Four Recipients of Olmsted Prizes for Secondary School Teachers Announced

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

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., May 8, 2012 – Williams College will award its annual George Olmsted, Jr., Class of 1924 Prize for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching to four outstanding high school teachers on Saturday, June 2, at Ivy Exercises.

The recipients are Michael D. Levin, who teaches English literature, composition, and theater at Flagstaff Arts & Leadership Academy in Flagstaff, Ariz.; Patrick R. O’Connor, a history teacher at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, Minn.; Anne L. Thomas, a math teacher at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Mark R. Vondracek, who teaches physics at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Ill.

Each year, Williams College seniors nominate high school teachers who played influential roles in their lives and their learning. A committee comprised of faculty, staff, and students chooses winners from among the nominees. Recipients of the award receive $3,000, and an additional $2,500 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.

Michael D. Levin, Flagstaff Arts & Leadership Academy, Flagstaff, Ariz.

“Mr. Levin consistently challenges his students, pushing us all to artistic and academic extremes,” Williams senior Molly Olguin said. “While Mr. Levin encouraged all of us to develop our own styles and forms, he pushed us to work as hard at our creative accomplishments as we did at our academics.”

Levin has been an instructor of numerous literature and theater classes at Flagstaff Arts & Leadership Academy, a small public charter high school with a rigorous liberal arts curriculum and an emphasis on fine and performing arts, since 1997. “Every class I had with Mr. Levin in high school was my favorite class,” Olguin said. “Four years later, I still have friends from high school who constantly bring up specific moments of realization and academic and artistic satisfaction that happened for us in Mr. Levin’s classes.”

Ari Wilder, dean of academy at Flagstaff and a Williams graduate (’99), said of Levin “Mike is incredibly devoted to reading, creating, performing, and appreciating literature, and his classes all have a sense of purpose and palpable intensity that is fueled by his enthusiasm and dedication. His classes unfold organically, with seamless insertions of relevant information and natural dialogue and discussions between the students and Mike, but he achieves this by being highly prepared and knowledgeable about the topic at hand.”

Levin said that at Flagstaff, teachers are entrusted to design the curriculum and to select the books that best serves students. “This permits the course content to adapt to the desires and needs of the students,” Levin said. “So much of my position in the language and theater arts is about laying the foundation in the historical while staying current to the trends in academia and the world.”

Patrick R. O’Connor, Southwest High School, Minneapolis, Minn.

Williams senior Alison Pincus’ love of history was ignited in O’Connor’s History of the Americas course. “Mr. O’Connor was the only high school teacher I ever had who truly treated his students like adults,” Pincus said. “By this I do not simply mean that he acknowledged his students as mature, responsible individuals, but also that he created an environment in which the opinions of each student were genuinely valued and nurtured.”

A social studies teacher at Southwest High School since 1992, O’Connor has also taught courses in government, economics, and urban education. He was named Minneapolis Teacher of the Year in 2003-2004. “Mr. O’Connor practiced something I so rarely saw in my high school teachers: restraint,” Pincus said. “He saw the value in letting students share their opinions even before he chose to interject his own, and in doing so promoted an atmosphere of critical thinking that rivals what I see in my Williams courses today.”

Southwest High School Principal Bill Smith said of O’Connor, “Over the years, students have recognized him as one of the major positive influences in their lives. He is highly respected by his peers and students. Patrick is a professional, caring teacher.”

O’Connor said he feels it is an essential part of his job to make students feel welcomed in the classroom. “If students look forward to being in my class and I can interact with each student as an individual, my teaching will be much rewarded,” he said.

Anne L. Thomas, Community High School, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Williams senior Erik Levinsohn said his intellectual journey in college and his choice to major in mathematics could not have happened without Thomas. “She opened my eyes to a world in which functions could describe everything and calculus was just one tool among many that could be used to understand these functions,” Levinsohn said. “Math, in other words, was the language that elucidated the universe. When I earn a degree in June, it will be for both of us.”

Thomas has been a teacher of secondary mathematics at Community High School since 1996, teaching all levels of math classes. She is currently the chair of the school’s mathematics department. “Anne was electric in the classroom,” Levinsohn said. “[She] believed that it was her personal responsibility to ensure that not only did her students learn the material, but also that they achieved an appreciation for its importance. She devoted herself wholly to what she taught.”

John B. Boshoven, counselor for continuing education at Community High School, said Thomas is “a self non-promoter, a tireless and consummate teacher who loves kids and adores calculus. She is a wonderful human and teacher and would make the Olmsted Prize her own.”

Thomas’s teaching philosophy revolves around students having fun and succeeding at the lifelong process of learning. “It’s my job to make sure students are engaged, which requires building strong, positive relationships,” Thomas said. “I also believe that teaching is a powerful way to learn, which means students should have opportunities to teach, and teachers are always learning.”

Thomas uses unique approaches to learning, such as extensive group learning and “math aerobics,” in which students represent the curve of a graph of a given equation with their whole bodies. “I learn so much from my students and I get to have fun teaching every day,” she said.

Mark Vondracek, Evanston Township High School, Evanston, Ill.

“In thinking about what made Doc V [Mark Vondracek] such an incredible teacher, the first thing that comes to mind is the way that he listened to you,” said Williams senior Anders Schneider. “He always treats what you have to say with the utmost importance and sincerity.” Schneider also mentioned Vondracek’s great efforts to build individual relationships with each of his students and to offer unlimited support. “His passion for education was definitely contagious, and when I decided that I wanted to be a highschool physics teacher, he was the first person I called for advice and wisdom,” Schneider said.

Vondracek has been a physics teacher at Evanston Township High School since 1998. He serves not only as a physics teacher but also has a coach and advisor for students conducting science research and taking place in numerous science and math competitions. Additionally, he co-founded Project Excite, a program that serves to eliminate the academic achievement gap between white and minority students. “Doc V has shown me in various ways that he is truly committed to improving the American education system and eliminating inequality in education, in particular,” Schneider said.

Oscar Hawthorne, assistant superintendent and principal of Evanston Township High School, said Vondracek has brought a level of commitment and excellence to the school that he has rarely seen in over 20 years of service.

Vondracek’s goal for each student is to “truly learn and internalize the physics and the process of science to the point where he or she becomes a better problem solver – not just a person who can retain physics information long enough to pass a test,” he said. He also emphasized the willingness of high school students to explore their surroundings. “When given a chance to explore, students will,” Vondracek said. “They just need a comfortable setting where they feel it is all right to fail, then learn from mistakes, and then get it right.”


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 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.

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Published May 8, 2012