By Mark Scheer firstname.lastname@example.org
Niagara Gazette — Ashli Skura-Dreher has long believed that the key to success in the classroom revolves around developing strong personal connections with students.
As such, the Lewiston-Porter special education teacher always makes sure to mark all of her students’ special occasions, from birthdays to graduations to dinners with family members.
“I have a very strong connection with the students and their families and I think that’s something we need to retain in education today,” said Skura-Dreher, who has been working with students who have moderate intellectual disabilities at Lew-Port for the past 16 years. “I really try to make strong connections with the students and make sure they know I care about them.”
Positive reviews given during interviews with former students was one measure that helped Skura-Dreher achieve a unique distinction this week.
On Tuesday she learned that a special selection committee coordinated by the New York State Education Department had chosen her as the state’s 2014 Teacher of the Year.
As a result of her accomplishment, Skura-Dreher will visit the White House next year to represent New York in the competition for National Teacher of the Year honors.
“I’m very humbled and honored,” she said during a telephone interview following the announcement of her selection Tuesday afternoon. “I think we have one of the best educational systems in New York state in the country and I want to represent the state well.”
Skura-Dreher’s teaching career started in 1996 with her first job working with children with special needs in the Franklinville School District. She arrived in Lew-Port two years later and currently oversees the high school’s life skills special education program.
She beat out three other finalists for the state teacher of the year award. She was selected as a finalist by a nominating committee after submitting a formal application, information about her educational and workplace background and letters of support from district Superintendent R. Christopher Roser as well as school principals, fellow staff members, parents and former students. Representatives from the state education department interviewed several of her supporters. They also sat in on her classes to observe her interacting with students. At the end of May, Skura-Dreher also conducted an hour-long interview of her own with committee members.
“I do feel very happy and grateful to be able to represent so many teachers in New York state,” Skura-Dreher said. “There really are thousands of dedicated, passionate teachers in New York. I feel very humbled and I’m very, very grateful for the opportunity.”
Skura-Dreher lives on Grand Island and is the mother of two daughters, Heavyn and Skye. One nominating mother called Lew-Port’s own Teacher of the Year a “miracle worker” for helping to unlock her autistic son’s mind and better engage him in learning. One of Dreher’s proudest accomplishments is a series of four dinners she organizes each year to allow students to prepare meals for their family members as a way to put into practice life skills they learn each day in her classroom. She also takes pride in helping her special needs students find internships with local businesses to better prepare them for the workplace.
Skura-Dreher earned national certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and, since 2004, has served as the Western New York coordinator for the New York State United Teachers’ Education and Learning Trust, which provides professional development courses to teachers across the state.
“New York’s teachers are among the best and most professional in the nation. Still, Ashli manages to stand out,” said Richard C. Iannuzzi, president of NYSUT. “In her classroom, students with special needs receive a mix of research-based instruction and innovative lessons. Her focus on community and volunteerism, and her close collaboration with parents, make her a sterling example of what happens when great teachers and concerned parents work together on behalf of our children. I join every member of NYSUT in congratulating her.”