Prize was the opportunity to meet and collaborate with other excellent, “like-minded” educators. These teachers share a belief that they can help students make meaningful academic progress by building foundational skills and creating an environment that is engaging and challenging, and by tuning into and focusing on students’ individual learning needs.