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58 Philly teachers honored for extraordinary works

Award recipient Kathleen DiTanna is surrounded by some of her students at Philadelphia High School for Girls. TOM MIHALEK / For The Inquirer
Award recipient Kathleen DiTanna is surrounded by some of her students at Philadelphia High School for Girls. TOM MIHALEK / For The InquirerRead more

Kathleen DiTanna lived an international life, but finds her experiences teaching the determined students at Girls' High just as rewarding as her time abroad.

Joe Williams left a successful career as a welder to give city kids the same opportunity - and now each of his seniors is graduating to a good-paying job.

Lena Namnun followed her parents to Frankford High, where she is now a teacher so beloved that many of her students call her "Mom."

The trio are among the 58 Philadelphia School District high school teachers being recognized Tuesday as among the city's finest educators. Each will receive the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Award for Distinguished High School Educators, a prize that comes with $3,500.

DiTanna had a revelation in the Middle East, where she had moved for her husband's job.

She had studied art in high school, and English and history at Temple University. She spent time as a social worker with no designs on a career in education. She picked up work teaching adults in Iran, though, and quickly found her calling.

"It felt good," said DiTanna, now an English teacher at Girls' High. Once back in the Philadelphia area, she earned master's degrees, taught at a Catholic school, then joined the district in 1997.

DiTanna worked at Fels and Olney before landing at Girls', the lauded magnet school where she is English department head.

Teaching has changed in some ways since she joined the profession, DiTanna said - "a good, old-fashioned story that used to keep them engaged doesn't always work now" - but to her students, she is present, sharp, always interesting.

"I like the way she pushes us," said Sierra Velazquez, a student in DiTanna's sophomore honors English class. "I like the way she prepares us for the future."

DiTanna has lived through wars and revolutions, so the budget cuts and layoff cycles of the district, while disruptive, have not touched her as much as some.

"But I see how it affects young teachers," said DiTanna, 63. "They want to go elsewhere."

Still, she finds hope.

The young women she teaches motivate her to come to work, and at a time when her peers are retiring, she can't imagine leaving the profession - or Girls', where a dozen pianos line the first floor for students to play in their free time.

"They come from every country, every place, and they make it work; their inner core is so strong," DiTanna said of her students. "They give so much, and are so determined. I'm very proud of them."

There are 11 seniors in Joe Williams' new welding program at Randolph Technical High School. Every one has an offer for a good-paying job, with plenty of advancement opportunities awaiting, after graduation.

That's precisely why Williams three years ago left a successful career as a welder, working most recently on propulsion systems for nuclear submarines. The prospect of giving a shot at a stable career path to boys from neighborhoods like the ones he grew up in was enough to draw him into the classroom.

"There's no more rewarding feeling," said Williams, 47.

For years, technical courses like welding were out of favor. Williams, who attended Randolph himself in the 1980s, was hired to reestablish the program in the midst of a push to equip more young people with career skills.

Williams has enlisted industry sponsors like Airgas to donate new equipment for students to learn with, and every year, more pupils enroll.

Walking around the shop last week, Williams encouraged and pointed out problems.

"Saleem, look at your radius between where you are with the tanks and where you're cutting," Williams said. The young man quickly adjusted his technique.

Williams said he demands much of his students. They learn not just the basics of the craft, but multiple forms of welding and how to read blueprints - a skill that not every welder has, and one that ups the teens' earning potential.

"I take this very seriously," said Williams, who is also earning an education degree at Temple. "I'm good at what I do, and I want them to be good at it, too."

Quincy Mason, a senior welding student, has a career path thanks to "Mr. Will," as some teens call him. He will study engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"He's hands-on - straight to the point," Mason said. "He's great."

With the end of the school year fast approaching, Lena Namnun, a social studies teacher who also directs a Frankford High peermentoring program, asked her students to talk about their best memories from this school year.

First, she warned her students: She might cry.

Namnun, 37, shared hers, too - the time the peer mentors put on a red-carpet gala for Frankford's students with disabilities.

"The whole school got to see how special you are," she told the class last week.

"The way she connects with students - she's not like every other teacher," said Edgardo Bennett, a junior and one of Namnun's students.

Namnun has taught at Frankford for eight years, but her roots at the school go much deeper. As a baby, her parents wrapped her in a blanket adorned with the school's red, blue, and gold colors. She graduated from Frankford in 1995 and met her husband, now a Frankford physical education teacher and dean, when they were students there.

She began teaching in the district in 1999, working at Olney, Lincoln and Randolph Technical High Schools before returning to the place that always felt like home.

"My whole family went to this school, and I always wanted to come back," Namnun said. "I've walked this walk, I've sat in these seats. I get it."

She enjoys teaching top students, but for Namnun, the real joy is in helping struggling teens. Students feel safe in her classroom, something that's not always easy in a tough-neighborhood school.

"I love watching that lightbulb, taking a kid other people might have written off and making them see their potential," she said.

Giving as much as she does to her students - and to her three busy boys, ages 13, 10 and 7 - is physically and emotionally taxing.

"There are days that I say, 'Why did I do this?', but I can't see myself anywhere else," Namnun said. "Teaching is just something that's in you."

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