Williams College Announces Olmsted Awards for Secondary School Teachers

Media contact: Noelle Lemoine, communications assistant; tele: (413) 597-4277; email: [email protected]

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., April 27, 2015— On Saturday, June 6, at Williams College’s Ivy Exercises, the college will award the annual George Olmsted Jr. Class of 1924 Prize for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching to four outstanding high school teachers.

The recipients are Christopher J. Avilés, a Spanish teacher at Dorchester Academy in Dorchester, Mass.; Keith D. Miller, an English teacher at Cold Spring Harbor High School in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.; Mark A. Liepe, a biology teacher at East Noble High School in Kendallville, Ind.; and Stephanie G. Rossi, a social studies teacher at Wheat Ridge High School in Wheat Ridge, Colo.

Each year, Williams seniors nominate high school teachers who played influential roles in their lives and learning. A committee of faculty, staff, and students chooses winners from among the nominees. Recipients of the award receive $3,000, and an additional $5,000 is given to each recipient’s school. The Olmsted Prize was established in 1976 with an endowment from the estates of George Olmsted Jr. and his wife, Frances.

Christopher J. Avilés, Dorchester Academy, Dorchester, Massachusetts

Long Dang ’15 says that Christopher J. Avilés is a “life-long learner who’s dedicated to serving urban public schools.” Avilés has taught at Dorchester Academy since 2009, where he teaches Spanish I and II.

“Dr. Avilés taught and encouraged us to be critical about our school, our communities, and ourselves,” Dang says. “He shared his own experiences of trudging through poverty while growing up, which made students comfortable speaking about their own lives.”

In addition to Spanish, Avilés has also taught a social activism class. He has served as co-coach of the debate team, as the martial arts club instructor, and as an after-school guitar teacher. He currently serves as Dorchester Academy’s lead teacher, coaching new teachers and colleagues who struggle with classroom management and representing faculty on the School Site Council. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts Boston Leadership in Urban Schools program, as well as an M.A. in Spanish.

Dorchester Academy’s headmaster, Kwesi Moody, calls Avilés “the kind of educator who works tirelessly on behalf of our students both in and out of the classroom.”

Says Avilés: “As an urban educator, my first task is to present formal education as a viable option and a real means of social mobility for my students. As teachers, our challenge is to try to make a difference in the lives of every student that ever walks into our classrooms.”

Keith D. Miller, Cold Spring Harbor Junior-Senior High School, Cold Spring Harbor, New York

Williams senior Jonathan Dely heard rumors about Keith D. Miller’s AP English class when he was a junior in high school. “He was known to be the more eccentric of the two teachers.” Regardless, Dely chose Miller’s class. On the first day, “Mr. Miller exclaimed his first words of the year: ‘If this door were the motions, you would not go through it.’”

Miller has taught at Cold Spring Harbor Junior-Senior High School since 2003. Currently, he teaches courses in AP English, Introduction to College English, and Regents English. He serves as the advisor of the student improv group and as a college essay advisor, and previously he served as a coach for baseball and basketball. He holds an M.A. in secondary English education from CUNY Hunter, and a B.A. in communication studies with a minor in English from SUNY Cortland.

“To me, a lot of whether or not a student gets something out of high school comes down to the ‘dance’ between student and teacher,” Miller says. “Most teachers spend the first day going over rules about chewing gum and turning off cell phones. On the first day of my class, we spend two minutes discussing how honesty is everything, how true writing and learning could never exist without it. Then, we write.”

Jay Matuk, Cold Spring’s principal, finds that one of Miller’s greatest assets is his willingness to take chances in the classroom. “He has an uncanny ability to bring issues of morality and conscience into the classroom in a manner that allows students to formulate their own conclusions while examining their own evolving belief systems.” And, he notes, Miller’s students always perform exceptionally well on the AP exam.

As Miller says, “The fun is in the doing. In the classroom, I am, perhaps, more alive than I am anywhere else. I’m under the gun and so are my students…they see my humanity. They see my zaniness, my passion, my unrelenting belief in each and every one of them.”

Mark A. Liepe, East Noble High School, Kendallville, Indiana

Gabriel Stephens ’15 is “a scientist because of Mark Liepe. I am graduating from Williams College because of Mark Liepe. I am who I am because of Mark Liepe.” Stephens took Liepe’s freshman biology class, and soon developed an interest in the subject. When he wanted to complete a complicated project at the end of the year, Liepe assisted him, as he did for each of Stephens’ subsequent projects.

Liepe has taught biology, along with a variety of other science classes, at East Noble High School since 1997. He holds an M.S. in educational leadership from Indiana Purdue University Fort Wayne, and a B.A. in biology from Western Michigan University.

“I spend a lot of time trying to make students feel comfortable enough to share things with me so I can do a better job assessing where they are and what they want to do,” Liepe says. Once he discovers their passion, he finds a way to help them pursue it, whether it be passing a challenging class or completing a difficult project. In his freshman class, all students must complete an independent research project.

In addition to teaching, Liepe is East Noble’s science department chairperson, science fair adviser, Science Olympiad coach and Bi-Phy-Chem science club sponsor. Liepe serves East Noble as the boys and girls cross-country coach, and was previously the assistant girls track coach. In 2014, he was both named STEM Teacher of the Year by the Air Force Association’s Ft. Wayne Chapter, and All-Area Cross Country Coach of the Year by the Kendallville News Sun. He is an adjunct faculty member at Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne.

Steve Peterson, principal of East Noble, characterizes Liepe as a leader in the classroom and out. Peterson notes that his daughter is currently in Liepe’s class, and he says “the best compliment an educator can give a fellow colleague is when they want their kids to be in that teacher’s class.”

Stephanie G. Rossi, Wheat Ridge High School, Wheat Ridge, Colorado

“Stephanie Rossi changed the course of my education when I was only 16 years old,” says Hannah Van Wetter ’15. “As I near the end of my college career, I can absolutely attribute not only my pursuit of history…but the careful attention and nourishing of my education to Mrs. Rossi.”

Rossi has taught at Wheat Ridge High School since 1994. She teaches courses in social studies, including AP U.S. History, world religions, and psychology, which are advanced courses, and geography and American government, two required classes for freshmen. “Her equal investment in struggling freshmen, intellectually curious sophomores, stressed juniors, and checked-out seniors sets her apart,” Van Wetter says.

Rossi’s dedication to her students’ education was demonstrated by her actions in 2014, when a curriculum oversight committee for AP U.S. History was being considered. Rossi fought to keep a curriculum that discusses the positive and negative aspects of American history. “An incomplete story not only insults my students but insults the history and the integrity of those who fought for the rights that we, as Americans, have today,” Rossi says.

Griff Wirth, Wheat Ridge’s principal, has nothing but praise for Rossi. “In her spare time, she works to improve school culture and promote diverse thinking perspectives for students and adults alike.” She leads a Peace Jam Club, which promotes peaceful problem solving, and Compassion Crew, an anonymous student group that recognizes people who commit acts of kindness.

“Throughout my life, the Hebrew phrase, ‘tikkun olam’ meaning ‘world repair,’ has called me to action,” Rossi says. “Like a fire within, the idea of being a participant in repairing what is broken in the world, has burned and motivated my involvement in many issues within my community. I have turned this belief into action throughout my career.”


Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college’s 2,000 students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. Students’ educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions on U.S. applicants are made regardless of a student’s financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted.


Published April 27, 2015