Though nearly four months have passed since DC Public Schools (DCPS) surprised Para Perry with a $10,000 check honoring her as one of the city’s top teachers, her eyes still well with emotion at the memory.
“I’m still pinching myself to make sure it’s real,” she said.
Perry was one of seven teachers in the entire city – and the sole music teacher – to receive the prestigious Excellence in Teaching Award at the Standing Ovation for DC Teachers awards ceremony at the Kennedy Center on Jan. 12. The event is a lavish celebration of highly effective teachers in a system that, after years of decline, has recently begun to make a concerted effort to encourage and reward exceptional teaching.
The idea to recognize outstanding DCPS educators originated in 2009 with George Stevens Jr., an award-winning film and television writer, director, and producer who wanted to help galvanize reform and celebrate excellence across the school system. Stevens collaborated with the DC Public Education Fund to establish the award and create the evening celebration as a means of generating private and corporate support for DCPS.
Perry was selected for the 2015 award from among hundreds of highly effective educators who were nominated by DCPS educators, students, parents, and community members. A selection committee interviewed the finalists at the start of the school year and announced the seven winners in the fall, surprising them with a substantial monetary award and the career achievement of a lifetime.
For Perry, the Excellence in Teaching award caps off a 20-year career with DCPS and 13 years as the music teacher at Amidon-Bowen, where she has worked skillfully and tirelessly to introduce children to the world around them through music.
Perry has an easy rapport with her students, calling them alternately by name and affectionate terms of endearment like “baby girl.” They sit at her feet, eager to answer her questions, and hug her rapturously when class ends, clamoring to tell her they love her and that she is beautiful.
Creative classes in elementary school can sometimes give way to chaos, but Perry deftly encourages freedom and discipline simultaneously. “Many times children think being creative is to be wild and just lose your mind, but I tell them, ‘You can’t lose your mind in here. I’m going to help you find your mind.’”
Perry’s own career as a musician began in her early childhood singing in her church choir in Macon, Ga. It wasn’t until she joined the chorus at her middle school, though, that she found her true calling, with the help of a few encouraging and supportive teachers.
“I loved my teachers. I never wanted to be anything else. It was just a question of what kind of teacher did I want to be?” said Perry. “By the time I reached junior high school I knew that I wanted to be a chorus teacher – not just a music teacher.”
For Perry, school provided stability and support—an oasis from a childhood marked by tragedy. By the time she turned four, she and her four siblings had lost both parents, landing all five children in the care of a loving aunt. But in the face of such loss, Perry’s school teachers became important beacons of hope and solace.
“All those teachers looked out for us,” Perry said. “School was rewarding. That was my thing to do. Even when I didn’t have my homework done, even when I didn’t want the teacher to call on me, I still had to be there.”
Her perfect attendance in high school was rewarded with a medal still in her possession. Perry’s upbringing and school experience underpin the connection she forges with each of her students. She exudes a deep understanding of where her students come from and embodies the belief that school provides a safe, nurturing environment that will serve as the foundation for their future success.
“School is the best time for a lot of our kids here in Southwest, and I understand that,” she said.
Perry joined her siblings as her family’s first generation of college graduates, attending Morris Brown College in Atlanta, where she majored in voice and received a minor in education. In 1986, she moved to DC with her husband, who was in the U.S. Air Force and assigned to Bolling Air Force Base. She has a son, Clarke, and a daughter, Yaundalyn, who both share her musical passion and talent.
Perry often says that she views her students as if they were her own biological children. Casting herself as her students’ “school mom,” whose belief in their futures serves as much as an exhortation as a statement of confidence, Perry’s words are akin to gospel as far as her students are concerned; it is always “when you go to college,” not, “if you go,” just as her own teachers always phrased it to her.
“One day that little mind is going to be a big mind, and they’ll end up in college,” Perry said. “You’ve just got to plant the seed. That’s what we’re doing here, we’re planting seeds.”
Her classroom, expansive and welcoming, reflects her mantra that her music classes are cultural arts classes, combining language, social studies, and cultural literacy.
“I’ve always integrated music across the curriculum,” Perry said, gesturing to a chalkboard at the front of the classroom laden with maps and lesson plans. “I do anything that I can to link into those units musically to help the classroom teachers.”
Amidon-Bowen Principal, Izabela Miller, agrees, “Ms. Perry pushes students intellectually while collaborating with her colleagues to infuse other content skills into the music curriculum.”
Perry’s work extends beyond the classroom, as she believes that supporting parents as well as students is key to altering families’ circumstances. She recalls one mother with six children from Greenleaf Gardens, the public housing development on I Street SW. Every time an issue arose with one of the children, the mother would come into the school. On one such occasion, Perry took the mother aside and told her, “You know, your children can pull you up out of these circumstances if you stick with them and support them.” Out of those six kids, Perry recollected proudly, four have gone to college, and the family no longer lives in public housing.
“Ms. Perry is very passionate about the importance of music and the arts in childrens’ lives,” said Miller. “She is driven and does not allow anyone to settle for mediocrity. She is a true educator.”
Perry’s Excellence in Teaching Award brings further recognition to the high quality teaching and learning happening at Amidon-Bowen as the school’s turnaround blossoms into an outright success story.
“This school is the best kept secret in the city,” Perry said. “Our work is about nourishing the whole child. I want them to become healthy, whole human beings, and to understand that this is not the end of what they do in life. This is only the beginning.”
By: Lucy Rojansky