Main Line Education: Top Teachers 2011

The Main Line’s public high schools are among the best in Pennsylvania. Here are 12 reasons why.

If you’re looking for the common thread connecting CEOs, peacemakers, world leaders, movers and shakers, look no further than the teachers who inspired them.

Michael Ludwig of Penncrest High School. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)For the first installment of our series celebrating the area’s top educators, we enlisted the help of public high school principals and other administrators, asking them who has the right stuff to make our esteemed list. Most were more than happy to give these unheralded role models their just due.

Granted, none of these 12 standouts got into teaching for the accolades. But at a time when public education is buckling under the weight of increasing class sizes, staff reductions and dwindling resources, a little sustained applause can go a long way.

Rick Dunbar, Radnor High School (page 2)
Alexis Swinehart, Radnor High School (page 3)
Tom Reed, Lower Merion High School (page 4)
Mollie Fahnestock, Marple Newtown High School (page 5)
Laura Gambone, Marple Newtown High School (page 6)
Lee Mescolotto, Harriton High School (page 7)
Michael Ludwig, Penncrest High School (page 8)
Brenda Gelinas, Downingtown East High School (page 9)
Doug Vallette, Unionville High School (page 10)
Susanne Knupp, Great Valley High School (page 11)
Henry McCloskey, Great Valley High School (page 12)
Scott Rafetto, West Chester East High School (page 13)

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Renaissance Man

Rick Dunbar and Alexis Swinehart, both of Radnor High School. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)Radnor High School’s Rick Dunbar too often finds himself sandwiched between da Vinci and Botticelli—or sometimes Donatello and Raphael. It’s to his credit that students know for sure that they’re not cartoon characters.

Dunbar is a social studies teacher with a passion for early modern European history, especially the Renaissance period, which marked the entry into the modern era. “Students really bite on that time frame,” says Dunbar. “It’s easy to activate engagement because I’m able to connect all those things to their lives in general—especially with art, which speaks to the values of a culture.”

Dunbar uses current events to further illustrate global political and social climates while also taking that common teaching practice to another level—and other continents. His students travel to South Africa and Tanzania to provide aid, shelter and English education to developing areas. “They’re presented with authentic opportunities to experience a culture,” he says, referencing the 30-day service projects and direct intercultural interaction with children and families in the chosen communities.

Closer to home, Dunbar hopes his students develop an appreciation and understanding for the world around them. “I want them to know how to think critically,” he says. “History isn’t static; it’s fluid. The best arguments are the ones that are accepted as fact.”

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Rick Dunbar and Alexis Swinehart, both of Radnor High School. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)Quick Study

Instant gratification may have its benefits, but typically not when it comes to studying and information retention. “The thread here is motivation,” says Radnor High School’s Alexis Swinehart. “Students can choose to read or not to read, and there are a lot of savvy ones who know how to get around reading—especially when they’re not engaged in the first place.”

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As the school’s literacy coach, Swinehart combats apathy and cultivates enthusiasm for the learning process by coordinating efforts among students and faculty members to facilitate communication and effective teaching methods. She also has two reading classes of her own. “I get to learn what kind of reading habits students like,” she says. “My class is built on a structured freedom that follows the curriculum but also allows for relevance. I get students engaged by giving them a functional role to pull current events into the classroom, which gets them to stay engaged, ask questions, and develop their methods of thinking while they read.”

As a math-inclined junior in high school, Swinehart was less than interested in the humanities until a teacher reshaped her way of thinking with Shakespeare. Now, Swinehart strives to follow that lead. “When a reluctant reader comes to me and says, ‘I read this book in your class and got the sequel,’ it’s really satisfying,” she says.

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Photo by Jared CastaldiLife Coach

As one of the best public high schools in the area, Lower Merion is no stranger to sound achievement strategies in the classroom—especially those of Tom Reed, a social studies teacher with more than 20 years of experience. “Just as I think I’ve raised the bar too high, I find out it’s time to raise it again and create another, more difficult challenge,” Reed says.

Reed can often be found working with students before and after school, at lunch and via e-mail. “Teachers are willing to dedicate this time because of their passion for their students and the incredible importance of what they’ve been entrusted to do,” he says.

Reed is the faculty sponsor of buildOn, Lower Merion’s largest community service organization, which logged nearly 4,000 hours in 2010. Students have planted more than 30 trees throughout Philadelphia, organized drives for clothing, educational supplies, baby items and toys, and much more. The group is also committed to financing and building new schools in the developing world through the Trek program, which established classrooms in Nicaragua and Mali last year. Haiti is their next potential site.

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“Education is not just about textbooks and computers,” says Reed. “The classroom is a place for young people to develop their self-confidence, to have positive and rewarding experiences with peers and teachers, to learn the importance of helping and having compassion for others, and to understand the importance of the role they play in society. My goal is to assist them along the way.”

