Minneapolis, May 24, 2016—Teach For America today recognized a Minneapolis teacher for transforming students’ lives, including a student who lives at her home as her foster son. Jennifer Cotennec Christensen, a kindergarten teacher at Prodeo Academy, was one of nine individuals to receive the nonprofit’s 2016 Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Christensen is distinguished by her commitment to culturally responsive teaching at Prodeo, a free public charter that serves primarily low-income students of color in kindergarten through second grade.
She established an equity and diversity team to help teachers with culturally competencies, and she coordinates programs with role models and performers that share racial and cultural connections with her students. Last year, after realizing students came to school hungry, she enlisted the Second Harvest food bank and Junior League of Minneapolis for the Backpack Buddies Project, which sends food donations home with students each weekend for their families.
Christensen’s impact can also be seen in the relationship she’s built with a first grade boy, who struggled in her kindergarten class last year due to a traumatic home life. Christensen and her husband, Garrett, now foster the child and have been caring for him in their home for over a year.
“It is unfair to think of teachers as bestowing knowledge upon students and families. Partnership is a much more accurate description of what we do,” she said.
Christensen began teaching through Teach For America in 2011 at Melcher Elementary in Kansas City, Missouri, where her husband was also teaching kindergarten with the corps. They relocated to Minneapolis almost three years ago when he started law school at the University of Minnesota.
She worked as a substitute at Prodeo before joining the staff full-time at the start of last year. Christensen currently is one of seven Teach For America alums and two corps members teaching and leading at Prodeo. Principal Chancey Anderson supported Christensen’s award nomination.
“We are closing the achievement gap at Prodeo Academy because of our exceptional teachers,” Anderson said. “Each year, Jenn’s students have entered kindergarten far below the national average, but over the course of the year she has made over a year and a half of growth with her scholars in order to surpass it. Our teachers do powerful work.”
Christensen grew up in Cold Spring, New York, is a graduate of Lafayette College and received her master’s degree in early childhood education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She received the Community Partner of the Year Award from the Junior League of Minneapolis earlier this month and is a member of the NAACP, where she intends to advocate for foster children’s rights.
“Jenn serves as a model and source of inspiration to our corps members and alumni in the Twin Cities. She helps us prove what is possible when we provide students with the opportunities, supports and guidance to succeed,” said Patricia McKee, interim executive director of Teach For America–Twin Cities.
Alumni Awards for Excellence in Teaching recipients were selected from among the more than 11,000 Teach For America alumni serving as classroom teachers. The applicants for the awards went through three rigorous rounds of review, and recipients were chosen by a diverse selection committee comprised of teachers, principals, instructional coaches, university faculty, and Teach For America staff members.
The selection committee considered numerous criteria in selecting awardees, including a demonstrated impact on the educational outcomes of their students, a commitment to the schools and communities in which they teach, an unwavering belief in the potential for all students to succeed, a long-term commitment to teaching as a way to combat educational inequity, and an embodiment of Teach For America’s core values.
Alumni Awards recipients will receive a $5,000 prize and participate in a year-long ambassadorship, which includes professional learning and leadership experiences. The Teach For America Alumni Awards for Excellence in Teaching are generously underwritten by the Seedlings Foundation, with the vision of recognizing and learning from our alumni teachers.
About Teach For America
Teach For America works in partnership with communities to expand educational opportunity for children facing the challenges of poverty. Founded in 1990, Teach For America recruits and develops a diverse corps of outstanding college graduates and professionals to make an initial two-year commitment to teach in high-need schools and become lifelong leaders in the effort to end educational inequity. Today, 8,600 corps members are teaching in 52 urban and rural regions across the country while more than 42,000 alumni work across sectors to ensure that all children have access to an excellent education. Teach For America is a proud member of the AmeriCorps national service network. For more information, visit www.teachforamerica.org and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.