A Jamaican-born teacher who devotes herself to immigrants wins US$1 million prizes

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 Jamaican-born teacher in Maryland who has opened up college education for low-income, first-generation American, immigrant, and refugee students, has been named the winner of the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2021, in partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNESCO). 

The Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize announced Keishia Thorpe as the winner of the US$1 million prizes at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France. 

The foundation said Thorpe, an English teacher at International High School Langley Park, Bladensburg, Maryland, was selected from over 8,000 nominations and applications for the Global Teacher Prize from 121 countries worldwide. 

 Thorpe currently teaches English to 12th-grade students at the International High School Langley Park, Bladensburg, Maryland, where 100 percent of her students are English language learners, and 95 percent identify as low-income.

“Keyshia completely redesigned the 12th-grade curriculum for the English department to make it culturally relevant to her students who are first-generation Americans, immigrants, or refugees from mostly Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and South and Central America,” said the Varkey Foundation in a statement. 

As a result of her interventions, her English Language Learners (ELLS) have shown a 40 percent increase in their reading, contributing to the school meeting its growth-to-target rate with a 10 percent increase in WIDA scores for 2019-2020 and the highest in the school district for ELLs.

The WIDA Consortium comprises 41 US states, territories, and federal agencies dedicated to researching, designing, and implementing a high-quality, culturally and linguistically appropriate system to support English language learners in K-12 contexts. 

WIDA said its comprehensive system, based on research and educator feedback, is built on standards, assessments, and professional learning. 

“Keyshia dedicates a huge amount of time encouraging her high school students to apply for college, assisting them with their applications, and helping them gain fully-funded scholarships,” the Varkey Foundation said. 

It said she had helped her senior students in 2018-2019 alone win over US$6.7 million in scholarships to 11 different colleges, with almost 100 percent of them going tuition-free. 

“Keishia’s caring goes way beyond the classroom,” said the foundation, adding that one of Thorpe’s most significant achievements was to co-found, along with her twin sister, Dr. Treisha Thorpe, US Elite International Track and Field, Inc, a non-profit giving “at-risk” student-athletes across the globe an opportunity to use their talents as a vehicle to access fully-funded scholarships to US colleges and universities. 

The Varkey Foundation said US Elite had built a network of US college coaches with whom student-athletes are paired to earn full scholarships. 

To date, the foundation said Thorpe has helped over 500 students get whole athletic track and field scholarships. 

US Elite has achieved over 90 percent college graduation of student members, about 20 percent pursued a Master’s degree, and 8 percent post-graduate degree, the Varkey Foundation said.

In addition, it said Thorpe established an Annual Scholarship and Athletic Convention, “where college coaches and admissions and compliance teams inform economically disadvantaged student-athletes about college admissions and interact with them one-on-one, allowing many to get recruited there and then.”

The Varkey Foundation noted that Thorpe was honored with the Medal of Excellence from the Governor of Maryland for her work in influencing equitable policies in education and named the National Life Changer of the Year in the entire USA for 2018-2019, “an award given to teachers who inspire and go above and beyond for their students” and “exemplifying excellence, positive influence, and leadership.”

Jeremiah Thoronka, a student from Sierra Leone, who invented a device that uses kinetic energy from traffic and pedestrians to generate clean power, has been named the winner of the Chegg.org Global Student Prize 2021. 

Thoronka is the first winner of this new US$100,000 sister award to the Global Teacher Prize, which is given to one exceptional student who has made a real impact on learning, the lives of their peers, and on society beyond.

French actress Isabelle Huppert announced Thorpe as the winner of the Global Teacher Prize, and actor and humanitarian Hugh Jackman announced Jeremiah as the inaugural Global Student Prize winner. The announcements were part of a virtual ceremony broadcast from UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris.

Sunny Varkey, the founder of the Varkey Foundation, said: “Congratulations to Keishia for winning the Global Teacher Prize 2021 and Jeremiah for becoming the first-ever winner of the Chegg.org Global Student Prize. 

“Their incredible stories show the vital role education plays in tackling the great challenges of today and tomorrow,” Varkey said. 

Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO, said: “Congratulations to Keishia for winning the Global Teacher Prize 2021 and Jeremiah for winning the Global Student Prize 2021. 

“UNESCO was proud to host to this year’s Global Teacher Prize ceremony at our headquarters in Paris,” she said. “Inspirational teachers and extraordinary students alike deserve recognition for their commitment to education amid the learning crisis we see today. 

“Now, more than ever, we must honor and support our teachers and students as they look to rebuild a better world in the wake of COVID,” Giannini said. 

Thorpe told the ceremony: “This recognition is not just about me but about all the dreamers who worked so hard and dared to dream of ending generational poverty.

“This is to encourage every little Black boy and girl that looks like every child and me in the world that feels marginalized and has a story like mine and felt they never mattered,” she added. 

“Education is a human right, and all children should be entitled to have access to it,” Thorpe continued. “This is also for every teacher across the globe who shows up every day in the classroom to teach their students and transform their lives. 

“Every child needs a champion, an adult who will never, ever give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists they become the very best they can be,” she said. “And this is exactly why teachers will always matter. Teachers matter. Thank you.” 

Thorpe said the award “validates everything that I’ve done in my life up to this point, and I just thank God for this moment.”

In 2013, the Varkey Foundation commissioned Populus, the leading research and strategy consultancy, to gather in-depth opinions from 21 countries to explore attitudes about the teaching profession, teachers’ salaries, students’ attitudes towards educators, and how participants rated their education systems. 

The results, published as the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Status Index, formed the first comprehensive attempt to compare the status of teachers across the world. 

The Varkey Foundation said that, in many countries, “it was clear that the profession’s status had dropped,” stating that the findings shocked Sunny Varkey, the Varkey Foundation’s chairman, whose parents had both been teachers. 

He founded the Global Teacher Prize as a response to raise the profession’s profile.

Prior winners of the Global Teacher Prize include village teacher Ranjitsinh D of India, science teacher Peter Tabichi of Kenya, and art and textiles teacher Andria Zafirakou of the United Kingdom.

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