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Family Ties

For many of us, the mere mention of family and consumer-sciences courses prompts images of diapered dolls and sewing machines. Mollie Fahnestock ensures that it’s far more than that at Marple Newtown High School. As the child development teacher, Fahnestock also runs an on-site preschool lab that offers teens a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in real-life situations with little ones. “Students work hands-on with children during their school day,” she says. “On more than one occasion, graduates have said, ‘I should’ve taken this course in high school; I could really use it now.’ It makes me feel like I’m doing something right.”

Mollie Fahnestock and Laura Gambone, both of Marple Newtown High School. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)

Part of what’s made Fahnestock so successful is her emphasis on teamwork in both the classroom and the community to nurture a broader sense of how people—not just children—develop through their experiences. As the faculty sponsor for the high school’s Interact Club, Fahnestock has spent the past 15 years coordinating community service programs like last year’s daffodil sale for the American Cancer Society, which raised more than $2,000. “I want all students to discover and develop their strengths in order to contribute productively in society,” she says.

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Well Read

Mollie Fahnestock and Laura Gambone, both of Marple Newtown High School. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)For those who think reading instruction ends in elementary school, Laura Gambone begs to differ. “In order to boost self-confidence, students of every age need to experience success,” says Gambone, a reading specialist at Marple Newtown High School.

And while it isn’t just about finding the right book or a favorite author, that certainly helps—as does an outline of daily objectives. With a consistent structure in place, Gambone’s students know what’s expected of them, allowing them to be more autonomous. “Because I’m fortunate to work in an individual or small-group setting, my students are able to choose and rotate activities within my organized classroom,” she says. “By making personal connections with the students, my instruction is designed for their specific strengths and weaknesses.”

Gambone is heavily involved in the high school’s Read Across America efforts, which promote literacy and allows older students to participate in various reading activities in the district’s elementary schools. She also heads up the school’s book drive, once a small venture that’s ballooned to donations in excess of 25,000 books. “My hope is to have my students leave Marple Newtown with the skills and values to become successful readers and writers, and responsible people in our society,” Gambone says.

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Mr. Wizard

Photo by Jared Castaldi

It may not be the luckiest number in the bunch, but Lee Mescolotto is hitting his stride in his 13th year as a biology teacher at Harriton High School. As the science department chair, he’s worked to develop new, more rigorous classes, including a genetics course designed to replicate a college setting. “It’s prepared numerous students for their transition to higher education,” says Harriton’s principal, Steve Kline. “They rave about it.”

And while biology, chemistry, physics and genetics don’t always inspire awe and a thirst for learning, Mescolotto sees it as his mission to make each lesson approachable. “We’re presenting complex information here, but we’re doing it in a way that makes even the most boring aspects of our curriculum something the students can be enthusiastic about,” he says. “I love the material, and I want them to love it as much as I do.”

Mescolotto also organizes monthly meetings of the Minority Achievement Program, which strives to eliminate the achievement gap present in many public schools. And though it’s only in its second year, the program has helped to increase the number of minority students in honors-level classes or higher. “I want students to realize their enthusiasm for learning,” Mescolotto says. “Then they’ll tell other students about it, and it creates a very positive learning environment.”

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He’s History

When some of your personal heroes include George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant, it’s safe to say that both leadership and tactical strategies are among your strengths. Such is the case with Penncrest High School’s Michael Ludwig, whose passion for United States history extends beyond textbooks and classrooms. He’s explored all the Civil War battlefields on the East Coast, bringing students along on an annual Gettysburg field trip after reading Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Killer Angels. “Battlefields, to me, are outdoor classrooms,” he says.

Photo by Jared CastaldiNow in his 36th year of teaching, Ludwig is among the seasoned veterans at Penncrest, with an “old school” sense of discipline and an ability to transcend history’s lackluster reputation in the classroom. “The bias is that it’s tedious and boring,” he says. “I emphasize that it’s the human aspects of U.S. history and its public figures that really get kids excited.”

When he’s not retracing history’s path, Ludwig can be found coaching freshman baseball and the varsity football team’s kickers. He’s also led the district’s Hi-Q quiz team since 1980. “Extracurricular activities provide a school with its soul and give it a heartbeat,” Ludwig says. “Every student has a right to succeed at something.”

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Down to a Science

With 20 years of experience at DuPont, it’s safe to say that Downingtown East High School’s Brenda Gelinas knows her way around a lab or two. Chemistry, she points out, is best learned by doing. “I spend very little time lecturing, and I don’t believe in just using equations,” she says.

Photo by Jared Castaldi

Rather, Gelinas’ students participate in integrated, problem-based learning that stresses real-life situations and teamwork. “I started doing that about two years ago, and it engages the entire class,” she says. “I come into the classroom and say, ‘Today, I’m not your teacher. I’m a person who owns a manufacturing company, and I’m hiring you to fix a technical problem.’”

Her students’ most recent project arose in the wake of last May’s tsunami in Japan and utilized resources from the Limerick Power Plant. “I wanted to run a nuclear-based project for the end of the year, and when the power plants in Japan were affected by this disaster, it proved to be a real-world learning experience that could be potentially relevant to everyone,” she says. “Every day following the event, there was news coming in constantly, so we were learning together.”

