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By Bob Skolnik
Two area teachers have been named finalists for the prestigious Golden Apple award for excellence in teaching.
Riverside resident Melissa Halusek and Brook Park School third-grade teacher Alyssa Lipuma are among the 30 finalists for the award. Lipuma, 27, is the youngest finalist chosen this year.
Halusek has taught second grade at Pleasantdale Elementary School in LaGrange for the past 17 years.
"It's such an honor to be a finalist and to be nominated," said Halusek, who found out that she was finalist while sitting alone in her classroom eating lunch and checking her email. "It feels great to be acknowledged for hard work, but I also to want to keep making a difference with children."
Halusek grew up in Riverside and has lived in the village all of her life except for when she attended Indiana University and for two years in her late 20s when she lived in Brookfield.
Her mother, Riverside resident Karen Halusek, was a teacher at St. Rene School on the Southwest Side of Chicago.
"I've always wanted to be a teacher," Halusek said. "I've always enjoyed working with children. I would consider myself a lifelong learner."
Halusek said that her favorite teacher as a child was her second-grade teacher at Central School in Riverside, Kim Zeman. She said she loves teaching second graders.
"Second graders are so wonderful to work with," Halusek said. "They are excited about learning and you get to see so much growth."
Halusek said she has high expectations for her students and both pushes and reassures them.
"It's OK that things are challenging, and it's OK to make mistakes," Halusek said.
Lipuma is only in her fifth year of teaching, the minimum level of experience required to be eligible for the Golden Apple award. Like Halusek, her mother was a teacher.
Brook Park School Principal Mike Sorensen said Lipuma is an exceptional teacher.
"She is an awesome, energetic teacher," Sorensen said. "[She's] very relational with the kids, like really builds that relationship with them, solid instructionally, always trying those new things to help inspire the kids."
Lipuma tries to have a one-on-one conversation with every one of her students every day. She says she wants to know what is going on in their lives.
"I try to move around the room, have proximity to every student and find a time every single day where I am having eye contact with them and we are having a moment, just the two of us," Lipuma said. "I feel like I know my students on a very deep level and that helps us to work really well together in the classroom."
Lipuma said she stresses goal-setting and positive reinforcement.
"We do a lot of celebrating when they make their goals," Lipuma said.
Like Halusek, she was alone in her classroom checking email a few minutes before the school day started last week when she found out she was a finalist.
"I started tearing up because I was happy," Lipuma said.
She gathered her students together on the carpet in her classroom that morning and told them that she had been named a finalist.
"They were super excited too," Lipuma said.
Teachers are nominated for the Golden Apple Award and have to answer a number of essay questions about their teaching styles and views on education.
Lipuma said that she labored over her answers.
In the next few weeks, Golden Apple judges will visit the classrooms of all 30 finalists to observe their teaching and interview each finalist before announcing the 10 winners this spring.
Golden Apple Award winners receive $5,000 in cash and a tuition-free, spring quarter sabbatical of study at Northwestern University. Each recipient also receives a $5,000 cash award.
The winners will be honored in May at WTTW studios during the 33rd Annual Golden Apple Awards for Excellence in Teaching and Leadership.