Under Downingtown East’s Science Buddy program, Gelinas’ students assume mentor positions for their younger counterparts. Their efforts culminate in a twice-yearly Science Saturday, when a few hundred elementary-school students team up with teens for experiments and skill building. “The everyday kind of ‘aha’ moments are the most rewarding,” Gelinas says. “Science Saturdays are full of adrenaline and fun. It really sends a message that you can be excited about science.”

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Physics in the FieldPhoto by Jared Castaldi

With 16 years of teaching behind him, Doug Vallette knows now that grasping physics is largely about the mindset of the learner.

“When I first started, I thought my role was to present the material to students clearly and logically, and that this was sufficient for them to learn,” says the Unionville High School teacher. “I quickly discovered that this wasn’t the case. Students really only learn physics when they have a chance to develop an understanding for themselves. Usually, this means experiencing the content in a lab before we develop the descriptions or explanations. I view my role not as an instructor but as a guide.”

Under Vallette’s classroom model, students use graphs and equations to describe what they see in nature. “It turns out that, while there may be 20 topics in a typical physics class, we only need a small set of models—perhaps six or seven—to understand them,” he says.

In Vallette’s classes, the learning environment is driven by student initiative. “Posing problems that are challenging while giving students the tools to overcome these challenges can be very motivating,” he says. “I don’t know that I can win everyone over, but I think our program is pretty successful.”

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Susanne Knupp and Henry McCloskey, both of Great Valley High School. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)Keeping It Real

Thanks, in part, to a prior career in sales and marketing, Susanne Knupp knows how to sell her students at Great Valley High School on complex ideas and topics. But she was never a fan of making cold calls. “I really wasn’t getting job satisfaction,” she says. “Around 2000, I realized that I liked to mentor other people, so I quit my job, lived off my savings and got my master’s in teaching.”

Knupp’s specialties are chemistry and physics—two of the most challenging high school courses—and students often come to her armed to the gills with apprehension. “I see it a lot with girls,” she says. “They’ll come to me and say, ‘I’m a girl, so I can’t possibly be good in math or science.’ I try to get them to realize that it’s a skill you need to work on—much like a skateboard trick or a videogame.”

Knupp is the math-and-science cornerstone of the Great Valley School District’s Bridges program, an alternative-education option for at-risk students. “These are kids who have very disruptive elements in their lives that would otherwise prevent them from succeeding,” she says. “But they’re just as important, and having the program here keeps them tied to the school community and allows them to have a regular high school experience.”

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All Business

Susanne Knupp and Henry McCloskey, both of Great Valley High School. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)

In 10 years of teaching, Great Valley High School’s Henry McCloskey has heard “When will I ever use this?” more times than he cares to admit. Lucky for his students, he’s got a pretty compelling answer. “Many people recognize that language arts and mathematics are core subjects,” says McCloskey, the school’s business, computer and informational technology teacher. “But they fail to understand that many of the problems people experience stem from not having a solid understanding of business and finance.” 

Aside from the accounting, marketing and computer application classes he teaches, McCloskey runs the career-and-internship program. He also heads the school’s strikingly unique Desmond Partnership Class. “I liken it to The Apprentice,” he says. “The class is set up like a business, with a hierarchy and different divisions. Each student has to create a résumé and interviews for a specific job. They speak with personnel from the Desmond Hotel and one of our own administrators.”

While the Desmond’s staff and president serve as guides, McCloskey encourages students to weigh their options, assess the implications of their decisions, and make an educated forecast of how their decisions would fare in the real world. “The most rewarding moment is the five to 10 minutes after the Great Valley Student Achievers Banquet,” says McCloskey. “Desmond students cry, laugh, hug and dance, knowing they pulled off something many adults wouldn’t have.”

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Photo by Jared CastaldiHealthy Enthusiasm

A fourth-generation educator, Scott Rafetto knows that kids need an occasional boost, and his Habits of Mind approach is just the remedy for many students. “In everything you do in the classroom, you can apply the Habits of Mind principles to see the bigger picture and gain perspective on a topic that may have been difficult to approach,” says Rafetto, a health teacher at West Chester East High School.

Developed by veteran educators Bena Hallick and Art Costa, Habits of Mind’s “thinking dispositions” include persistence, thinking flexibly, taking responsible risks, managing impulsivity and 12 others. “Learning isn’t just about gathering knowledge. Smokers know more about smoking than nonsmokers; drinkers know more about drinking than non-drinkers,” he says. “There has to be something else to influence behavior and the choices we all make, and these techniques allow students to develop healthy decision-making skills.”

Teaching health to 10th graders can be a challenging task given the deluge of information—accurate and otherwise—out there. “You can have someone who’s a brilliant master of content, but who can’t connect with the kids—that part is very important,” he says.

For Rafetto, the heart is as important as the intellect in the classroom. “Sometimes, you need to be able to put down the books, talk and let students know who you are,” he says. “I have to show them that I’ll not mislead them, I’ll tell them the truth, and I’ll treat them like adults.”

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Our Best of the Main Line Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!